IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Verdict out on impact of pope's outreach

Some church officials are skeptical that the papal visit will lead to any of the major policy changes that abuse victims have called for, including the removal of bishops who knowingly shuffled pedophile priests from parish to parish, and the release of personnel records on accused priests.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Bernie McDaid says he is changed, not healed.

After praying privately with Pope Benedict XVI, after telling the pontiff that there is "a cancer" in the Roman Catholic Church, after giving the 81-year-old German theologian a loaf of Irish soda bread baked by McDaid's 81-year-old mother, he now thinks the Church will more aggressively fight sexual abuse by priests.

"When the pope apologized and clearly said he was sorry for the pain this has caused, it marked a changing point in this whole process, and it emotionally did something for me," McDaid said yesterday, a day after he and four other clergy sex abuse victims from the Boston area met with Benedict at the Vatican Embassy in Northwest Washington.

"I believe it's the beginning, and not just for me," McDaid, 52, of Peabody, Mass., said shortly before flying home. "Things are really going to happen now."

Olan Horne, a Lowell, Mass., abuse victim who participated in the meeting, was similarly affected. "For the first time, the pontiff put the responsibility of the Church and the suffering and the needs of the survivors first," said Horne, 48, who added that the pope was in tears when they met.

Even more than the pope's repeated references to the sex abuse scandal during his visit to Washington this week, his meeting with McDaid, Horne and the others packed a wallop, according to bishops, lay Catholic groups and sex abuse victims. It could be a turning point for an American church whose leaders, many say, have moved haltingly to institute reforms from the scandal.

"When the pope gives this much attention to it . . . that communicates to the bishops that 'you'd better get on this and make this a priority, and I'm going to pay attention,' " said Robert Bennett, a D.C. lawyer who served on a lay panel created by U.S. bishops to monitor reform efforts. He met with Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in 2004 to discuss the scandal.

Still, Catholics around the country questioned whether McDaid and Horne were right: Would the pope's repeated professions of shame and anguish this week, culminating in the first publicly known meeting between a pope and sex abuse victims, be more than an emotional balm? Would it also lead to new steps to address the biggest crisis in the history of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States?

"We want to see concrete action," said Donna Doucette, executive director of Voice of the Faithful, a lay organization pushing for greater transparency and lay involvement in the management of the Church.

Some church officials were skeptical that the papal visit would lead to any of the major policy changes that victims have called for, including the removal of bishops who knowingly shuffled pedophile priests from parish to parish, the publishing of a complete list of known abusers and where they reside, and the release of personnel records on accused priests.

"I don't think that the ramifications will be any different than they already are," said Colleen Dolan, spokeswoman for Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "The victims I've talked to have been glad [the pope] spoke to the issue. But the U.S. church has already put in many safeguards."

By the U.S. bishops' count, more than 5,000 priests have been credibly accused of abusing about 12,000 children in the United States since 1950. The Church has spent $2 billion on legal claims, six dioceses have declared bankruptcy and hundreds of priests have been removed.

Many dioceses have responded in recent years by requiring police background checks for all employees. At a 2002 meeting in Dallas, the bishops pledged they would permanently remove abusers from the ministry, promptly report new allegations to civil authorities, reach out to victims and create sex abuse education programs. The bishops also created a national Office of Child and Youth Protection, and they hired former law enforcement officials to head it and audit dioceses for compliance with the Dallas policy.

Bishop Gregory Aymond of Austin, who heads a clergy child-abuse task force for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he has met defiance from some bishops to the diocesan audits.

"I hope his words will give us the opportunity to reach out again to the bishops who have been resisting participating in what we're doing," Aymond said.

Victims and their families have been pushing for further steps. McDaid hopes the pope will investigate the performance of his bishops and remove those who knowingly tolerated or covered up abuse.

"Those who were associated with this problem should be asked to step down. That would promote healing and change in this church," he said. "I think it's coming."

Before becoming pope three years ago, Benedict oversaw the Church's procedures for removing hundreds of accused priests in his role as head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He publicly decried "how much filth there is in the Church . . . even among . . . the priesthood."

"He was probably quicker than most in the Vatican to understand this problem and the need to deal with it," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center. "At first, the Vatican was saying, 'We have to have due process, due process -- we can't just throw these priests out.' But once they got a look at the actual files, they changed their tune rather quickly."

Cardinal George said that in a visit to Rome last year, he urged the pontiff to address the crisis because "this is the event that more than anything truly impacts the life of the American church. But he knew that."

The pope declined an invitation from Cardinal Sean O'Malley to visit Boston but asked O'Malley to set up the meeting with victims.

It was an emotional week for McDaid. During the papal Mass at Nationals Park on Thursday, Benedict expressed deep regret over the sex abuse scandal. McDaid said he found himself thinking, "I've been waiting from Day One of this crisis for this man to say that" -- and he started to cry, pulling out his sunglasses to keep from blubbering in public.

A few hours later, he was whisked by motorcade with a police escort from a downtown hotel to the Vatican Embassy, greeted by cardinals in their finery and admitted with the other Boston-area victims into a small chapel. The pope entered, knelt with the victims in prayer, then spoke briefly with each of them, beginning with McDaid.

"I said to him, 'Holy Father, when I was an altar boy, in the sacristy of the church where I prayed to God -- that's where I was abused,' " McDaid recalled. "And he squeezed my hand, and I said to him, 'Holy Father, I was not only sexually abused, I was spiritually abused.' "

At those words, McDaid said, Benedict recoiled "like an electric shock."

Benedict looked at the floor for a second, then "he looked at me like he got it," McDaid continued. "We were both feeling the moment as a deep sorrow. So at that point, I pulled out the Irish bread from my mother. That was my sign of peace to him."

Staff writer Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.