WASHINGTON - Pope Francis on Wednesday surprised and irked victims of Roman Catholic clergy sex abuse when he praised a gathering of U.S. bishops for their "courage" in handling the crisis, and consoled them for how stressful it had been.

He also insisted that sex abuse at the hands of clergy must never happen again.

His remarks brought a stinging rebuke from some abuse victims, who said courage should be reserved for themselves.

"The bishops are poster boys for the fainthearted and timid. They have been cowards in the face of rape and sodomy of innocent children," said the National Survivor Advocates Coalition.

To the bishops assembled for the first full day of Francis' six-day U.S. visit, the pope said, "I realize how much the pain of recent years has weighed upon you. And I have supported your generous commitment to bringing healing to victims - in the knowledge that we, too, are healed - and to work to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated."

Bob Hoatson, a former priest in Newark, N.J., and an abuse survivor, said, "I think he let the bishops off the hook." Hoatson, who runs a group called Road to Recovery for victims and their families, said he had received numerous calls from "disappointed" victims.

"He would have been better off not saying anything about the issue rather than sugarcoating it," Hoatson said.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said Francis "essentially refused to even suggest, much less mandate, a single positive step for bishops."

In 2002, news reports of widespread clergy sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston - and extensive concealment of those crimes and reassignments of the abusers - launched a scandal that has touched almost all of the nearly 200 Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia was the target of two devastating grand jury investigations in 2005 and 2011 that found at least 65, and "perhaps hundreds" more, priests had abused minors since 1950 - and that church authorities concealed it.

The Survivor Advocates statement said, "Sexual abuse is a criminal act. Bishops have moved predators rather than expose them to the criminal justice system."

Francis praised those bishops whose dioceses - such as Boston, Los Angeles, and Wilmington - had been forced to sell off properties for hundreds of millions of dollars to compensate victims who brought successful lawsuits against them.

"Nor have you been afraid to divest whatever is unessential in order to regain the authority and trust which is demanded of ministers of Christ and rightly expected by the faithful," he told them.

According to data from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, more than 6,900 priests were credibly accused of sexual misconduct with at least 16,900 minors between 1950 and 2011 - and dioceses around the country have paid out more than $2.5 billion to compensate a fraction of those victims.

One of the hardest-hit was the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which paid $740 million to more than 500 victims, vastly more than the $84 million that the Archdiocese of Boston paid in 2002 - which was a shocking amount at the time.

A dozen dioceses have filed for bankruptcy in the face of extensive lawsuits, claiming they do not have the resources to pay them. The Diocese of Wilmington in 2011 paid $77 million to settle with more than 150 victims.

In August, the Diocese of Milwaukee, which had filed for bankruptcy protection, agreed to pay $21 million to 330 victims after four years of litigation that one of the victims' lawyers called "hardball tactics" by the archdiocese.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has never revealed how much it has paid out to clergy sex-abuse victims, and most settlements stipulate that the amount be kept confidential.

It is thought unlikely that the payouts by the local archdiocese come at all close to those of Boston or Los Angeles, however, because Pennsylvania's statute of limitations in cases of child sexual assault long required the victim to come forward within two or three years of an assault. By the time that many young victims recognized the emotional damage resulting from their abuse, it was too late to file criminal or civil charges against their assailants.

Recent legislation has greatly lengthened the time within which an assault victim in Pennsylvania may bring charges or sue.

"I am . . . conscious of the courage with which you have faced difficult moments in the recent history of the church in this country," he said in his lengthy remarks. He praised the bishops for doing so "without fear of self-criticism, and at the cost of mortification and great sacrifice."

One Philadelphia victim, John Salveson, said he found the pope's comments to the bishops - especially his use of courageous and generous - "both insulting and hurtful to survivors of clergy abuse."

"In reality, the Roman Catholic Church in America has treated clergy sex abuse victims as adversaries and enemies for decades," said Salveson, president of the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse.

The pope's lengthy address then touched on numerous other topics, with no overt reference again to clergy abuse. Journalists were not permitted inside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during the talk, although it was broadcast on television.

While the published itinerary for his U.S. visit does not indicate that the pope will meet with victims of clergy sex abuse during his travels this week, the Vatican Press Office and others have suggested that such a meeting might happen.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput was questioned about the clergy sex-abuse scandal when he appeared last month at the Religion Newswriters Association conference in Philadelphia.

Asked if he thought it important for Francis to meet the victims "here," meaning Philadelphia, the archbishop replied, "I do, and victims do."

Chaput inherited the scandals and had to deal with the fallout after he became archbishop in 2011.

He told the religion writers that it was possible Francis would meet with victims in Philadelphia.

"It may happen," he said, but it is "not something we'd announce in advance."

Salveson said later Wednesday that "I'd meet with [Francis] if he wanted to have a serious conversation. I don't want it to be a photo op."

The 2005 Philadelphia grand jury report said at least 65 priests, "and perhaps hundreds more," had sexually abused hundreds of minors since 1950.

It went on to slam Cardinals John Krol and Anthony J. Bevilacqua for what it described as their "callous, calculating" concealment of the priests' crimes, which it said "was at least as immoral as the abuse itself."

The grand jury report in 2011 found that at least 20 priests who had been credibly accused of misconduct or inappropriate behavior were still in ministry.

Chaput hired a special investigator to interview victims, and advise him on which priests should be removed from ministry and which should be returned. He said the investigation cost the archdiocese more than $11 million.

Since the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is hosting the Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families this week - and because of the 2005 and 2011 investigation reports into clergy sex abuse were so damaging - many observers speculate that Philadelphia would be the likeliest city for Francis to hold such conversations.

Pope Benedict XVI met privately in Washington with victims of clergy abuse in 2008, a gesture generally regarded as the pinnacle of his visit, which also took him to New York.

Inquirer staff writer Robert Moran contributed to this article.