On Thursday afternoon, after celebrating mass with 46,000 Roman Catholics in Washington, D.C., Pope Benedict XVI made an unannounced stop. He returned to the papal nunciature at the Vatican Embassy where he met with six victims of clergy sexual abuse. It was the fourth time this week he explicitly confronted the sexual abuse that rocked the American church, starting in Boston in 2002.
Benedict was joined in the private meeting by Cardinal Sean O'Malley, who took over the Boston diocese after Cardinal Bernard Law was forced to step down after he came under attack for mishandling abuse cases in his diocese. The message the pontiff delivered was described by people there as one of hope, during which the survivors aired their concerns, prayed with him and were reportedly seen in tears following the brief session.
Though the meeting was appreciated—even expected—by victims-rights groups, they say that Benedict's approach to the issue thus far of the issue has been largely ceremonial. The pope, they say, has not done enough to offer concrete plans for how to effectively punish the perpetrators of abuse and the church officials that harbor them. Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), spoke with NEWSWEEK's Daniel Stone about her group's reaction to how Benedict has so far confronted the issue. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: What was your general reaction to him meeting with the victims of clergy abuse Thursday?
Barbara Blaine: We heard that was going to happen, so we weren't surprised. But we think it would be far better if, rather than engage in political maneuvers, he would discipline the wrongdoers and thereby maybe protect children. We applaud the courage of those victims to speak up, and we think it takes courage—but it's also extremely painful. What we're hoping for is that the Holy Father would actually take some action.
What kinds of protections and policies are in place now?
The bishops have committed themselves to remove predators when allegations are made and the allegations seem credible. The problem is that we're finding instances of predators being allowed to remain in ministry in spite of allegations. Another thing is that bishops failed to follow the system in which the National Review Board, which is affiliated with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, evaluates each diocese annually to see how each diocese is doing. The dioceses have varied in how they've put into place policy provisions, and I think 11 or 12 of dioceses were found to not be in compliance. Of all places, the archdiocese of Boston was not in compliance with a provision that says how they're supposed to protect the children and stay safe. And yet in spite of all that, the pope had [Cardinal] O'Malley yesterday at the meeting with the victims. Of all the places where you'd think they'd be bending over backward to protect children and ensure their safety, that's a diocese where they're found not to be in compliance. There are no consequences in place now for any bishop or church leader who fails to follow the policies. And we keep finding examples where they do violate policies. The policies are empty promises if there're no consequences for those that don't follow them.
So what changes would you support to address the lack of consequences?
We think the enablers—the church leaders who engage in the cover up and enabling of perpetrators—should be punished. Bishops or church leaders who are found to knowingly lead a cover-up should be fired. They shouldn't be allowed to remain as bishops. The religious superiors around the world who are harboring fugitive priests and giving them sanctuary should be forced to resign, as well.
How could Benedict have approached the topic more effectively than he has thus far?
When the Holy Father met Wednesday night with the U.S. bishops, rather than congratulating them and telling them what a terrific job they're doing, he should have singled out those with the most egregious track record and said how they should be punished. We believe that would have sent a chilling message, and then other church leaders would follow that directive.
How do you think the church can confront the issue of abuse before it becomes a problem, as opposed to punishing perpetrators and enablers after the abuse has already happened?
Well, the Catholic Church has always had pedophile priests and probably [always] will. The question is whether or not people who enable and cover up for them will be punished. That's the crux of the problem. It's not [for] the individual predators—they have a specific compulsion and addiction, and we know that deterrence doesn't work for that kind of criminal. But deterrents do work for church supervisors and bishops.
The other thing is that the bishops have a policy in place with lofty words, but there are absolutely no consequences to those who don't follow the policy, so it's largely meaningless. So [the bishops] say that someone involved in abuse will never be allowed in ministry again, [but] we keep finding examples of how these predators are involved in ministries still. It's comparable to the speed limit. If there are speed-limit signs on the highway but there's never a police car giving a ticket, most citizens would never follow the speed limit. A policy has an impact if there's a consequence for not following the rules.
What would be appropriate discipline?
Either firing or demoting or sanctioning them. [The pope] surely knows how to sanction them. Some of the commentators were saying "This is such a large maneuver for the Holy Father. He didn't even have to say anything. This is sufficient." And to that I would say 'No, words aren't enough. Nothing can restore our innocence or our childhood and that leaves us feeling helpless and hopeless.' But what we've learned is that it becomes empowering for us if we can prevent others from being abused. So if the Holy Father wants to help us as victims, he needs to put in measures that actually protect kids.
When he addressed the issue this week, did the pope re-open the wounds for all the victims?
Well, at this moment, we're inundated with many more calls from new victims and family members of victims. But we have an extensive network of survivors that knows how to handle the volume of new cases.
So since his message, as you say, was more ceremonial, would it have been better if he didn't approach the topic at all?
He was forced to say something. If he's going to come to America, he had to say something, but we're hoping that he does more. He has the authority to act and make consequences and we're still waiting for him to do that.
What about priests who oversaw cases that occurred decades ago? Should they receive punishment, which would include stripping them of their pensions?
We're far less interested in punishing actions like that. We're not a vengeful people. I don't think any victims wish anything ill toward the individual predators. It's not the individual predators. But church leaders enable them. That's who we want to see punished. If you remove bishops from their positions, we think the bishops would stop acting like that. That's the real problem.