Pope urges New England bishops to reach out
By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff
September 3, 2004
Pope John Paul II, meeting yesterday at his summer residence
with visiting Catholic bishops from New England, exhorted
the region's prelates to reach out to priests who have suffered
as a result of the clergy sexual abuse crisis.
The pope appeared for the first time to acknowledge a financial
toll from the scandal, referring to "significant spiritual
and material challenges" being confronted by American
The pope did not, however, refer to victims of abuse. Archbishop
Sean P. O'Malley of Boston did, describing those who were
abused as having been "among those most committed to
the life of the Church."
"The church in your country has been chastened by the
events of the past two years, and much effort has rightly
been expended on understanding and addressing the issues of
sexual abuse which have cast a shadow on her life and ministry,"
the pope told the New England bishops gathered at Castel Gandolfo,
the papal villa in a lakeshore town southeast of Rome. "As
you continue to confront the significant spiritual and material
challenges which your local churches are experiencing in this
regard, I ask you to encourage all the faithful -- clergy,
religious, and lay -- to persevere in their public witness
of faith and hope, so that Christ's light, which can never
be dimmed, will continue to shine forth in and through the
church's entire life and ministry."
The meeting was closed to the news media, but the Vatican
released a text of the pope's remarks, and the Archdiocese
of Boston released remarks read by O'Malley on behalf of the
bishops of New England.
"In a particular way I would ask you to be strongly
supportive of your brother priests, many of whom have suffered
deeply because of the much-publicized failings of some of
the Church's ministers," the pope told the New England
bishops. "I would ask you also to convey my personal
gratitude for the generous and selfless service which mark
the lives of so many American priests, as well as my deep
appreciation of their daily efforts to be models of holiness
and pastoral charity in the Christian communities entrusted
to their care. . . . In a word, tell your priests that I hold
them in my heart."
The bishops are in Rome for their ad limina visit -- literally,
"to the threshold" -- a mandatory visit made every
five years by diocesan bishops to the Vatican, during which
the bishops meet with the pope and also discuss with key Vatican
officials the state of their dioceses. The trips historically
were made as pilgrimages to the tombs of Peter and Paul, and
the New England bishops have prayed together at several key
Roman churches over the last week; yesterday, for example,
they visited St. Paul's Outside the Walls, a major basilica
originally constructed over the relics of Paul, an early Christian
Yesterday's speech was not the first time John Paul II has
expressed concern about the impact of the crisis on priests.
At World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002, he urged worshipers
to "think of the vast majority of dedicated and generous
priests and religious whose only wish is to serve and do good!
There are many priests, seminarians, and consecrated persons
here today; be close to them and support them!" But he
has on occasion also referred to victims. For example, in
April 2002, speaking to American cardinals gathered at the
Vatican, he said, "To the victims and their families,
wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity
But the pope's decision not to mention victims yesterday
when meeting with the New England bishops drew criticism from
"It's just so painful that, even now, he can't bring
himself to express concern for victims and their families,"
said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network
of those Abused by Priests. "This is the continuing blind
spot within the Roman hierarchy, and, sadly, much of the American
hierarchy. Victims and their families remain invisible and
Clohessy said it was particularly incumbent on the pope to
acknowledge victims when meeting with the bishops of New England,
since the clergy abuse crisis exploded over revelations in
Boston. O'Malley said in February that 162 archdiocesan priests
had been accused of sexually abusing 815 minors between 1950
and 2003; nationally, according to the National Review Board,
4,392 priests were accused of sexually abusing 10,667 minors
between 1950 and 2002.
The president of the lay organization Voice of the Faithful,
which has pledged to support abuse victims as well as "priests
of integrity," was also critical of the pope's remarks.
The organization's president, James E. Post, said the pope's
"stated concern for the well-being of priests is appropriate,
but incomplete. Where was the papal concern for survivors
Post, saying O'Malley should have consulted more broadly
with local laypeople before reporting to Rome, said he had
sent the archbishop a "people's ad limina report,"
in which he said, "three years of public disclosure about
the way the archdiocese has been administered have undercut
trust in the archbishop and chancery staff. Deception, cover-up,
and even criminal activity have been revealed. The Holy Father
should know this."
The pope's focus on priests reflects an awareness of a morale
problem among US priests, according to the Rev. Thomas J.
Reese, editor of America magazine, a Jesuit weekly.
"The good priests are really hurting as a result of
this crisis -- they can walk down the street and people look
at them sideways wondering, 'Who is this guy? Should I keep
my child away from him?' " Reese said. "I think
the pope recognizes this kind of morale problem that there
is among the good priests out there, and he's just trying
to reach out to them."
O'Malley, who became archbishop of Boston last summer, after
the scandal caused Cardinal Bernard F. Law to resign as archbishop,
yesterday focused his remarks to the pope on the impact of
"Our recent history is one of great pain because of
the tragedy of clerical sexual abuse with its all devastating
consequences," O'Malley said. "As a church we are
striving to bring healing to all of those affected by this
crisis. Oftentimes the victims and their families were among
those most committed to the life of the church, and so the
abuse has been experienced as the most serious betrayal."
The New England bishops have been in Rome all week, and most
had also greeted the pope upon their arrival. Last Friday,
the pope met with the bishops of Fall River and Manchester,
N.H.; on Saturday, he met with the bishops of Portland, Maine,
and Bridgeport, Conn., and on Monday he met with O'Malley
and the auxiliary bishops of Boston, as well as with the archbishop
of Hartford, his auxiliary bishops, and the bishops of Burlington,
Vt., and Worcester.
Yesterday, in addition to talking about the clergy abuse
crisis, the pope urged the bishops toward an "evangelization
of culture . . . a culture which, for all its aspects of materialism
and relativism, is nonetheless profoundly attracted to the
primordially religious dimension of the human experience and
is struggling to rediscover its spiritual roots."
He praised the bishops for their work on interfaith and ecumenical
relations in the pluralistic United States, and encouraged
US Catholics to continue supporting the church's missionary
Stephen J. Pope, an associate professor of theology at Boston
College, said many of the pope's remarks will seem off-point
to New England Catholics.
"Many people in the Boston Archdiocese, who are hurting
from parish closings, will find the pope's emphasis on missionaries
and evangelization a bit remote from their concerns,"
Michael Paulson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.