A month before Pope Benedict XVI was to embark on his trip to the United States, both Vatican officials and American Catholics were asking if he would confront the priest sex abuse crisis. A week before takeoff, with the Vatican confirming that the issue would indeed come up, the question became: how? Halfway through the pontiff's six-day trip, we can already say: Let us count the ways.
Not only has the Pope discarded past Vatican diffidence to speak openly about the scandal, he has exceeded all expectations for both his attention and his pastoral touch. Benedict has used virtually every relevant public opportunity from the in-flight press conference Tuesday to his speech to bishops to Thursday's baseball park mass in Washington to address the scandal and offer words of comfort for the victims and the American Church as a whole.
But the most significant moment happened in private, when Benedict met Thursday afternoon in an unannounced and unprecedented encounter with several victims of sexual abuse. The Pope prayed silently with the victims, and heard details of the abuse they suffered. Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, who the Boston Globe reported had orchestrated the encounter, handed the pontiff a notebook with the first names of more than 1,000 priest sex abuse victims in the city's archdiocese over the past several decades. The meeting, a rare detour from the Pope's rigid itinerary, was a subtle rather than sweeping gesture, with no photographers or cameras. It appears to have hit the perfect note of intimacy and discretion that many Catholics were looking for.
Olan Horne, one of the victims who met with the Pope, told National Public Radio that the meeting provided "a sense of fulfillment. For eight years, I've been asking to hear the words from the top, and from no one else. And we heard them today. And we heard them face to face, without a filter, without a proxy. It wasn't symbolic. It was from him to me."
Like many American Catholics who were not themselves victimized by abusive priests, Mary Barrosse-Schwartz nevertheless felt betrayed by her Church in the wake of the scandal, which unraveled after revelations in 2001 that an abusive priest in the Boston archdiocese had been shielded and repeatedly reassigned by top Church officials. Barrosse-Schwartz had low expectations before Benedict's trip, but the prompt words and the meeting with victims Thursday has changed her mind. "It now seems that one of the reasons he's come to this country is to deal with this issue," she said. "Immediately on the plane over, it was him saying, 'We've got to fix this thing.'"
The Globe, which was instrumental in exposing the crisis back in 2001, first reported the Pope's encounter, offering details of the efforts of Cardinal O'Malley of Boston first to get Benedict to visit the city and later urging him to meet with victims, which he said could also help the Pope better understand the issue. "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," the Cardinal told the newspaper.
On Thursday morning, the Pope spoke again of the "pain" caused by the scandal, lowering his voice during his homily at the Nationals stadium mass in front of 45,000 faithful. "No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse," he said. "It is important that those who have suffered be given loving pastoral attention." He'd also spoken extensively about it on Wednesday during his speech to American bishops.
David Cloughessy of SNAP, a priest sex abuse victims' group, was still reserving judgment. "If IF this brings real reform, that's terrific," he said. "But you know, talk can lead to complacency or change, and change is what's needed. If he would discipline one or more corrupt bishops, it would be truly unprecedented and would send shock waves through the hieearchy and would almost certainly make a difference."
Still it seems most of his American flock is being won over by Benedict, both for his forthrightness on sex abuse, and more generally for his shepherding skills. "What I heard was that he was going to come here and scold us: that not enough of us go to church and that we're too liberal here," said Barrosse-Schwartz. "And he came and he isn't scolding. He sounds like he's trying to fix things for people." The Vermonter confessed that she didn't get tickets to see her Holy Father, while she did make plans to attend the Dalai Lama's upcoming visit. "We're really looking for spiritual leaders, and I didn't know that [Benedict] was going to come here and be that for me," she said. "Now I would trade in my Dalai Lama tickets to see him."