April 18, 2008
Abuse Victims Warily Consider Pope’s Words
By Richard G. Jones and Abby Goodnough
Jim Hackett waited 30 years before going public in 2005 with his horrific account of being sexually abused by a priest who eventually admitted that he groped adolescent boys. The priest was placed on leave, yet found a way to continue as a clergyman.
Tim Echausse, director of the Long Island chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said the pope deserved credit for raising the issue of sexual abuse.
Becky Ianni, also a victim, said the visit reminded her of her alienation from her religion: “It’s just so glaring because everyone is so excited. I wish I could be excited.”
Jim Hackett, who was sexually abused by a priest as a child, said he wanted specific steps taken to prevent such abuse, not just expressions of regret from the pope.
As Mr. Hackett anticipated Pope Benedict XVI’s first visit to the United States this week, he waited for an indication that the church would do more to help abuse victims like him and to punish their abusers. And after the pope’s surprise visit with a group of victims in Washington on Thursday, Mr. Hackett is still waiting for Benedict to publicly articulate specific steps the church will take to help prevent others from suffering the way he did.
“It’s all just window dressing,” said Mr. Hackett, 44, a computer programmer who lives in Cheshire, Conn. “You have to look at his actions. He was pressured into doing something.”
As the pope arrives in New York City on Friday, Mr. Hackett and other abuse victims will stage a vigil outside a SoHo art gallery displaying a new exhibit of photographs of them. While Benedict addresses the United Nations on Friday, Robert Costello, who said he was abused by a priest in West Roxbury, Mass., starting at age 10, plans to read aloud the names of victims.
Mr. Costello, who is 46 and lives in Norwood, Mass., questioned why Thursday’s meeting was with only a handful of victims and why it was not publicized ahead of time.
“I think it’s very nice for those five victims, if they found healing or encouragement,” he said. “But for the rest of the survivors, one of the first questions is, ‘Why wasn’t it me?’ ”
Few have greeted Benedict’s arrival with as much ambivalence as the victims of the priest sexual abuse scandal, which sent tremors through across the United States six years ago, with aftershocks still resonating.
Some victims, like Mr. Hackett, have largely ignored the pope’s visit and say they are dubious about his public pronouncements about how deeply he has been affected by the crisis, even questioning the motives behind his meeting on Thursday. Others have struck a more conciliatory tone, saying that Benedict should be credited for addressing the scandal far more directly than others in the church hierarchy.
“I’m disappointed, but I also have to give Benedict his due,” said Tim Echausse, director of the Long Island chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a national victims group.
Almost all say that more important than the pope’s words are his actions, criticizing what they say is the lack of a concrete plan to purge pedophiles from the church and discipline bishops and other leaders who have protected them.
“It’s a small but overdue positive step if it leads to action,” David Clohessy, a leader of the survivors network, said of the private meeting with five victims from the Boston area on Thursday. “Talk can produce change or complacency.
“Despite the soothing words and promises of reform,” Mr. Clohessy added, “the cold, hard fact is that not a single kid is safer today because of what’s been said this week.”
Mr. Clohessy says new cases of abuse by priests still are being reported regularly, despite the no-tolerance decree issued by the United States Conference of Bishops in Dallas in 2002. “They don’t have to live up to their principles because no one is able to sanction them,” Mr. Clohessy said of the bishops.
No one, that is, except for Benedict, whose public comments about the scandal have focused more on his personal perspective of the crisis than a specific plan to address it. In interviews this week, several victims of abuse said they hoped that he would go further than such pronouncements.
“He’s been so troubled by this? I feel for him deeply,” another victim, Patricia Anne Cahill, 55, said sarcastically of the sentiment the pope has repeated several times during his visit this week. “Let him have lunch with some of us. He’ll see what being troubled is like.”
After Thursday’s meeting, Ms. Cahill said: “The question I have is: How were they chosen? Why wasn’t it put out there as a random sampling? Maybe they’re saying what the church wants to hear and what the public wants to hear.”
Ms. Cahill, who said that her uncle repeatedly raped her during her childhood, invoking his priest’s collar as a way to keep her silent, is also among the 30 victims featured in the exhibit of photographs in SoHo, titled “Crosses,” by Carmine Galasso, a photojournalist at The Record of Hackensack, N.J.
The exhibit, and a book by the same name, includes haunting portraits of victims returning to the churches, rectories and other locations where they said they were abused.
“I’m not a holy roller; I don’t really practice my faith,” said Mr. Galasso, who grew up Catholic. “But if you’re born a Catholic, you’re Catholic. And this was something that spoke to me professionally and personally.”
Several of the victims in the photographs, as well as others around the country, awaited the pope’s visit with deep ambivalence — and reacted with deep suspicion to his meeting with victims. Susan Renehan, 59, who said she was sexually abused by a priest for a number of years as a child in New Jersey, questioned whether an honest dialogue took place.
“I’ve been in touch with many survivors over the years,” said Ms. Renehan, who is active in the New England chapter of the survivors network. “I can’t think of one who fits the criteria of being polite enough to meet with the pope.”
She went on: “The pope talks about how he feels ashamed and all of this.
“But we are plagued by lawyers working for the Vatican and for the church to make sure they fight tooth and nail to make sure, unless forced to, they don’t have to be responsible for what happened. It’s sort of a hypocritical conversation they have going. If you criticize it, they say, ‘She’s just angry.’ ”
Rodney Ford, whose son, Gregory, reached a settlement with the Archdiocese of Boston in 2004 relating to his abuse by the Rev. Paul Shanley from 1983 to 1989 at a church in Newton, Mass., said of the meeting: “I see this as him trying to raise money for the Catholic Church. It’s a political statement.”
Asked why he thought his son and others who have been harshly critical of church leaders had not been invited, Mr. Ford said: “They chose people who were going to be more appropriate.”
Mr. Hackett, who was one of 43 abuse victims to share $22 million as part of an agreement to settle abuse claims with the Archdiocese of Hartford, was similarly suspicious of Benedict’s public pronouncements about the sex abuse scandal this week.
“He has a history of pooh-poohing it — now he’s taking a whole different line,” said Mr. Hackett, who has distanced himself from the church. “I wonder about the change of heart. He probably realizes that a lot of people are walking away from the church. Now, he’s just trying to stop the bleeding.”
For victims who have struggled to reconcile with the church, the pope’s visit can be particularly painful. “To me, the pope points out that I don’t have a church,” said Becky Ianni, 50, a sex abuse victim and a mother of four who lives in Virginia. “It reminds me that there is an empty spot. It’s just so glaring because everyone is so excited. I wish I could be excited.”
Katie Zezima contributed reporting.
Copyright © 2007 The New York Times