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The Washington Post via Associated Press, Jonathan Newton
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, center, greets Pope Francis at the Midday Prayer of the Divine with more than 300 U.S. Bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015.

NEW YORK — Pope Francis praised American bishops Wednesday for their "generous commitment'" to helping victims of clergy sex abuse, drawing an angry rebuke from advocates who said the bishops acted only under the threat of hundreds of lawsuits.

Addressing church leaders in a prayer service at the Washington cathedral, Francis said they had faced the crisis "without fear of self-criticism and at the cost of mortification and great sacrifice."

"I realize how much the pain of recent years has weighed upon you, and I have supported your generous commitment to bring healing to victims — in the knowledge that in healing we, too, are healed — and to work to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated," the pope said to loud applause from the bishops.

But the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said that the bishops had displayed "cowardice and callousness" in response to victims who came forward and that they "hide behind expensive lawyers and public relations professionals" instead of fully confronting the scope of the problem within the church. Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, an advocacy group that collects records on abusive priests from around the world, called the pope's remarks "distressing and quite off-base."

The abuse crisis erupted in 2002 with the case of one pedophile priest in the Archdiocese of Boston, then spread nationwide. The revelations in Boston, about guilty priests kept in ministry without any warning to parents or police, persuaded thousands of people across the country to come forward with new abuse claims, prompted grand jury investigations in several states and compelled the bishops to take an inventory of how every American diocese had dealt with perpetrators and victims going back decades.

Under enormous public pressure, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops pledged to oust any guilty clergy from church work or from the priesthood altogether. Hundreds of priests were removed from ministry, and bishops made multimillion-dollar settlements with victims. Dioceses conducted background checks of priests and workers, trained them to identify abusive behavior and put in place other safeguards for children.

However, the scandal persists. In 2011, a grand jury accused the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, then led by Cardinal Justin Rigali, of keeping about three dozen guilty priests in parishes. Rigali's successor, Archbishop Charles Chaput, has worked to restore trust in the archdiocese, which Francis will visit this weekend.

Three other dioceses — Gallup, New Mexico; Milwaukee; and St. Paul and Minneapolis — are in bankruptcy court trying to limit settlements with victims. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is being prosecuted on charges of failing to protect children from a now-convicted priest, and its archbishop, John Nienstedt, and one of his auxiliary bishops stepped down this year.

Francis announced plans in June for a tribunal to hear cases of abuse of office by bishops over failures in handling sex abuse cases. But there are no signs the tribunal will be set up anytime soon. On the pope's trip to the U.S., which runs through Sunday, he is widely expected to meet with victims, as his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, did on his visit to the U.S. in 2008. The bishops' conference said any such meeting this week would be announced after it occurred.