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Pope Francis said the abuse of children was as evil as performing a satanic Mass, and announced that he is to meet a group of people who have been sexually abused by priests.
He was speaking to journalists on the flight back from his three-day trip to the Holy Land, in an impromptu one-hour question-and-answer session.
Pope Francis said sexual abuse was an "ugly crime" and compared it to performing "a satanic Mass".
“Such abuse is a betrayal of the Lord’s body,” he said.
“There will be a Mass with six to eight people who have been abused, at the Santa Marta [guesthouse, where he lives] and after that they will have a meeting with me. Two of them are from Germany, two from England or Ireland – I’m not sure – and others. There will be eight of them,” he said.
Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the head of the safeguarding commission Francis set up, would be present, he said.
Francis said the meeting would take place in “the first days of June”, however the archdiocese of Boston said that while details had not been finalised, it was expected to take place “in the coming months”. The Holy See spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, confirmed that no date had been set but the meeting would take place in the next few months.
Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, was the first Pope to meet with abuse victims, and did so on visits to the US in 2008, and to Britain and Malta in 2010.
“On this issue we must go forwards, forwards, zero tolerance,” Francis stressed.
He said there would be no preferential treatment when it comes to child abuse. That three bishops are currently under investigation and one has been convicted, with punishment pending, he said. He did not say whether this was for abusing minors or for covering up abuse carried out by others.
Answering a question on the possibility of married priests, he noted that celibacy is not a dogma and that the Eastern-rite Churches in communion with Rome ordain married men as priests. But he said he personally appreciated celibacy a great deal and believed it was a gift for the Church.
Regarding his sweeping programme of reforms, Francis said the Roman Curia will be made lighter by merging dicasteries, the departments within the Vatican bureaucracy. He joked that he himself is perhaps the greatest obstacle to curial reform.
He also confirmed that as well as travelling to South Korea in August, he is to visit Sri Lanka and the Philippines next January.
Francis did not rule out the possibility that like his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, he could one day resign rather than die in office. Pope Francis said Benedict had “opened the door” to such a possibility, but said he would do what the Lord told him to do.
Photo: CNS/Paul Haring