ROME — Australian victims of clerical sexual abuse, who traveled this week to Rome to watch one of Pope Francis’ top advisors testify before a Royal Commission, have made a formal request to meet the pontiff.
The group of approximately 20 people, including survivors and supporters, plan to return to Australia on Friday after testimony by Australian Cardinal George Pell comes to an end in the early hours of Thursday morning in Rome.
Pell has been accused of failing to take appropriate action with regard to several abuse cases during the time he served in Australia in the 1970s through 2013, both as a priest in the city of Ballarat and later as archbishop of both Melbourne and Sydney.
The victims say that beyond Pell’s situation, they want to talk to the pope about steps needed to prevent clerical abuse going forward.
“To Pope Francis: this is about children, about children who were abused and damaged in the past, protecting children into the future,” the group said through a statement presented on Tuesday by one of the survivors, Phil Nagle.
“We request a meeting to discuss the commitment to the children of the past and children of the future, to implement a system to ensure that this doesn’t happen again,” the statement said.
“We want to be heard and we want someone to show that they care about us and who can possibly help change things for children into the future,” Nagle told reporters.
The group made the request for a meeting with the pope through formal channels Monday. They sent an e-mail last week to the Rev. Mark Withoos, Pell’s personal secretary, and at his recommendation, they then forwarded the request via fax to the Prefecture of the Papal Household, the office the sets the pope’s calendar.
Pell, currently head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, is the most senior Vatican official to testify before a legal body on clerical sexual abuse. The current probe, concerning cases that are up to four decades old, is being conducted by Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse.
The hearing, being conducted via video-link, began on Sunday night Rome time, and will come to an end early Thursday morning. Previous sessions have run from about 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. to accommodate the commission in Australia, which is 10 hours later than Rome. However, the next session will start at 9 p.m. and end at 3 a.m. because the judge decided there still is too much ground to cover.
In a statement released by his office while Tuesday’s inquiry was still going on, Pell said that he would be “happy to assist” with their request to meet Francis, but that he has to rely on the officials responsible for considering these requests.
The cardinal, currently the Vatican’s top financial official, also said that he would be happy to meet the victims once the hearing is over, adding that he’d meet with them in an individual basis or in small groups.
Survivors currently in Rome want to meet with him together, but Pell said he would like to listen to survivors and “private meetings offer a good opportunity for this, rather than larger meetings where not everyone might be able to tell their stories and emotions might run high.”
As of Tuesday night, the survivors hadn’t made a decision, with some saying they would still like to meet with him under those conditions and others saying they wouldn’t.
The statement also says that Pell has put the survivors in contact with a member of the Vatican’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, with whom they’re supposed to meet Thursday.
The only member of the commission currently in Rome is German Rev. Hans Zollner, head of the Institute of Psychology at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University.
Pope Francis has met survivors of clerical sexual abuse twice during his three-year pontificate: in 2014, when six traveled to Rome for a private audience, and also during his trip to the United States last September.
Both of those sessions were organized by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, who heads the pope’s anti-abuse commission.
Several other groups of survivors have tried to meet him since, but to no avail.
One such occasion was his decision to name a Chilean bishop as head of a diocese, even though that bishop has been accused by abuse survivors of looking the other way when his mentor, the Rev. Fernando Karadima, abused several young boys.