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Pope Francis meets with sexual abuse victims and gains praise and criticism

Pope Francis met with victims of priestly sexual abuse
Pope Francis met with victims of priestly sexual abuse
Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Monday’s announcement from Rome by Pope Francis who begged several victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests for forgiveness of what they had suffered took many observers and pundits by surprise, ending in a mixed response, by some, but also resulting in an overall bump in ratings for his courage, and a correspondent increase in favor of his pontificate.

NBC News reported that “The pontiff invited six victims of abuse from Ireland, Germany and Britain to attend an early-morning private Mass at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the residence next to St. Peter’s Basilica where he lives,” seen as notable because while “his predecessor met with abuse victims several times during his pontificate, this was the first time a pope had received victims inside the Vatican, “the newswire reported on its website.

Sexual abuse by young people has stretched back as far as the 1940s in the United States and recent allegations and convictions of priests has been on the increase in the last decade.

In Chicago, Rev. Daniel McCormack pleaded guilty for the sexual abuse of young boys at St. Agatha’s parish in 2005, and was recently arrested for another incident that was just uncovered.

It was announced late last year that one of his victims would receive $2.3 million dollars in a settlement reached with the Archdiocese of Chicago.

But, the Catholic Church has struggled with the pedophilia crisis after well-publicized efforts to stem the tide, as reported by authorities in Philadelphia that the archdiocese “still allowed alleged pedophile priests—37 of them, the report said—to continue ministering to children.”

While the struggle has continued, some have seen the Pope’s actions as too little too late, and wonder why the Pontiff waited 16 months into his papacy for this meeting.

“Over the past 2000 years, two popes have met with about two dozen clergy sex abuse victims. Very little has changed,” Mary Caplan, the leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said in a statement sent to NBC News. "A dozen popes could meet with 100 victims, and very little will change. These meetings are public relations coups for the Vatican and a distracting placebo for others.”

But Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi defended the pope, saying critics don't understand the pontiff's "positive intentions."

Emailed requests for reactions by Barbara Blaine, Chicago president of SNAP for comments were not returned, or from David Clohessy, national director and spokesman for SNAP.

Yet another spokesperson, Elizabeth Fahling did reply to those requests with the following statement, which quoted Blaine as saying, “The Pope says the church should "make reparations" to victims. That's secondary. Stopping abuse and protecting children comes first. And sadly, no child on earth is safer today because of this meeting.”

Calling for more concrete actions, Blaine also says in the statement, “But this is an on-going crisis. Children are being assaulted by clerics right now. Bishops are concealing these crimes right now. And Francis must take decisive action right now, action to expose and remove clerics who commit and conceal heinous crimes against the most vulnerable.”

The crisis most notably rocked Ireland where as recent as 2009, the cover up was still in operation. According to a report from 2011 and where, according to the New York Times, it was noted by “Alan Shatter, the Irish justice minister, called the findings “truly scandalous,” adding that the church’s earlier promises to report all abuse cases since 1995 to civil authorities were ‘built on sand.’ Abuse victims called the report more evidence that the church sought to protect priests rather than children.”

At that time Lombardi said the Vatican had no comment.

Dr. Ralph Keen, the Arthur J. Schmitt Foundation Chair in Catholic Studies and Professor of History, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said in an emailed statement, “I understand the skepticism of those in SNAP who haven't yet healed and thus feel that there can never be real restitution. But I also sense that Francis grasps the magnitude of the problem, is consulting about how to address it effectively, and wants (a) to bring justice to the guilty clergy and the officials who covered up their abuses; and (b) to bring about reconciliation with victims. It’s difficult work because he has to be bold and uncompromising with (a) and gentle and pastoral with (b). He understands that people have left the church and are unlikely ever to return; but he also understands that even if they don't, the church has to do something.”

Keen’s perspective may be closer to the truth than some critics might admit because the role of the Pope is not merely to provide judicial statements, but also to provide pastoral care, and in turn direct this to the faithful.

The seventy-seven year old Pontiff has an enormous public relations battle to wage if he is to even try to address the exodus of Catholics and to sustain the faith of those that remain.

One issue that remains at the core of the crisis is how the church views sexuality in general, and the attendant roles of contraceptives, priestly celibacy, homosexuality, in general, and creating a pastoral response that fits an ever-changing world.

The record has not been positive over the last several decades with Pope Paul VI’s refusal to endorse any “artificial” conception and embracing only the rhythm method, the refusal to sanction same-sex marriage, and its large rejection of gay people, which is still enshrined in its catechism, despite a call for compassion – albeit bereft of approving sexual activity.

But, the Franciscan papacy has been marked by acts of humility and compassion and the comment that “It is like a sacrilegious cult, because these boys and girls had been entrusted to the priestly charism in order to be brought to God,” may go a long way in beginning to have concrete actions to stop the actions, as Blaine and Caplan have noted; but of which systemic actions must be taken.

Now, most of the international media is agog in what the Pope may, or may not have said to an octogenarian journalist, and self-confessed atheist, about the priestly pedophiles that have cost the church, not only a loss of members, but the moral high ground that it once had, even among protestants.

The Washington Post this Monday, in a pithy send-up, noted the following: “Boom: The pope told Eugenio Scalfari that one in 50 priests — nearly 8,000 members of the clergy — are pedophiles. Boom: The pope said that number even included “bishops and cardinals.” And boom: The pope promised “solutions” — perhaps related to rethinking priestly celibacy.”

While the Vatican responded by sating that Scalfari rarely uses written notes, or a tape recorder, relying instead on his memory, the alleged statements, even if attributable to the aforementioned, reveal much of the mind and character of the Pontiff, whose preference for spontaneity might have gotten him into hot water.

Even the way that the interview was arranged seems distinctive: no secretary to put the call through, just Francis himself, dialing the number from his office, and stunning both Scalfari’s secretary, and himself.

With more than 1.2 billion members worldwide and a scandal that won’t go away, and one that Francis grapples with, the conversation is startling. Even if sub-rosa (confidential) it means that the Pope has noted the widespread pedophiles in the church, in the highest circles.

And, it also means that once on the pages of websites and newspapers that the call for reform and justice is going to be sharpened.


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