Pope Francis on Wednesday met with victims of clerical sexual abuse, as he began a five-day visit to Portugal for a major Catholic youth festival.
The 86-year-old pontiff had earlier said that the “anguished cry” of sexual abuse victims must be heard, six months after a report into the abuse that shook Portugal.
Francis was welcomed with military honours in Lisbon, where one million pilgrims from around the world are expected to take part in World Youth Day festivities.
The event – a week of religious, cultural and festive events held about every three years in a different city – comes as the Church reflects on its future and grapples with priest paedophilia scandals.
A report released in February in Portugal by an independent commission concluded that at least 4,815 children had been abused by clergy members, mostly priests, in the country since 1950.
The inquiry – similar to audits elsewhere in Europe and the Americas – concluded that the Church hierarchy “systematically” tried to conceal the abuse.
In an address to the clergy at Lisbon’s vast Jeronimos Monastery, the pontiff said the sex abuse scandals had “marred” the Church and sparked “disappointment and anger”.
These scandals “call us to a humble and ongoing purification, starting with the anguished cry of the victims, who must always be accepted and listened to,” he added.
The Argentine Jesuit, whose direct and spontaneous style has proved highly popular with young people, had been expected to meet abuse victims privately.
And in a brief statement later on Wednesday, the Vatican confirmed he held a meeting with 13 victims at the Holy See’s diplomatic mission, where he is staying.
“The meeting was held in an atmosphere of intense listening and lasted more than an hour,” it added.
The Portuguese Bishops’ Conference said the meeting showed the Church in Portugal was “putting the victims first, collaborating in their reparation and recovery, so that they can look to the future with renewed hope and freedom.”
The pope, who is in increasingly fragile health and now uses a wheelchair or walking stick to get around, received a rapturous welcome as he travelled across the Portuguese capital.
Well-wishers who lined the streets waved and cheered as his car drove by, and took pictures with their cellphones.
During his papacy, Francis has tried to create a more compassionate church, reaching out to the gay community and talking frankly to youngsters about abortion, divorce and gender identity.
“He is the pope of love. He loves the people, and he has a lot of mercy,” Ada Obi Anaenugwu, a 29-year-old pharmacist from Nigeria, told AFP.
Francis underwent major abdominal surgery just two months ago, but that did not stop his 42nd trip abroad, an event-packed visit with 11 speeches and around 20 meetings scheduled.
Earlier on Wednesday he urged Europe to find “creative ways for bringing an end to the war in Ukraine” during an address to officials and diplomats at Lisbon’s riverside Belem Cultural Centre.
With under two months to go before a global gathering in Rome on the future of the Church, the youth festival also serves as a barometer of young Catholics’ opinions on hot-button issues.
Francis, who was elected by his peers in 2013, has tentatively outlined potential reforms to the Church during his papacy, including on the place of LGBTQ people and women, and whether priests can marry.
“The pope is a special person because he is changing church doctrine for the better,” Maria Alvarez, a 45-year-old pilgrim from Spain told AFP.
World Youth Day, created in 1986 by John Paul II, is the largest Catholic gathering in the world and will feature a wide range of events, including concerts and prayer sessions.
This edition – initially scheduled for August 2022 but postponed because of the pandemic – will be the fourth for Francis after Rio de Janeiro in 2013, Krakow in 2016 and Panama in 2019.