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October 22, 2014

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Abuse victims skeptical about meeting with pope

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L' Osservatore Romano / AP

In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis, right, embraces his predecessor Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, during a ceremony in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Sunday, April 27, 2014.

BOSTON — A Massachusetts man who took part in a private meeting six years ago between Pope Benedict XVI and victims of sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests said Tuesday that he hopes another summit planned soon with Benedict's successor will be more productive.

The forthcoming meeting at the Vatican between Pope Francis and a half-dozen victims, announced Monday, is being organized by Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston. It will mark the first such encounter for Francis, who has won early praise for his concern for the poor but has gotten mixed reviews for his response to church abuse.

The pope said the meeting would take place early next month. But the Archdiocese of Boston said in a statement that the details of the meeting haven't been finalized and that the meeting was expected to take place "in the coming months."

Bernie McDaid, of Peabody, Massachusetts, founder of the advocacy group Survivors Voice, said he expected the meeting to be a "dog-and-pony show."

"I believe it's always going to be church first, children second," said McDaid, who has not been invited to the meeting with Francis.

McDaid and four other sex abuse victims met with Benedict for about 25 minutes at the Vatican Embassy in Washington in 2008.

"It was weird," McDaid said. "He looked down at the floor like he was nervous. He wouldn't engage. ... It was all about praying and blessing us. Like he was going to heal us or something. I didn't come for that. I don't need to be blessed. They need to be, if anything."

Like McDaid, others say they're skeptical the gathering will lead to changes they've long sought. Among them: holding bishops and other church leaders accountable for concealing the sex crimes of priests under their oversight.

In his announcement Monday, Francis revealed that three bishops are under investigation by the Vatican for abuse-related reasons, though it wasn't clear whether they were accused of committing abuse or covering it up.

"On this issue we must go forward, forward," Francis said. "Zero tolerance."

He has spoken less firmly in the past. After a U.N. report blasting the Vatican for its record on sex abuse, Francis said this year that "no one has done more" to combat exploitation of children that the church and Benedict.

He went to note that most abuse happens in "family and neighborhood environments" and said the church has moved with "transparency and responsibility."

Advocacy groups and attorneys for abuse victims have largely dismissed the forthcoming meeting.

Barbara Blaine, the head of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said the pope already has all the information he needs to remove priests who abuse minors and bishops who cover it up.

The planned meeting looks like "a public relations ploy," she said.

Victims will be looking to see strong action, said Colm O'Gorman, founder of the Dublin-based One in Four advocacy group.

"For 20 years, I've said to Vatican, you are not responsible for an individual priest, but you are responsible for a system that covered it up and allowed it to continue," he said.

Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Greg Katz in London, Nicole Winfield in Rome and Gillian Flaccus in Orange County, California.

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