Pope Francis, in his strongest words ever on the sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic clerics, told survivors Monday that their abuse was "camouflaged with a complicity" and begged forgiveness.
The private meeting – the first with abuse victims since Francis was elected in March 2013 – had been long awaited by survivor support groups, who have criticized the pope for not acting earlier.
In the sermon at a Mass with six abuse survivors present, Francis said the church must "must weep and make reparation" for what happened, and he pleaded for forgiveness for what he said had become "a sacrilegious cult" that profaned God.
“I beg your forgiveness, too, for the sins of omission on the part of church leaders who did not respond adequately" to sex abuse reports, he added.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said two Irish, two British and two German survivors met separately Monday for about 30 minutes apiece with Francis at the Vatican hotel where the pope resides.
None of the survivors wanted to speak with reporters, Lombardi said. Francis had already greeted the group – three men and three women, all adults – Sunday evening while the six were dining at the hotel.
Francis showed "intense and careful" interest toward the six when meeting them, Lombardi said.
But other abuse survivors not at the meeting predicted the encounter would likely do nothing about their complaints that the Vatican has failed to punish bishops and other prelates who systemically covered up the abuse of minors. A German survivor advocacy spokesman, Norbert Denef, called Monday's meeting "nothing more than a PR event."
Francis has been slow to speak out on an issue which has scarred the church's image for over a decade, but in May he branded the sexual abuse of children by priests a crime comparable to a "satanic Mass" and promised "zero tolerance."
Vatican watcher John Allen said the pope might be wary of blackening the name of innocent priests who find themselves accused of crimes they have not committed.
"As he presses for 'zero tolerance,' Francis also may be worried about the risk of encouraging false allegations by creating the impression that any charge, however unmerited or malicious, may permanently damage someone's reputation and career," he wrote in the Boston Globe.
Last year Francis strengthened Vatican laws on child abuse, broadening the definition on crimes against minors to include pedophilia. But the legislation only covers clergy and lay people who work in or for the Vatican, not the universal Catholic Church.
A historic first trial against a former ambassador to the Vatican is expected to take place after Polish archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, former papal envoy to the Dominican Republic, was convicted of sex abuse by a church tribunal last month and defrocked.
But the Vatican's continued insistence on keeping its inquiries into suspect priests secret has angered victims and campaigners.
Francis’ predecessor Pope Benedict met several times with abuse survivors, beginning in 2008. Francis, on his trip back from the Middle East in May, promised he would meet with survivors this summer.
Victims groups have said the pope had a spotty record of dealing with abuse cases in Argentina when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, and victims from that country sent him a letter asking him why they were not invited.
"I think it’s very important that the pope meet with victims," said Anne Doyle of Bishop Accountability, a U.S.-based documentation center on abuse in the Catholic Church.
"We know that this pope is capable of compassion and his refusal to meet with sexual abuse victims so far has been inconsistent with the mercy he has shown with so many marginalized. This is something that he had to rectify," she said.
The sexual abuse scandal has haunted the Catholic Church for over two decades, but became a major issue in the United States about 10 years ago.
Since then it has also hit local churches in Ireland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and other countries.
The Vatican says 3,420 credible accusations of sexual abuse by priests had been referred to the Vatican in the past 10 years and 824 clerics have been defrocked. The church in the U.S. has paid $2.5 billion in compensation to victims.
The commission advising the pope on the sexual abuse crisis, which includes Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley, met on Sunday and is expected to announce on Monday that it will expand it ranks to include more members from the developing world.