NEW YORK (AP) — Pope Francis made a rousing show of gratitude for American nuns on Thursday while thanking clergy for persevering through the priest sex abuse scandal, seemingly intent on moving the U.S. church beyond recent crises.
The pope called religious sisters "women of strength" and "fighters" who had a "spirit of courage" as they served at the forefront of the church.
Six months ago, Francis abruptly ended a contentious Vatican overhaul of the leading umbrella group for U.S. nuns that had started under his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. The Vatican accused the Leadership Conference of Women Religious of straying far from church teaching, which the nuns denied, and overemphasizing social justice over abortion. The sisters received a wave of popular support, including parish vigils, protests outside the Vatican embassy in Washington and a congressional resolution commending the sisters for their service to the country.
"To you, religious women, sisters and mothers of this people, I wish to say thank you, a big thank you and to tell you that I love you very much," Francis, an Argentine, said in his native Spanish, to applause from worshippers in an evening prayer service at St. Patrick's Cathedral.
In the same talk, Francis told the assembled members of religious orders and diocesan priests that he understood they had "suffered greatly" because of the clergy sex crisis and from the "shame of some of your brothers who harmed and scandalized the church through the most vulnerable of its members."
"I accompany you at this time of pain and difficulty, and I thank God for your faithful service to his people," Francis said.
The molestation crisis, which first drew public attention in the mid-1980s, erupted in 2002 in the Archdiocese of Boston, then consumed the entire church, compelling bishops to remove hundreds of priests from parish work, pay multimillion-dollar settlements with victims and undergo law enforcement and grand jury investigations in many states. At the height of the scandal, many priests said they stopped wearing their collars so much in public or refrained from hugging or touching any child they didn't know well for fear of evoking the misdeeds of others.
It was the pope's second reference to the scandal on this trip, his first to the United States. On Wednesday, he commended the U.S. bishops for their "generous commitment" to helping victims. The comments have angered advocates for victims, who say American bishops took decisive action only when lawsuits and government investigations revealed documents that showed the scope of the problem.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, denied that the pope was giving short-shrift to victims in his remarks, saying he had acknowledged them by referring to children as "the most vulnerable" members of the church. But he also noted that the pope has three more days of public events in the U.S., suggesting further comments more directed at survivors are coming.
Francis has made healing divisions a central theme his U.S. trip, while encouraging bishops and clergy.
He had made a point of expressing his gratitude to U.S. sisters before he arrived. In an ABC News town hall via satellite Aug. 31, with him in Rome and American Catholics in different cities, he asked a nun who works with immigrants in Texas to step forward so he could thank her and, through her, all nuns in the United States.
And in Washington on Wednesday, he paid a surprise visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious order that runs homes for poor senior citizens. The Little Sisters are suing President Barack Obama over the Affordable Care Act requirement that employers provide insurance that covers birth control. The administration has provided an opt-out for religious objectors that would require insurers to cover contraception instead, but attorneys for the religious order say the accommodation doesn't go far enough.
After the cathedral service Thursday, Sister Mary Alice Kizita Otoo, who is from the Handmaids of the Divine Redeemer of Accra, Ghana, but works in New York, said that when the pope spoke, "I felt something going through my whole body and being."
Sister Gertrude Lily, of Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary in Harlem, said, "The pope has recognized the grace of God working in the American nuns."
On Friday, the pope will speak at the United Nations before heading to Philadelphia, where he will celebrate a weekend Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Associated Press writer Deepti Hajela contributed to this report.