New York, 18 April (ENI)–Pope Benedict XVI has met privately and prayed with several survivors of sexual abuse by clergy during his visit to the United States, in a move that is believed to be the first time a pontiff has met with abuse survivors.
The unannounced meeting on 17 April, reportedly at Benedict’s request, was held at a chapel at the papal nuncio’s residence in Washington.
Bernie McDaid, an abuse survivor who was at the meeting, said in an interview with the CNN television network that he told the pope ‘it wasn’t just sexual abuse, it was spiritual abuse. And then I told him that he has a cancer growing in his ministry, and needs to do something about it,’ said McDaid, who was abused by a cleric as an altar boy.
John Allen, who writes on Vatican affairs for the National Catholic Reporter, described the meeting as ‘an unexpected and essentially unprecedented move’.
Benedict’s six-day trip is the first visit by a pope to the United States since the resignation in 2002 of Cardinal Bernard Law as archbishop of Boston after allegations that he and other archdiocesan officials had allowed known abusers to continue in their jobs or had transferred them from post to post.
The meeting between the pope and abuse survivors came after remarks by the pontiff to journalists on his flight to the United States, in which he said he was ‘deeply ashamed’ of the scandals, and that that pedophiles would not be allowed to continue as priests or to be ordained into the Roman Catholic priesthood.
Observers said that the condemnation and the meeting with survivors appeared to be a clear signal by Benedict that he is taking the sexual abuse issue seriously.
All five victims who met with Pope Benedict were from the Boston area. A Vatican spokesperson said the pope and a small group of survivors were joined by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who now heads the Boston archdiocese.
In a statement, Joelle Casteix, a regional director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called the meeting ‘a small, long-overdue step forward on a very long road’. She said the meeting was not likely to change much, as action ‘produces reform, and reform — real reform — is sorely needed in the church hierarchy’.
The address and meeting with abuse survivors came the same day that Benedict celebrated his first public Mass on his U.S. visit, at a baseball stadium in Washington.
‘I acknowledge the pain which the church in America has experienced as a result of the sexual abuse of minors,’ the pope said in his homily. ‘No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse.’ In his homily, Benedict also praised what he said was a legacy of U.S. optimism and hope, though he descried what he said was a tradition of exclusion for some.
The promise of the United States, he said, ‘was not experienced by all the inhabitants of this land; one thinks of the injustices endured by the native American peoples and by those brought here forcibly from Africa as slaves’.
In a speech before US Catholic educators, Benedict addressed the issue of academic freedom at Catholic educational institutions.
In his address, Pope Benedict said that while he sought to ‘reaffirm the great value of academic freedom’, divergence from church teaching ‘weakens Catholic identity, and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual, or spiritual’.