REMARKS OF THE HOLY FATHER POPE FRANCIS ON SEXUAL ABUSE BY CLERGY DURING HIS VISIT TO THE UNITED STATES IN 2015

REMARKS OF THE HOLY FATHER POPE FRANCIS ON SEXUAL ABUSE BY CLERGY DURING HIS VISIT TO THE UNITED STATES IN 2015

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Observations and Comments on the Reaction of the Survivors of Sexual Abuse, their families and their supporters

For the Members of the Pontifical Commission
for the Protection of Children

Thomas P. Doyle, J.C.D., C.A.D.C.
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October 5, 2015

1. There has been and continues to be an outpouring of information, comments and opinions on the pope’s response to victims and survivors of sexual abuse by clergy during his recent trip to the United States. These have come in the religious and secular print media, electronic media, on private and organizational websites and on blogs. The volume of these comments has been immense.

2. Prior to the visit there was intense speculation as to what the pope would say and in particular what he would say to the bishops. There was also speculation as to whether or not he would meet personally with any victims.

3. The media information and my own private conversations with many victims and survivors in the days leading up to the visit reflected feelings that ranged from cautious hope to cynical speculation that nothing would change.

4. The pope’s visit was judged to be a resounding success by the general media and by the bishops. The response of the crowds to his warm manner was astounding. His addresses to the U.S. Congress and to the United Nations were remarkable and historic because they were not made up of a string of pious platitudes, generalities and vague moral admonishments. The pope actually said something meaningful and relevant to the very complex state of life in the U.S. today. It is difficult to compare this visit to those of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI in the past but judging by the size and response of the crowds it seems that this visit was received with much more enthusiasm than those of Francis’ predecessors.
The Response of the Survivors of Sex Abuse

5. The response of the survivors of clergy sex abuse, their families, friends and supporters, stands in stark contrast to the general exuberance so evident everywhere. Judging by the response reported in the media, in private communications, on blogs and websites, the response of this population can be characterized as ranging from painful disappointment to deep anger. I have not seen a single remark from a victim or survivor anywhere that was positive in response to what the pope said or did.

6. Pope Francis’ remarks to the U.S. bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral on September 23, 2015 resulted in almost instant criticism and expressions of anger. The victims could not and still cannot understand or accept the pope’s expressions of sympathy for the bishops. His praise of their courage ---“I am also conscious of the courage with which you have faced difficult moments in recent history”---- drew the ire of countless people. The last adjective one could realistically associate with the bishop’s collective response over the past 30 years would be courage.

7. When the pope remarked that the bishops were unafraid to divest whatever is unessential this was understood to refer to the compensatory payments to victims. This statement too, aside from being fundamentally incorrect, was highly inflammatory.

a. Was the pope not aware that all of the compensation paid to victims was either the result of legal settlements or awards given by juries in court trials and not voluntarily from bishops?

b. Was he not aware that the bishops have invested far more money in the care of accused priests than they have voluntarily given to their victims?

c. Was he not aware that among the bishops in front of him were many who have readily expended hundreds of millions of dollars donated by the faithful to pay their attorneys to carry out long, costly and highly destructive campaigns to defeat victims? For example, the unofficial estimate is that Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles paid approximately $150 million to his many attorneys to prolong the civil actions in that archdiocese for ten years and in the end they lost. Was he not aware that Archbishop Listecki of Milwaukee has paid his own attorneys at least $30 million to defeat the victims of the Milwaukee clergy?

d. Was he not aware that Cardinal Dolan, while archbishop of Milwaukee, illegally transferred $57 million of archdiocese funds to try to hide them from the bankruptcy process?

e. It certainly seems that the Pope and most of the hierarchy are either unaware or have rejected the reality that victims only started approaching the civil courts because they were rebuffed, treated harshly or ignored when they attempted to receive support from Church authorities. This situation has changed to some extent but the fact remains that victims still will not receive support or any just compensation unless they do it through the civil courts.

