Having earned Catholicism some much-needed positive PR over the past year, Pope Francis this week turned his attention to addressing the Church's greatest scandal, telling reporters that there must be "zero tolerance" for the sexual abuse of children by priests.

Speaking to journalists on his plane following a high-profile visit to the Middle East, Francis said that he plans to meet eight victims of abuse, along with Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley of Boston, who is head of the commission charged with investigating and addressing sexual assault within the Church.

"We must go ahead with zero tolerance," the Pope told reporters on the flight. "A priest who has sex with a child betrays God. A priest needs to lead children to sanctity, and children trust him. But instead he abuses them, and this is terrible. I compare it to a satanic mass."

While some observers have praised the Pontiff for talking tough on child abuse, others have questioned whether his words are likely to translate into concrete action. David Clohessy, director of the US-based victims' organisation Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, told the Associated Press that Francis's proposed meeting with victims was "just utterly, utterly meaningless". He described it as "another gesture, another public relations coup, another nice bit of symbolism that will leave no child better off and bring no real reform to a continuing, scandal-ridden church hierarchy".

For critics such as Clohessy, the Pope's talk of "zero tolerance" and likening of abuse to "satanic rites" will carry little weight unless it is backed up by firm measures against those who have been involved in perpetrating or covering up the sexual assault of children.

While a report published last week by the United Nations Committee Against Torture welcomed measures taken under Pope Francis, including the publication of statistics on investigations into priests and the establishment of the commission headed by Cardinal O'Malley, it suggested that the Vatican needs to do more to place "meaningful sanctions" on clerics who fail to investigate abuse allegations, and expressed concern at continuing reports of Church officials failing to report allegations to national law enforcement authorities.