The 25-minute gathering, in a small chapel at the Embassy Row mansion that is the home of the pope’s US ambassador, came toward the close of the third straight day that the 81-year-old pontiff, on his first visit to the United States, spoke out about the sexual abuse crisis that has roiled the Catholic Church in this country.
The private session, described last night by several people who were present, was punctuated by frequent emotion. Many of the participants cried. They all prayed. And one by one, each of the victims spoke alone with the pope, holding his hands, whispering in his ears, and telling him their stories of wounded bodies and broken faith.
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, who pushed for the meeting after the pope decided not to include Boston in his US itinerary, gave the pope an oversize hand-sewn book made of color-washed paper in which a calligrapher had written the names of nearly 1,500 men and women from the Boston area who have reported being sexually abused by priests over the last six decades.
“I asked him to forgive me for hating his church and hating him,” said Olan Horne, 48, of Lowell, who gave the pope a picture of himself as a 9-year-old boy, just before the Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham started molesting him. “He said, ‘My English isn’t good, but I want you to know that I can understand you, and I think I can understand your sorrow.'” …
As the meeting began the pope entered the room – clad in a white cassock, a white skullcap, and his trademark red shoes – and knelt to pray at a kneeler called a Prie Dieu. O’Malley, who has himself met with several hundred victims of clergy sexual abuse, led the small group in prayer, including the Our Father and a Hail Mary. He then introduced the victims; told the pope about the impact of the abuse crisis, including the suicides and drug overdoses that killed some victims; then quoted from his own installation homily, saying that sexual abuse, “is a wound on the body of Christ.”
The pope, after speaking a few words to the group, then sat as each victim approached him and spoke or cried, often while clasping the pope’s hands. Most of the victims offered some kind of gift to the pope. He gave each of them a rosary, as is his custom, and blessed the group.
It was a simple gesture; it was an ordinary pastoral act; it was the sort of thing any pastor–any Christian–should be able to do. Why did it take three years as pope for Benedict to do it? Why could John Paul, in a quarter century as pope, never bring himself to do it? Why did so many bishops refuse to do it? Why do so many of them still refuse to do it?
I recall an unrelated incident when some members of a community were hurting. They were in pain and confusion and asked to meet with a certain bishop to talk about it. He refused. His senior staff refused. One middle manager suggested that he and a couple of his peers could meet with them. The bishop refused. One of his key assistants said, “We think we have a good relationship, and we don’t want to spoil it by talking about this matter.” What’s a relationship if you can’t talk to one another in time of hurt? The irony was when that same senior prelate spoke some months later at a dinner attended by many of these same people and he stood up in his remarks and said, “The holiness comes in the conversation, not in the results of that conversation.” Nice words–but he had no business saying that when he refused to have that conversation–a simple conversation that would have consisted only in hearing some people say they were hurting and confused, and just wanted some reassurance that this wouldn’t impact their relationship.