VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis met clerical sex abuse victims for the first time Monday, amid criticism that he has been slow to deal with a scandal hugely damaging to the Catholic Church.
Six victims from Britain, Germany and Ireland met the 77-year-old pontiff at his private residence near Saint Peter's Basilica in a gesture aimed at expressing his closeness to the tens of thousands of people abused by priests globally.
The private meeting - the first with abuse victims since Francis was elected in February last year - had been hotly awaited by victim support groups who have criticised the Argentinian for not acting earlier.
Francis has been slow to speak out on an issue which has scarred the Church's image for over a decade, but in May he branded the sexual abuse of children by priests a crime comparable to a "satanic Mass" and promised "zero tolerance".
Vatican watcher John Allen said the pope may be wary of blackening the name of innocent priests who find themselves accused of crimes they have not committed.
"As he presses for 'zero tolerance,' Francis also may be worried about the risk of encouraging false allegations by creating the impression that any charge, however unmerited or malicious, may permanently damage someone's reputation and career," he wrote in the Boston Globe.
Last year Francis strengthened Vatican laws on child abuse, broadening the definition on crimes against minors to include paedophilia - though the legislation only covers clergy and lay people who work in or for the Vatican, not the universal Catholic Church.
A historic first trial against a former ambassador to the Vatican is expected to take place after Polish archbishop Jozef Wesolowski - former papal envoy to the Dominican Republic - was convicted of sex abuse by a Church tribunal last month and defrocked.
But the Vatican's continued insistence on keeping its inquiries into suspect priests secret has angered victims and campaigners.