April 18, 2008
The Pope's Visit
Benedict Meets With the Victims of Sexual Abuse
By Ian Fisher and Laurie Goodstein
Washington — Pope Benedict XVI came face to face Thursday with a scandal that has left lasting wounds on the American church, holding an unannounced meeting with several victims of sexual abuse by priests in the Boston area.
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, who organized the meeting and attended, gave the pope a notebook listing some 1,000 boys and girls who had been abused in the Boston Archdiocese alone going back several decades, a Vatican official said.
The pope had requested the meeting, said the official, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, which took place at the papal nuncio’s residence. The handful of victims are roughly in middle age. The pope prayed and spoke personally with each of them, in a meeting that lasted about 25 minutes. Some wept, Father Lombardi said.
“It was a moving experience,” Cardinal O’Malley told reporters afterward. “It was very positive and very prayerful.”
The meeting made clear that for all the messages that Benedict wished to send during his five-day trip to the United States, his first as pope, the one concerning priestly abuse was central. He raised the issue first with reporters on his trip from Rome on Tuesday, and did so for a third time Thursday morning in a huge open Mass at Nationals Park before nearly 50,000 people, his first major encounter with the country’s diverse church.
“No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse,” the pope said in his homily. “It is important that those who have suffered be given loving pastoral attention.”
Three of the survivors, speaking on CNN last night, reacted positively to the meeting.
One of them, Bernie McDaid said he had told the pope that “he has a cancer growing in his ministry and needs to do something about it.” But Mr. McDaid said he came away feeling that victims would get action.
Another, Olan Horne said, “My hope is restored today.” He said the pope had spoken frankly and had been with the victims longer than they had expected.
The unannounced meeting far overshadowed the rest of the pope’s schedule, on the third day of his trip to the United States and a day before he leaves for New York to address the United Nations.
But he also gave a substantial address to Catholic educators, many of whom have been struggling with shortages of money, changing missions and conflicts over whether Catholic schools are Catholic enough. He spoke to about 200 college presidents and the superintendents of Catholic schools in the nation’s 195 dioceses.
At a time when many dioceses are closing down schools for K-12 students, Benedict emphasized the importance of keeping them open, especially to serve immigrants and the underprivileged. He also used the occasion to clarify limits, saying that although academic freedom is valuable, it must not be used to “justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the church.”
There have been sporadic controversies over what kinds of curriculum, outside speakers, campus clubs and artistic expressions are acceptable at Catholic colleges and universities. The pope did not refer explicitly to those controversies. But he addressed them indirectly when he said that church teachings must shape “all aspects of an institution’s life, both inside and outside the classroom.”
The pope had additional healing work to do at his evening encounter with Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Jain religious leaders. On a previous trip, to his German homeland, Benedict had set off a paroxysm of anger with comments that appeared to denigrate Islam. He has also offended Jewish leaders by reinstituting a prayer for the conversion of the Jews in the Latin prayers on Good Friday.
On Thursday, he offered an olive branch to Jewish leaders, and affirmed that all religions should have a common goal of working for peace. And he spoke of the need to protect religious freedom, pointing out that religious minorities in some countries are subject to prejudice.
For years, victims of abuse in the United States had beseeched the Vatican for a meeting with the pope, first asking John Paul II, who died in 2005, and finally, six years after the outbreak of the scandal, one was granted. The scandal affected nearly every diocese in America, revealed more than 5,000 abusive priests and more than 13,000 victims and has cost the church more than $2 billion in settlements and legal fees. It also has cost the church trust and respect, both of which the pope is clearly aimed at restoring.
But reaction from victims and their advocates varied, with some praising the meeting as an important step and others saying that still it was not enough.
“This is a small, long-overdue step forward on a very long road,” Joelle Casteix, southwestern regional director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said in a statement. “We’re confident the meeting was meaningful for the participants, and we’re grateful that these victims have had the courage to come forward and speak up.
“But fundamentally, it won’t change things,” Ms. Casteix said. “Kids need action. Catholics deserve action. Action produces reform, and reform — real reform — is sorely needed in the church hierarchy.”
But Gary Bergeron, who said he had been abused by a priest in Lowell, Mass., said: “I think we moved the ball down the field this week. The fact that we finally got the pope to actually stand up and put a statement on record, I really think he set the bar this week.”
Mr. Bergeron, author of the book “Don’t Call Me a Victim,” went to Rome in 2003 and tried to meet with John Paul II, with no success.
“We made some progress this week, and that’s what’s important,” he said.
Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer who represented hundreds of people abused by priests, none of whom attended the meeting with the pope, said he hoped the pontiff would meet with more victims.
“He certainly will need more than a half hour to understand the pain victims are feeling because of being sexually abused by priests,” Mr. Garabedian said.
While the meeting with victims was historic, and a surprise, it is the address the pope gave to Catholic educators that is most likely to receive scrutiny within the church.
Benedict praised Catholic schools that have “helped generations of immigrants to rise from poverty to take their place in mainstream society.” And he encouraged Catholics to continue to contribute generously to Catholic schools “to ensure that they are accessible to people of all social and economic strata.”
Catholic universities and colleges have come under fire for inviting speakers who favor abortion rights, like Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Eliot Spitzer and Stanley Tucci, the actor, who was dropped from an event at Catholic University. The University of Notre Dame was criticized for allowing a campus staging of “The Vagina Monologues,” an edgy feminist theater piece.
The pope insisted on adherence to church doctrine, saying, “Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity, and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual.”
For faculty members, he said: “I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you. Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and teaching of the church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission.”
The educators in the room were encouraged by the pope’s speech, and applauded his call to keep schools open for poor students.
The Rev. Robert A. Wild, the president of Marquette University, said after the pope’s speech: “What was most striking to me is what it was not. We were not being told that most Catholic schools are not faithful to our message. It was not a finger-waving exercise. It was mostly to encourage us.”
At the new Nationals Park, with a gorgeous view of the Capitol, the outdoor Mass combined the spiritual with the spectacular: Some 46,000 people waved Vatican flags and shed tears when Benedict arrived in his popemobile, in a ball-field setting complete with sausage and $20 souvenir pope hats.
The Mass was the pope’s first real encounter with the American church, and the people in the stands poured out affection as much as shined a mirror of their diverse self back onto Benedict: conservative and liberal, black, white, Latino and Asian. Although Benedict is avowedly part of the church’s more orthodox wing, some at the Mass said he seemed on this American trip eager to address the full church, in all its complexity.
“He is open to things, and that gives a feeling of hope to people who have felt left out,” said Barbara Thomas, 51, an administrative assistant from Columbia, Md.
In a shift of perception that the Vatican clearly hoped would be common on this trip, Ms. Thomas said she had found him “more open, not so stern as what the general impression had been.”
Steve Brown, 55, a doctor from Fairfax, Va., said that seeing the pope was particularly important to him because he is suffering from terminal cancer.
“Seeing him in person gave me a warm feeling of being at peace,” Mr. Brown said. “Just his aura — a kind of spirituality that emanated from him. Before I wasn’t as moved with him as I was with John Paul II. Now, seeing him, I feel moved.”
Neela Banerjee, Abby Goodnough and Katie Zezima contributed reporting.
Copyright © 2008 The New York Times