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Philadelphia — Pope Francis met with victims of child sexual abuse Sunday and promised to hold accountable responsible church officials and laity for the scandal — just a few hours before a holding mass that is expected to draw the largest crowd of his six-day tour.

In a gesture of reconciliation before he was to return to Rome, the pope told the victims he is “deeply sorry” for all the times they came forward to report the abuse and weren’t believed. He assured the five individuals that he believes them and delivered a warning to American bishops accused of covering up for pedophile priests instead of reporting them to police..

“I pledge to you that we will follow the path of truth wherever it may lead,” Francis said in Spanish while in the City of Brotherly Love for a big festival on the Catholic family. “Clergy and bishops will be held accountable when they abuse or fail to protect children.”

It was Francis’ second such meeting: He received sexual abuse victims at the Vatican in July 2014.

But in an apparent effort by the church to reshape the discussion, the Vatican said not all five of the victims on Sunday were abused by members of the clergy; some of the three women and two men had been victimized by relatives or educators.

Francis is wrapping up a whirlwind three-city, six-day visit that on Sunday included meeting the U.S. bishops and warning them about the sexual abuse, followed by a visit to a prison, Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility. The final event will be the outdoor Mass at 4 p.m. that organizers estimate will draw a crowd of 1 million.

Among them will be a group of students from Everest Collegiate High School and Academy in Clarkston got up early to walk the city streets, handing out hand-packed lunches to the homeless, distributing rosary beads, and otherwise “spreading joy and love,” said Jill Swallow, a chaperone and director of formation for the school.

They arrived in Philly on Saturday morning by bus after driving overnight from Michigan. The group of 50 is sleeping in the National Museum of American Jewish History.

Clare Nelepa, 16, approached a man sleeping against a concrete wall in the plaza known as LOVE park, offering him a lunch of a sandwich, fruit and pretzels. She had scrawled a “You are loved” on the outside of the bag.

“He said, thanks,” she said, then shrugged. “He wasn’t as enthusiastic as some of the others have been.”

Clare and her classmates — 11th-graders Brooke Beauchamp, 16; Emily Milosch, 16; and Sarah Stafford, 17 — made their way down crowded city sidewalks, pausing to thank police officers for their service and handing out smiley-face stickers to Pennsylvania National Guardsmen.

“It’s an excuse to go up to somebody and talk to them,” Swallow said.

They called out to clergy passing by, “Thank you for your vocation!” “Thank you for your priesthood!”

They began including clergy in their outreach after seeing protesters Saturday yelling insults at priests and other members of Catholic religious communities, Swallow said.

“We wanted to combat that,” she said. “We don’t want them to be discouraged from fulfilling their call.”

The classmates fought through crowds to reach the mother church of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, and were disappointed when they were turned away a block from the cathedral. It had closed to tours.

By late morning, the crowds at the security checkpoints to enter the Benjamin Franklin Parkway stretched blocks and hours long. Vendors hawked Pope Francis souvenirs from T-shirts to commemorative coins to “Pope On a Stick” masks.

Swallow urged the students to decide whether to wait in the security line, or continue handing out the remaining lunches and rosaries they had packed. The latter could risk their not getting inside the security perimeter to hear the pope’s Mass.

“It’s amazing how quickly the streets have filled up,” Swallow said.

“I’d rather be more productive while we wait,” Sarah said. “I’ve still got more rosaries.”

Florence Parent of St. Anastasia Parish in Troy and her husband, Gary, had been waiting in line to go through security into the parkway for about three hours Sunday afternoon.

“Our goal is to park ourselves in front of a Jumbotron (screen), so we can see and hear his message,” she said.

On Saturday, Parent staked out a front-row spot along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Saturday, waiting seven hours for Pope Francis to pass by in his white Jeep “popemobile.”

“The excitement of being there with him was worth it,” she said. “It was pretty electrifying to see him! Here. In the United States, in Philadelphia, on the street that we were on. It went by too fast.”

Parent has marveled at the many branches of law enforcement that came to town to make up the security force manning the city. “We could see the sharpshooters on the tops of the buildings lining the parkway,” she said.

Amy and Clive Pereira of Rockford made it to two events with Pope Francis on Saturday, including his speech on religious freedom in front of Independence Hall; however, the crowds made it difficult to hear much. They were hoping for better access on Sunday, even if the pope is so far away that he’s “just a speck,” Clive said.

At one point Saturday, the couple held up their two boys, Caleb, 8, and Nevin, 6, so they could catch a glimpse of Francis in his “popemobile” as he went by, Amy said.

Waiting in one of many lines, the Pereiras talked for a while with a couple they met from New Jersey.

“It’s amazing to hear the stories of non-Catholics who decided to come see the pope,” Clive said. “They just find him inspiring.”

His father-in-law, John Ashmore, said the highlight of the weekend has been spending time with his family – and time with complete strangers.

“We got stuck waiting in line for four hours. And we began talking with people -- we met an Episcopalian from here, another Catholic couple from here, and a group from Peru. What struck me is this event is causing us to stop and listen to each other, and to create dialogue,” Ashmore said, noting that Francis is using that word repeatedly in the United States.

“You change hearts with a dialogue – not with a discussion. In a dialogue, you listen to each other.”

Amy said it seemed the pope himself was listening more than he was giving sermons or speeches this weekend.

She marveled at the patience the pope showed on stage at an event Saturday night, as a nervous couple from Australia struggled through their prepared remarks about marriage and the family. “They were really nervous, but he didn’t rush them along or interrupt them,” she said.

But not everyone was pleased with the day’s events. Victim support groups were unimpressed by Sunday’s meeting, which took place a day after the pope celebrated Mass with Cardinal Justin Rigali, who was the leader of the Philadelphia archdiocese when it was accused of sheltering pedophiles.

The main victims’ support group, SNAP, dismissed the meeting as an exercise in public relations.

“Is a child anywhere on Earth safer now that a pope, for maybe the seventh or eighth time or ninth time, has briefly chatted with abuse victims? No,” said SNAP’s David Clohessy.

The Rev. Tom Doyle, a canon lawyer who worked at the Vatican embassy in Washington and is now an advocate for victims, said that including more than just victims of abusive clergy “seriously minimizes” the problem in the church.

“We don’t think we’re going to get any real support to change this from the leadership in the Vatican,” Doyle said in a phone interview. “They’re having this big meeting of families. But there’s been no real room for all the families that the Catholic Church has destroyed through sexual abuse.”

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the pope met with the victims for more than a half-hour at the St. Charles Borromeo seminary. He said the pope prayed with them, listened to their stories and expressed his closeness in their suffering and his “pain and shame” in the case of those abused by priests.

The Associated Press contributed.

mburke@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8736

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