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Pope urges New England bishops to reach out to priests

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 churches.

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 missionary.

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 and concern."

But the pope's decision not to mention victims yesterday when meeting with the New England bishops drew criticism from victim advocates.

"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 unmentioned."

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 and laity?"

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 the crisis.

"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 efforts.

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," Pope said.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests