Survivors of Roman Catholic clergy sex abuse from Britain and Ireland said on Thursday they finally felt vindicated after "transformative" meetings with Pope Francis and leaders of the Comboni Missionary order.
The survivors were abused as teenagers in the 1960s and 1970s, while studying to be missionary priests at a Comboni seminary in Yorkshire, northern England.
In 2014, the Comboni settled a civil claim brought on by 11 former pupils, but without admitting liability. The order's leadership questioned the victims' accounts and refused to meet with them.
That stance has changed, survivors said after a group of them held talks in Rome with top Comboni and English Catholic church figures, and had a 45-minute Vatican audience with the pope.
"We feel that we were not only heard, but believed by the Comboni leadership, something that has brought us a sense of calm. This has been a transformative experience for us, vindicating our search for justice and dialogue", victims said.
In a joint statement with the survivors' group, the Comboni Missionaries apologised for past abuses, said they were "truly sorry for the times we have not responded adequately", and asked "once again for forgiveness".
Clerical sex abuse and cover-up scandals have for decades rocked the nearly 1.38-billion-member Roman Catholic Church, undercutting its moral authority and taking a toll on membership and coffers.
In 10 years as pope, Francis has passed numerous reforms against sex abuse and cover up, and said in an interview with Reuters last year that progress on the issue, despite some resistance, was "irreversible".
Bede Mullen, a spokesman for the Comboni Survivors Group, said the pope was instrumental to their cause, interceding directly with the head of the Comboni Missionaries after he first met with the victims in June 2022.
"The involvement of Francis has been crucial. Without his intervention we would not have progressed as we have," Mullen told Reuters, adding that Francis "continues to have a watching brief of developments".