VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis met and prayed with six European victims of pedophile priests for the first time Monday, in what is being cast as a gesture designed to help change the mentality toward sexual abuse scandals that have severely tarnished the church's image.
The encounter with victims from Britain, Ireland and Germany was low key. The victims met the pope briefly Sunday night, according to Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, and then joined him for a private Mass on Monday morning. After that, he met with each in his private apartment for about 30 minutes of informal discussions about their individual experiences.
The Vatican did not release the names of the victims, and none attended Lombardi's briefing to the media. However, the Vatican quoted Francis as expressing "sorrow" for the "sins and grave crimes" of the clerical abuse against them.
"I beg your forgiveness, too, for the sins of omission on the part of church leaders who did not respond adequately" to reports of sex abuse, the pope said.
The meetings are significant because it is the first time Francis — at least officially — has met with the victims of clerical sex abuse. It is also the first time such victims have met with a pontiff on the Vatican grounds.
It comes on the heels of a United Nations condemnation in May of the Vatican for its policies on sexual abusefollowed by a Vatican declaration of "zero tolerance" for clergy guilty of inappropriate behavior toward children while the pope was in the Middle East that month.
Before that, the Vatican crafted protocols to hold bishops and other church authorities accountable if they fail to report suspected abuse or protect children from pedophile priests.
"The rules and laws are already in place," said Andrea Tornielli, coordinator of the publication Vatican Insider. "But the change of mentality the church needs takes more time. That is why a gesture like this (the meetings) is so important because it will contribute to changing that mentality."
In the nearly 16 months since becoming pope, Francis has become one of the most recognized figures in the world in part because of remarks on controversial topics such as homosexual Catholics and the role of capitalism in the world, and he has taken on the Vatican's powerful bureaucracy in an attempt to root out corruption.
But he has also earned criticism for doing too little to confront the problem of sexual abuse. The pope did create a special Child Protection Commission of cardinals, and in April he asked for forgiveness for the perpetrators of sexual abuse. But critics have said it is far too little given the enormity of the problem.
"With sexual violence and cover-ups, Catholic officials are obsessively fixed on policies and protocols," the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said in a recent statement. "But they absolutely ignore the one step that matters: action."
Norbert Denef, a German church abuse reform advocate, called Monday's meetings "nothing more than a public relations effort."
For the faithful in St. Peter's Square, Monday's events were nonetheless significant.
"I would have liked to see the pope meet with an American just because the abuse scandals were so pronounced in the U.S., but I still think it's important," said Robin Doll, 44, a small business owner from Orlando on vacation in Rome. "When the pope focuses on this I think it sends a signal to the whole church that things are going to change."
Though this is the first meeting between sexual abuse victims and the pontiff at the Vatican, Francis' predecessor Benedict XVI met with victims several times while traveling, starting in 2008.
Angelo Fusaro, a 51-year-old civil servant, said he was moved by Francis' concern for the victims.
"Pope Francis is a man of action and I am touched by the fact that he took steps to console and understand these victims," Fusaro said. "I hope it will lead to strong action. That is the best way to respond to the suffering of the victims."