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September 27, 2015; The Guardian

In the wake of the controversy regarding his comments to the U.S. bishops earlier last week, Pope Francis met and prayed with five adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse by clergy during his visit to Philadelphia. (Their abusers, according to Vatican press spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi, had been clergy or family members or teachers.)

The unscheduled meeting with the survivors, attended also by Boston’s Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, who chairs a church commission on the protection of minors, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, and Bishop Michael J. Fitzgerald, head of the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s office for the protection of minors, lasted a half hour, according to the Guardian.

Following the meeting, the Pope reiterated his determination to hold clergy sexual abusers accountable for their actions. He made the following statements in that regard:

“I hold the stories and the suffering and the sorry of children who were sexually abused by priests deep in my heart…I remain overwhelmed with shame that men entrusted with the tender care of children violated these little ones and caused grievous harm. I am profoundly sorry. God weeps…The crimes and sins of the sexual abuse of children must no longer be held in secret. I pledge the zealous vigilance of the church to protect children and the promise of accountability for all.”

As NPQ reported last week, advocacy groups for victims of Catholic clergy sexual abuse were unhappy with the Pope’s statements in Washington, D.C. and New York City, which focused on the burden that fell upon the bishops who, as the Pope said in New York, were forced to “bear the shame of some of your brothers who harmed and scandalized the church.” To the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), the Pope’s statements in Washington and New York were insufficient, suggesting that the Pope “talks and acts like the church hierarchy is the real victim in this crisis.”

Will his meeting with the group of victims in Philadelphia mollify groups like SNAP that see the Pope’s words and deeds as inadequate on this score? The Vatican issued a statement following the Pope’s meeting explaining that the Pope “renewed the commitment of the Church to the effort that all victims are heard and treated with justice, that the guilty be punished and that the crimes of abuse be combated with an effective prevention activity in the Church and in society.” According to the Associated Press, the Pope has also given the go-ahead to a new Vatican tribunal that will prosecute bishops who have “covered up abuse and shielded pedophile priests instead of turning them over to police.”

The Pope’s words of contrition will be seen as more meaningful to victims groups if they are accompanied by changes in the official church response to ongoing and prospective charges of sexual abuse by priests and other Catholic Church leaders. Among the cases and controversies that have arisen recently are these:

  • New charges against a former priest named Donald Grecco allege he abused 10- and 14-year-old boys between 1977 and 1982 in the Niagara region of upstate New York.
  • Charges against a former priest, John C. Holdren, allege he abused a child in a church in Aurora, Illinois, between 1972 and 1973.
  • A priest from Pennsylvania, Joseph Maurizio, has been accused of molesting young boys between 2004 and 2009 during missionary trips he took to Honduras.
  • A church volunteer in an Orange County, California church has been accused of molesting a 10-year-old girl while he was assigned to supervise a children’s group.
  • A 2011 court deposition of Bishop Robert Cunningham of Syracuse in a case involving a man’s charges of clergy sexual abuse revealed that Cunningham testified that the man, at the time of his alleged victimization, a boy, had been “culpable” and called victims of clergy sexual abuse “accomplices.”

The issue in these and other cases is more than simply whether the alleged perpetrators were guilty and should be prosecuted. Grecco, Holdren, Maurizio, and others might be guilty as charged, but the controversy lies in whether their colleagues and superiors knew about their behavior as molesters and might have ignored, covered up, or in practical terms even abetted the abuse due to inaction. The cases might involve defrocked priests, but bishops and cardinals (among others) might have used the Catholic Church’s byzantine bureaucracy to sweep the issue under the rug. How Pope Francis responds to the use and abuse of the church’s bureaucracy in these sex abuse scandals, including the potential blind eyes of the bishops, may well turn God’s weeping into the church’s corrective action.—Rick Cohen