WASHINGTON _ Pope Benedict XVI, in a dramatic move likely to alter forever the image of his pontificate, met this afternoon with five victims of clergy sexual abuse from Boston.
The private meeting, which was first reported by the Globe this afternoon and has since been confirmed by the Vatican, was brokered by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston.The meeting took place at the papal nunciature, which is the home of the pope’s ambassador to the United States. The meeting did not appear on the pope’s schedule, but took place during the window between a Mass this morning at Nationals Park and a talk that he is to deliver later this afternoon to Catholic educators gathered at Catholic University of America.
The meeting between a pope and abuse victims is a huge development in the clergy sexual abuse crisis that has roiled the Catholic Church since 2002, when the Globe started publishing a series of stories about abuse by priests. The pope at the time, John Paul II, did not visit the United States after the crisis broke — he traveled to Canada and Mexico but flew over the United States without stopping in 2002 — and neither he nor Benedict is known to have met with abuse survivors prior to today, despite repeated requests from victims.
O’Malley facilitated the visit with victims after the pope declined his repeated entreaties to visit Boston. O’Malley had argued that the pope could best directly address the abuse issue in Boston, viewed by many as the epicenter of the crisis, but the Vatican cited the pope’s age and health in deciding to limit his travels to New York, which is the home of the United Nations, and Washington, which is the seat of the US government.
In an interview with the Globe Friday, O’Malley said a papal visit with victims “is really his call.’’
“I am convinced that he is very aware of the needs of our country and certainly wants to be helpful to the church in the United States by his visit,’’ O’Malley said.
Asked again last night about the prospects for a papal visit with victims, O’Malley said, cryptically, “nothing has been announced.’’
But in the Friday interview, O’Malley said he has found meeting with victims to be very helpful.
“I think it has been very positive, in helping to understand the serious damage that is occasioned by child abuse,’’ he said. “I think in the past, people were not aware of the long-range effects. And, certainly, if you have the opportunity to meet with survivors, it becomes very apparent that this kind of tragic activity in their childhood often marks a person for life and is a source of great distress.’’
O’Malley also said meetings with victims can help some reconnect with their Catholic faith.
“It also, I think, has given me an opportunity to try and reach out to survivors and to help them to realize that in the Catholic Church we have a great sorrow for what happened to them,’’ he said. “And many of the survivors themselves, in my experience, are looking for a way to reconnect with the church. Some have walked away from the church, but others have a real desire to have a relationship with the church.”
The victims – including men and women, all of them abused as minors by priests in the Boston area – met with the 81-year-old pontiff at the papal nunciature, which is the Vatican’s Embassy here, for about a half hour. They were accompanied by O’Malley.
None of the participants could immediately be reached for comment.
The scale of the abuse is still the subject of some controversy, but the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which did a study for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, found that 4,392 priests had been accused of abusing 10,667 individuals between 1950 and 2002. The crisis led in December 2002 to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, who was criticized for failing to remove abusive priests from ministry; John Paul II named Law to oversee a prominent basilica in Rome, and appointed O’Malley to replace him as archbishop of Boston.Today’s meeting caps a remarkable start to Benedict’s first papal trip to the United States, in which the 81-year-old pontiff has repeatedly discussed the abuse crisis. His comments have been criticized by victim advocates, who want him to go further by disciplining bishops who failed to remove abusive priests, but the remarks have nonetheless been striking for their detail and frequency.
“This is a huge step forward,” said the Rev. Keith F. Pecklers, a professor of theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. “We basically were told before he arrived that he would probably address this topic at one event, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and now we’ve had three references, plus this meeting, which is hugely significant. It means he is trying to communicate that he’s taking this very seriously, and that it’s the fundamental issue in the US church right now in terms of trying to move forward. He wants to give a clear signal to America that he gets it.”
In his most recent comments, in a homily delivered at a Mass at Nationals Park this morning, Benedict told 46,000 worshipers “to assist those who have been hurt.’’
“I acknowledge the pain which the church in America has experienced as a result of the sexual abuse of minors,’’ he said. “No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse.’’
His remarks this morning followed a lengthy discussion of the abuse crisis last night in a speech to the 350 American bishops, who gathered to meet with the pope at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in northeast Washington.
“Among the countersigns to the Gospel of life found in America and elsewhere is one that causes deep shame: the sexual abuse of minors,’’ he said after vespers in the basilica crypt. “Many of you have spoken to me of the enormous pain that your communities have suffered when clerics have betrayed their priestly obligations and duties by such gravely immoral behavior.’’
Most strikingly, Benedict echoed a comment made by Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, saying, “responding to this situation has not been easy and, as the president of your Episcopal Conference has indicated, it was ‘sometimes very badly handled’.” He urged the bishops to work on prevention measures, but also said that most clergy “do outstanding work.’’
Benedict, who was previously not known for his concern about this issue, made clear that the issue is of concern to him on Tuesday, when he chose to take, as the first of four pre-submitted questions from reporters, a query about the abuse crisis.
“It is a great suffering for the church in the United States, for the church in general, and for me personally that this could happen,’’ he said on the plane, dubbed Shepherd One. “If I read the histories of these victims, it’s difficult for me to understand how it was possible that priests betrayed in this way their mission to give healing and to give the love of God to these children.
We are deeply ashamed, and we will do all that is possible that this cannot happen in the future.’’
Benedict has a long and complex history with the abuse crisis. He also has a deep familiarity with the crisis, because in his previous post as prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, he was in charge of the office that oversaw the abuse cases that were referred to Rome by dioceses around the world. Early in the crisis, when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he appeared to minimize the scope and seriousness of the crisis. But just before he was elected pope, he referred to abusive behavior as “filth.’’ And, after being elected pope, he removed from ministry a prominent Mexican priest, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, who was repeatedly accused of sexual abuse but was not disciplined by Pope John Paul II.