Pope Francis has revealed that “regularly” on Fridays, he meets quietly with a group of survivors of sexual abuse, saying it’s important for him to hear their stories because “what they have been through is so hard, they are destroyed.”
The pontiff also said that clerical sex abuse is “the greatest desolation that the Church is undergoing,” one that expresses both the Church’s fragility as well as its “hypocrisy.”
The revelations come in a record released today of the pope’s meetings with Jesuits on his trip last month to Chile and Peru. The transcript was approved by the pope and released by Francis’s longtime Jesuit collaborator, Father Antonio Spadaro.
The director of the Vatican Press Office, Greg Burke, released a statement on Thursday confirming the meetings.
“I can confirm that, several times each month, the Holy Father meets victims of sexual abuse either individually or in groups,” Burke said. “Pope Francis listens to the victims and seeks to help them to heal the grave wounds caused by the abuse they’ve suffered.”
“The meetings take place with the greatest discretion,” Burke said, “out of respect for the victims and their suffering.”
Among other issues discussed in the two sessions with Jesuits, held in the Chilean capital Santiago and the Peruvian capital Lima, the pope also spoke about resistance to his reforms and to his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, saying he prays for those who claim to be in possession of true doctrine and who accuse him of heresy. The pontiff said he wouldn’t read the websites of traditionalist organizations, in order “to preserve my mental health.”
Francis said that the Church’s shame over clerical sex abuse was a “grace” that offered a chance for conversion, recalling that he had once been crossing into the Plaza de Mayo during a protest when a couple with a three-year-old child saw him.
“Come back here!” the father told the child, “Watch out for the pedophiles!”
“How shameful I felt! What shame! They didn’t realize that I was the archbishop, I was a priest and… what shame!” Francis told the Jesuits in Lima.
He said some tried to put sex abuse in perspective by comparing the low percentage in the clergy compared to other professions, “but it’s appalling even if it were just one of our brothers!”
He said God anointed a priest “to lead both young people and adults to holiness, but instead of leading them to holiness, destroys them. It’s horrible.”
He then added: “You have to listen to one who has been abused. On Fridays – sometimes this is known, sometimes not – I regularly meet some of them. In Chile I had a meeting. Because what they have been through is so hard, they are destroyed. Destroyed.”
For the Church, Francis added, “this is a great humiliation. It shows not just our fragility but also – let’s say this clearly — our level of hypocrisy.”
He then turned to abuse in a number of new religious congregations, noting that Peru has had several such scandals – including, most notoriously, the Sodalicio de Vida Cristiana, or Sodalitium, which the pope ordered to be taken over by the Vatican.
Among other “painful cases” he said Pope Benedict had to suppress “a large male congregation” whose founder “abused young and immature religious men” and that Francis had suppressed the unnamed congregation’s female branch, whose founder “had also spread such habits.”
He said abuse in such congregations was “always the fruit of mentality linked to power that can only be healed in its malignant roots” and that usually involved a mix of three kinds of abuse: “abuse of authority (mixing the internal forum with the external forum), sexual abuse and an economic mess,” adding: “There’s always money involved. The devil enters through the wallet.”
In the Chilean capital, Santiago, Francis was asked how he had coped with resistances he had encountered during his pontificate.
The pope said he was careful not to assume that an objection or opposition was a genuine resistance, that conflicts could be helpful in bringing out the truth, and that it was one of his failings sometimes to move ahead without properly explaining himself.
But “when I become aware of true resistance, I suffer,” he said. It was particularly troubling when “someone joins a campaign of resistance” to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, he added.
While he knew about the websites of traditionalist organizations, he preferred not to read them “to preserve my mental health,” adding that historians believe it takes a century to absorb an ecumenical council, and therefore “we are still halfway there.”
In what will be seen as a reference to the so-called “dubia letter” written to him by four cardinals protesting Amoris Laetitia, he said that when he became aware of doctrinal resistance, “I seek dialogue whenever it is possible; but some resistance comes from people who believe they possess the true doctrine and accuse you of being a heretic.”
“When I cannot see spiritual goodness in what these people say or write,” he added, “I simply pray for them. I find it sad, but don’t dwell on this feeling for the sake of my psychological well-being.”
He returned to the issue later in speaking of the need for the Church to learn discernment of God’s will rather than take refuge in yes-no, black-and-white answers, describing discernment as one of the “pastoral objectives” of the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia.
“If you take a look at the panorama of reactions to Amoris Laetitia you will see that the strongest criticisms of the exhortation are against the eighth chapter: ‘Can a divorced person receive Communion, or not?’ But Amoris Laetitia goes in a completely different direction; it does not enter into these distinctions but poses the issue of discernment.”
In this sense, he added, the exhortation reflected the classical Thomism of St. Thomas Aquinas himself rather than the “decadent Thomism” of nineteenth-century neo-scholasticism.
Later, in Lima, he added: “Some reduce the entire result of two synods, all the work that was done there, to ‘you can or you can’t’ [receive communion if divorced and remarried]. Help us, then, to discern,” he told the Jesuits.
He also dwelt on another favorite topic, the damage done by clericalism, especially in Latin America. Although many clergy and religious put themselves at the service of the people of God, “in some we can still observe princely kinds of behavior,” he said, adding: “The People of God must be given the place [in the Church] that is their due.”
This was especially true, he added, of the place of women in the Church, adding that when he was a bishop he always found that when women were part of a meeting to make some decision or other, the conclusions were “much richer, much more practical, and much more fruitful.”
Women, he added, “should give to the Church all that richness that [the theologian Hans Urs] Von Balthasar called the Marian dimension.”
Without this dimension, he said, “the Church limps or uses crutches, and so walks badly,” adding: “In this we have a long way still to go.”