VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Pope Francis will meet victims of paedophile priests for the first time on Monday, as a Vatican commission moves to address the problem of clerical sex abuse in developing countries.
Six victims from Britain, Germany and Ireland will talk with the head of the Roman Catholic Church 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 Pope Francis was elected in February last year - is hotly awaited by victim support groups who have criticised the Argentinian for not acting earlier.
The pope has been slow to speak out on an issue which has hugely damaged the Catholic Church 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".
Monday's encounter, which will follow a mass in the pope's private chapel, will come a day after a meeting of the commission set up by the pope to advise him on the sexual abuse crisis and draw up protocols for him to consider.
Composed of experts from eight countries, the body includes campaigner Marie Collins - who was assaulted as a 13-year-old by a hospital chaplain in her native Ireland - as well as British and French psychiatrists, a German psychologist and an Italian cannon law professor. Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston - where the clerical sex abuse scandal erupted in the United States in 2002 - is also a member.
The meeting is expected to open up the commission to experts from the Southern Hemisphere and the developing world, where paedophilia is largely a taboo subject and cases of abuse are much less likely to be reported.
In May, the UN Committee Against Torture said the Church had major failings in dealing with abuse cases, voicing concerns about a cover-up culture and calling for alleged paedophiles to be suspended immediately pending investigation. The pope gave his strongest response yet, saying "sexual abuse is such an ugly crime ... it is like a satanic mass", and calling for "zero tolerance" for anyone in the Church who abused children, including bishops.
Last year, Pope 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.
Vatican officials this year revealed that 3,420 abuse cases had been handled over the past decade by the Church's Canon Law prosecutors, with 848 priests defrocked and a further 2,572 ordered to "live a life of prayer or penance", for example in a monastery.
But the Vatican's continued insistence on keeping its inquiries into suspect priests secret has angered victims and campaigners.
And while the centuries-old institution officially encourages dioceses to collaborate with civil authorities, any such collaboration is done on a voluntary basis.
Much to the fury of those molested by local priests as children, the pope has said the Church has tackled the issue with the utmost "transparency and responsibility", as well as pointing out that sexual abuse is rife in society and by no means limited to church pews or confessionals.