PHILADELPHIA – Now that Pope Francis has confirmed that he met with victims of sexual abuse Sunday morning, the question will be asked: Do these sessions make a difference?
This is the seventh time a pope has met victims. Pope Benedict XVI held five such sessions, with the first coming during his own 2008 visit to the United States. Pope Francis held his first meeting with victims in July 2014 in Rome, and he has appointed two victims to his own Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
As a matter of practice, the Vatican does not release much information beyond confirming that the meeting happened. There’s no video or still photos, because organizers don’t want it to look like a publicity stunt. They insist that these are private, pastoral meetings, while leaving the victims free to make their own decisions about what they choose to reveal.
Each time these encounters happen, victims usually come away grateful that they’ve been heard. They often talk about how visibly moved the pope seemed as they told their stories, and they express hope that the Church will take their suffering to heart as it attempts to learn the lessons of the abuse scandals.
Over time, however, opinions about what these meetings accomplish often differ.
Church officials involved in the effort to set policy insist they have enormous value, because there’s no substitute for hearing first-hand from victims the pain inflicted by abuse committed by clergy.
Former aides to Benedict XVI, for instance, say his determination to begin a process of reform was galvanized initially by reading the case files of victim testimony submitted to his office when he was still the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, and was later reinforced by the experience of his sessions with victims.
Benedict became the first pope to apologize in his own name for the scandals, and the first pope to embrace “zero tolerance” as the Church’s official line. He expedited weeding abusers out of the priesthood, making the process of “laicization,” meaning returning a priest to the lay state, faster and simpler.
Yet some victims who have taken part in these sessions later come to feel disappointed about their results, arguing that the Church has not gone far or fast enough.
Bernie McDade, who was abused as a child by a Boston priest named Rev. Joseph Birmingham, who died in 1989, was one of five victims who met with Benedict XVI in that first-ever session in 2008.
At the time, he expressed hope that the pontiff would take aggressive action, but later came to feel the reforms he introduced were cosmetic. In 2010, he helped organize a protest in Rome calling for more dramatic action, including a uniform global anti-abuse policy, which was called “Reformation Day.”
Even before Francis’ meeting, some victims were expressing similar skepticism.
Pennsylvania State Rep. Mark Rozzi, for instance, told CNN he was outraged that Pope Francis had praised the “courage” of America’s Catholic bishops in confronting the abuse scandals in a speech on Wednesday.
“The Church has turned a blind eye to victims, and it’s still turning a blind eye,” said Rozzi, who says he was abused and has lost three childhood friends and fellow abuse survivors to suicide.
The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, the main advocacy group for abuse survivors in America, issued a statement days before Francis’ meeting, predicting that he would hold a “tightly choreographed” meeting that it called “essentially meaningless.”
The group has complained not only about the pope’s remarks to the US bishops, but also that a handful of prelates accused of failing to manage the scandals appropriately have been present at various papal events, including Cardinals Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, as well as Archbishop John Nienstedtt of St. Paul and Minneapolis. None of them are still in office.
So what’s the test for whether Francis’ meeting is more than a cosmetic exercise?
Recall that Francis created an anti-abuse body called the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, acting on a suggestion from Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, in March 2014. That group includes two abuse survivors, Marie Collins of Ireland and Peter Saunders of the United Kingdom.
The commission has set out a number of tasks for itself, but probably the two most important are the following:
- Working with bishops conferences around the world, perhaps especially in the developing world where the scandals have not yet erupted with the same force as in Europe and the United States, to adopt strong anti-abuse policies.
- Advising the pope and Vatican officials on how to construct strong systems of accountability, not merely for clergy who commit abuse, but also for bishops who fail to act on abuse reports.
In both cases, members of the commission and its staff, which is made up of people who come from the Church’s reform wing on the abuse issue, are trying their best. In both cases, however, they also face serious obstacles, including limited resources both in Rome and in some bishops’ conferences to get the work done.
Perhaps that will shape up as the real test of whether Sunday’s encounter makes a difference beyond its immediate emotional impact for those involved, including Francis.
If he goes back to Rome and makes it clear he wants these two things to happen in a timely fashion, then observers may well conclude that meeting victims does, indeed, lead to change.