8. “I realize how much the pain of recent years has weighed upon you and I have supported your generous commitment to bring healing to victims.” This was perhaps the most inflammatory and unrealistic sentence uttered to the bishops. For the bishops to focus on their own discomfort, caused by the challenges of victims of sexual abuse, is grossly narcissistic. The angst and stress experienced by the bishops in general has been grounded not in any empathy or sympathy for the victims but in the threat the victims’ persistent demands for justice have caused them as well as their painful realization that their own actions have caused a profound erosion in the respect, deference and power they had been accustomed to.

9. These were the sentiments expressed by Pope John Paul II in his first letter to the Bishop of the United States in June 1993: compassion and support for bishops, a passing mention of victims and assessing the blame on the media and culture of the U.S. Then and now the victims and survivors, among others, perceive that the bishops are being cast as the real victims of this tragedy.

10. There has been no “generous commitment to bring healing to victims.” Very few victims have reported that their encounters with bishops have been positive, with the bishop exhibiting an honest sense of compassion. Most victims report that their meetings with bishops end with frustration and a sense of futility. They feel these meetings take place because the attorneys insist on it or because the bishop wants to use it for publicity purposes, to bolster a claim that they meet and know victims.

11. In many dioceses and archdioceses there are protocols in place to assist victims with psychological counseling. In far too many instances these attempts are counter-productive because of the following factors (among others):

a. The diocese tries to control the choice of therapists, which is unethical.

b. The diocese limits the number of sessions.

c. The diocese requires regular reports back from the therapists.

d. The diocese shares information received from victim assistance coordinators and from therapists’ reports with their civil attorneys which is a violation of the victims’ right to confidentiality

12. All of the actions described in paragraph 10 above, have been practiced by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

13. In general, expressing sympathy and solidarity with the bishops, as Pope Francis did in at least three of his addresses on this visit, has reinforced the bishops’ erroneous opinion that the “crisis” is under control, that they have, as a group, handled the nationwide problem correctly and that their current actions, e.g., bankruptcy processes, are not only acceptable but praiseworthy. Far worse however is the belief among victims that the pope’s expressions of concern for them are either insincere or half-hearted and that his primary interest is support of the bishops.

14. When asked to explain his remarks to the bishops in Washington, The Holy Father’s response to the media on the trip back to Italy only made things worse. Even if it true that some bishops did not know about sexual abuse by clergy, the uniformity of their response to specific reports in the U.S. does not reflect anything even closely resembling compassion or mercy. The response has generally been to distance themselves from the victims while engaging their attorneys to formulate a protective legal strategy. This response is made worse by the many, many instances wherein accused priests were placed back in active ministry.

15. The pope rightly said that “even some bishops” engaged in covering up sexual abuse. The well documented fact is that it was not “some’ but a very large majority of the U.S. bishops covered up cases of abuse. In 2002 the Dallas News conducted a research survey in anticipation of the U.S. Bishops General Meeting, which was to take place in June. The findings were not based on preponderance of opinion but on recorded facts. Over two-thirds of the diocesan ordinaries had covered up cases of abuse.
Yet not one of the U.S. bishops has been called to accountability for their negligent actions which have actually enabled sexual abuse.

16. The pope’s visit with five victims at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary on Sunday, September 27, was not a surprise. There had been much speculation that he would meet with victims but no one knew where or when. The meeting was held in secret and the identities of the victims were not disclosed then and still have not been disclosed. The pope met with a mixed group of victims and this fact has generally been seen as both insulting and divisive by victims of clergy abuse.

a. Victims have considered the reference to sexual abuse in families and in other institutions insulting because the pope was repeating one of the lines the U.S. bishops have been using to try to deflect attention, i.e., don’t point the finger at the Church. Point it at the Boy Scouts, the public schools and other organizations. The general public is well aware of sexual abuse of minors in families, in other denominations, in public and private organizations and in schools. They are also aware of the fact that no other organization has engaged in such a widespread, well orchestrated, costly and destructive campaign of marked by cover up and devaluing of the victims.

b. Many victims felt that the meeting minimized the still existing serious problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church not only in the U.S. but also around the world.

c. One writer summed it well: “The Vatican’s script was meant to dampen media coverage on the obvious question: what happened to the worst crisis of the modern Church? Has this most extraordinary pope confronted such a core issue?”
d. The pope admitted that some bishops failed to carry out their responsibilities and even acknowledged that some bishops themselves had been abusers. This was a welcome, refreshing and radical change from the past when the popes’ protected bishops at all cost and consistently deflected any attempts to highlight their own essential role in the abuse tragedy. The statement will lose any meaning unless it is followed up by action.

