Pope Francis met for the first time with sex-abuse victims today, celebrating Mass with them at the Vatican and meeting separately afterward for 30 minutes at his residence. Francis begged their forgiveness and pledged to combat abuse throughout the church and the world, an effort begun earlier with a new task force to oversee the effort. One member of that panel, an abuse survivor herself, attended the Mass and the meeting:

Pope Francis begged forgiveness Monday from the victims of clergy sex abuse as he held his first meeting with several abuse survivors — but another victim called the gathering nothing more than “a PR event.”

The Vatican quoted Francis as expressing personal “sorrow” in his homily at a private Mass with six victims for the “sins and grave crimes” of clerical sex abuse against them.

Francis pledged “not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual, whether a cleric or not,” and promised that bishops “will be held accountable.”

“I beg your forgiveness, too, for the sins of omission on the part of Church leaders who did not respond adequately to reports of abuse made by family members, as well as by abuse victims themselves,” the pope said.

“This led to even greater suffering on the part of those who were abused and it endangered other minors who were at risk,” the pope said, according to the English translation of his homily, which was delivered in Spanish.

CNN framed the meeting as a long-overdue recognition from the papacy, but that’s not quite the case:

This may be the first time that Francis has met with the abuse victims, but it’s not the first apology from Francis or from a Pope. The Associated Press notes that Pope Benedict XVI met several times with abuse survivors before retiring last year and launched significant reforms within the church. Francis almost immediately escalated the effort with a demand to his administration to take “decisive action” against abusers within the first month of his papacy, and the subsequent launch of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. 

All of this depends on actual results, though, and the Catholic Church has a long-acquired reputation of opacity on this issue to overcome. Small wonder that some advocacy groups consider this meeting as nothing more than “a PR stunt,” as one German group described it to the Associated Press. Begging forgiveness is one step toward ending that opacity, but that’s been happening for several years now. The personal meetings with Pope Francis, conducted privately, at least conveys that the determination to address the scandal reaches to the highest level of the Church. While the six survibors of abuse chose not to speak to reporters immediately afterward, the Vatican press office issued readouts of both the homily and the meetings, although not in detail for the latter:

“The invitees arrived at the Domus Sanctae Marthae by the afternoon of Sunday 6 July. While they were dining in the refectory, the Holy Father appeared to address a first brief greeting to them. The Pope first offered them a Mass, celebrated in the Sanctae Marthae chapel at 7 a.m., attended also by the companions, members of the Commission and a limited number of other collaborators. The formula of the Mass was for peace and justice.

During Mass, the Pope pronounced a homily for them in Spanish; each participant was given a translation of the text in his or her own language. After Mass, the Pope greeted the individuals present, as usual”.

“After breakfast, the Pope received the individual visitors, with their companions, for a private personal discussion in a room in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, one after the other.

The discussions lasted from 9 a.m. to around 12.20 p.m. The participants, after the discussions, expressed their emotion and their satisfaction at having been listened to by the Pope with such attention and willingness”. The director of the Holy See Press Office concluded, “the Pope showed that listening helps to understand and prepare the way to reinstate trust, heal wounds, and to open up the possibility of reconciliation with God and with the Church”.

In the homily for the Mass today, Francis emphasized the “toxic effect” that abuse has on faith and hope, and the betrayal by the Church to its victims. He praised the courage of those who have spoken out, and declared that the Catholic Church would purge itself of abusers and those who shelter them — and significantly mentioned better care in “priestly formation” in the future:

“On the other hand, the courage that you and others have shown by speaking up, by telling the truth, was a service of love, since for us it shed light on a terrible darkness in the life of the Church. There is no place in the Church’s ministry for those who commit these abuses, and I commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual, whether a cleric or not. All bishops must carry out their pastoral ministry with the utmost care in order to help foster the protection of minors, and they will be held accountable.

“What Jesus says about those who cause scandal applies to all of us: the millstone and the sea.

“By the same token we will continue to exercise vigilance in priestly formation. I am counting on the members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, all minors, whatever religion they belong to, for they are little flowers which God looks lovingly upon.[“]

The Church has to endure some skepticism on these points, given the years of silence and cover-up that preceded these efforts over the last decade to address abuse. The proof will be in the delivery on these promises.