Francis convened Catholic leaders from around the world for the four-day meeting to address the scandal that has ravaged the Church’s credibility in the U.S.
The church has paid billions of dollars in settlements in Ireland, Chile, Australia, and elsewhere over the last three decades.
“Faced with the scourge of sexual abuse committed by men of the Church against minors, I wanted to reach out to you,” Francis told the assembled bishops and heads of religious orders.
He asked them to “listen to the cry of the little ones who are seeking justice.”
“Victims expected concrete and efficient measures and not mere condemnations,’’ he added.
After the pope spoke, Cardinal Luis Tagle of the Philippines broke into tears as he read a keynote speech that acknowledged: “wounds have been inflicted by us, the bishops, on the victims”.
Some victims’ groups said the conference was merely meant to cleanse the image of the 1.3 billion-member Church tainted by child rape and molestation by priests, and cover-ups by Church authorities.
However, Anne Barrett-Doyle of bishopaccountablity.org, which tracks abuse cases around the world, said she was pleasantly surprised by the pope’s opening remarks.
“They said this was going to just a teaching session but he is now talking about concrete measures. That’s good but let’s see how it ends up,” Barrett-Doyle told Reuters.
About 190 people are attending the conference, with newsmen listening to speeches via audio and video links but not allowed to hear the debates that follow.
Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s top sexual abuse investigator, said the Church had to look at how priests and bishops are appointed.
“The question of future screening of candidates for the priesthood is fundamental.
“Adopting a culture of disclosure and for society to know that we mean business,’’ he said in a speech steeped in legal details about how bishops must collaborate with civil authorities.