17. The pope’s opening remarks in his address in the Chapel of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary on Sunday, September 27, were about victims. These words in this first part of his discourse were the clearest, most perceptive and accurately descriptive of the sex abuse scandal ever spoken by any pope.

a. He shifted the focus from protection of children to the survivors of past and present sexual abuse. This was momentous because the bishops in the U.S. and elsewhere have attempted to shift the total focus from the Church’s obligation to help survivors to programs and protocols to protect children of the future. The dissonance between this concern and the neglect of those whose lives have already been deeply wounded or completely ruined is scandalous.

b. By referring to the survivors as “heralds of hope and ministers of mercy” the pope, possibly without realizing what he had said, acknowledged that it has been the victims and survivors who have been “the church” to each other. They have provided support, care and hope when the clergy either could not or would not.

c. By referring to survivors as “heralds of hope” he intentionally or unintentionally admitted and singled out the survivors as the force that has brought about recognition of the horror of sex abuse by clergy and the force that has brought about any accountability by the hierarchy. The survivors have changed the way the Church handles clergy abuse.

18. The pope said many of the words victims have been waiting to hear for decades. However they are tired of words because they have heard expressions of sympathy, sorrow, regret and apology from this pope, his predecessor and countless bishops for years. The overall impact of the pope’s visit for the victims of sexual abuse and for countless others who support them and with them yearn for a radical change in the hierarchy’s approach will be empty and another reason to lose hope in the institutional Church unless his words are followed by decisive actions.

19. The World Meeting of Families was accompanied by wild enthusiasm from its participants. However this meeting did not represent the reality of family life in the U.S. and in the world today. The agenda and speakers reflected a very conservative and wealthy minority segment of the U.S. Church. The agenda ignored models of the family that are a reality in the Church. This is a reality that is here to stay and not one that will drift out of existence because of the admonitions and even condemnations of those who wish to turn the clock back by decades if not centuries.

a. There was no room for single parent families due to divorce or for unmarried parents with children. The infertile were ignored as were families in which parents were not married “in the church.” Needless to say there was not acknowledgement of gay couples with children.

b. There was no acknowledgement of the countless families that have been destroyed by the sexual abuse of one or more members by Catholic clergy.

20. Finally, mention must be made of the pope’s meeting with Kim Davis. Ms. Davis is at the center of a media and legal storm because of her refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples in spite of court orders to do so and because of her tactic of altering marriage licenses causing serious doubt about the legality of the marriage not only of gay couples but of conventional couples as well. This meeting has resulted in a great deal of criticism of the pope and the Holy See.

a. The meeting has been interpreted by some to be the pope’s approval of disobedience of the law not just by any citizen but by an elected public official based on a personal objection to performing the duties of the office for religious reasons.

b. Some have questioned whether or not the pope even understood the extent and nature of the controversy and was manipulated by Vatican officials who oppose gay marriage.

c. The fact is that gay marriage has been approved by the U.S. Supreme Court. It is also approved by a significant number of Catholics.

Conclusion

The pope’s visit was counterproductive to his avowed desire to solve the problem of sexual abuse by clergy. His words must be followed by decisive actions, not more canonical changes or policy changes. Bishops throughout the U.S. are still refusing to disclose the identities of known perpetrators among their clergy. They are still punishing any victim who challenges them in the civil courts. Some are allowing confirmed abusers to remain in ministry and some are returning known abusers back to ministry.

The sentiment among many, probably most, survivors after the pope’s visit is that they will never receive effective assistance from the institutional Church. As one said to me two days ago, “We’re on our own. It’s obvious. If we want help for ourselves and security for our kids and grandkids, we have to make it happen. “