Pope Francis meets with U.S. clergy sex abuse victims

Last Updated Sep 27, 2015 11:33 AM EDT

PHILADELPHIA - Pope Francis said on his final day in the U.S. that he has met with survivors of clerical sex abuse, and that he promises to hold accountable those responsible.

Francis announced that he had met with a group in Philadelphia on his final day during his visit to the United States before leaving for Rome. The Vatican said in a statement the pope and three top American Catholic officials met for 30 minutes with three female and two male survivors of clergy abuse when they were minors.

"I carry in my heart the stories, the suffering and the pain of the minors that have been sexually abused by priests," Francis said Sunday. "I'm overwhelmed by the shame that people who were in charged of caring for those young ones raped them and caused them great damages."

Speaking to U.S. bishops, Francis said sexual abuse can no longer be kept a secret. He says he promised to "zealously" protect young people and that "all those responsible are held accountable." He also said "God weeps" for the victims.

"Humbly we owe each one of them and their families our gratitude for their immense courage for making the light of Christ shine over the evil of minor sexual abuse," the pope said.

Francis decided in June to create a new Vatican tribunal to prosecute bishops who failed to protect their flock by covering up for pedophile priests rather than reporting them to police.

For years, the Vatican has been criticized by victims, advocacy groups and others for having failed to ever punish or forcibly remove a bishop who moved predator priests around from parish to parish rather than report them to police or remove them from ministry.

Philadelphia has been at the center of American Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal. Monsignor William Lynn of Philadelphia was the first U.S. church official ever convicted in the handling of abuse complaints. But a state appeals court ruled Dec. 26 that the state's child-endangerment law in the late 1990s did not apply to supervisors like Lynn.

The sex abuse scandal exploded decades ago in the U.S., Ireland, Australia and elsewhere in large part because bishops and heads of religious orders moved pedophile priests around or sent them off for therapy, rather than report the crimes to police and conduct church trials as canon law requires. Their aim was to prevent scandal and hold onto their priests at almost any cost.

In 2001, the Vatican required all bishops and religious superiors to send all their abuse cases to Rome in a bid to crack down on the abusers. In the ensuing years thousands of priests were sanctioned and hundreds defrocked. But their bosses who enabled them to continue abusing were never punished.

On Sunday, Francis was speaking to about 300 bishops and others Sunday in a chapel at the St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Lower Merion, just across the border from the city.

Pope Francis on Sunday also lamented the legalization of gay marriage, but he also urged America's bishops to redirect their energies away from complaining.

He told 300 bishops at a seminary outside Philadelphia that a church that only explains its doctrine is "dangerously unbalanced."

The U.S. bishops have repeatedly decried the acceptance of same-sex relationships, calling the legalization of gay marriage by the U.S. Supreme Court three months ago "a tragic error" and a "profoundly immoral and unjust" decision.

Francis also decried a world in which people are always chasing the latest trend and treat matters of faith and relationships as if they were mere products in a supermarket.

Later Sunday morning, Pope Francis invoked the parable of Jesus washing the feet of his apostles as he encouraged a group of prisoners to use their time in jail to get their lives back on track.

Pope Francis met with 100 inmates in the largest prison in Philadelphia.

Francis spoke in the gym of the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility and his remarks were broadcast to the prison's other 3,000 inmates. He stood in front of a special wooden chair made by inmates at the jail.

Monsignor William Lynn had been jailed there for his handling of priest sexual abuse complaints, but was moved to a state prison in northeastern Pennsylvania shortly after the pope's itinerary was announced.

Francis also met with members of some prisoners' families and with corrections officers.

Francis said at the jail on Sunday that everyone is part of the effort to help the inmates rejoin society.

He criticized prison systems that only work to punish and humiliate prisoners, and he has denounced life prison terms and isolation as a form of torture.

He said the journey of life means getting dirty feet and that everyone needs to be cleansed.

The pope stayed the night at the seminary after spending Saturday in Philadelphia on the final weekend of his trip to the U.S.

Pope John Paul II visited the seminary in 1979. It has also welcomed Mother Teresa and three cardinals who later became pope, including Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI.

Francis will travel to a prison in Philadelphia later Sunday morning and then celebrate Mass in front of a crowd estimated at more than 1 million Sunday afternoon.

From across the country and around the world faithful Catholics are gathering for the final day of Pope Francis' first visit to the United States.

Pilgrims are packing subway cars and lugging bags and portable chairs as they make their way to Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where Francis will celebrate an afternoon Mass that could draw a million people or more.

On Saturday, Francis spoke on religious freedom and immigration at Independence Hall and attended a festival with musical performances from Andrea Bocelli, Aretha Franklin and others for the World Meeting of Families.