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For Victims, Strong Words Were Not Enough

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page A36

During his long reign, Pope John Paul II apologized to Muslims for the Crusades, to Jews for anti-Semitism, to Orthodox Christians for the sacking of Constantinople, to Italians for the Vatican's associations with the Mafia and to scientists for the persecution of Galileo.

He apologized so often, in fact, that an Italian journalist compiled a book of more than 90 papal statements of contrition.

April 2002: Reading a message to American cardinals after summoning them to the Vatican to discuss clergy sexual abuse. "There is no place in the priesthood or in religious life for those who would harm the young," the pope declared. Victims argue that he should have done much more. (Arturo Mari -- AP)

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Yet victims' groups say the pope never apologized adequately for the most shocking behavior that came to light on his watch: sexual abuse of children by priests and the church's attempts to hush it up. To some alleged victims, that is a puzzling omission and a deep stain on his legacy.

"I would hate to see all the good works this pope has done over his lifetime be overshadowed by this scandal. But that's what may happen," said Gary M. Bergeron, of Lowell, Mass., who says he was molested in the 1970s by the Rev. Joseph Birmingham, a now-deceased priest accused of abusing more than a dozen altar boys.

John Paul's defenders contend that sexual misconduct by priests is a worldwide problem that began before he became pope in 1978. They say once it was uncovered, he reacted decisively. Summoning America's cardinals to the Vatican in April 2002, he declared that "there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young."

Those words became the basis for the "zero tolerance" policy adopted two months later by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Over the following year, hundreds of priests resigned, retired or were suspended as the bishops pledged to remove any clergyman who had ever abused a minor.

But victims' advocates argue that John Paul could have done more and hope his successor will set a new tone, beginning with a straightforward apology to victims.

Bergeron and other Boston-area survivors of clergy abuse traveled to Rome in 2003 to try to persuade the pope to meet with victims, issue an apology and condemn coverups. The small delegation included Bergeron's father, Joseph, who said that he, too, was abused as an altar boy but kept silent until he discovered many years later that the same thing had happened to two of his sons.

For five days that March, the Bergerons literally knocked on Vatican doors. Eventually they saw an official from the papal secretary of state's office. John Paul never met with them or any other known victims.

Still churchgoing Catholics, the Bergerons have said they believe the pope was kept in the dark by his aides. "It's almost like a movie star complex where they don't let them read the bad press," Gary Bergeron said.

Others are more harsh in their judgments.

"I would say there's a significant amount of responsibility in the lap of the papacy for the sexual abuse crisis, not only in the United States but around the world," said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a former Air Force chaplain who has counseled many victims and advised them on lawsuits against the church. "Given that the Vatican insists on hierarchical authority and micromanagement, I think they have to take responsibility."

As a young canon lawyer in the mid-1980s, Doyle worked at the Vatican's embassy in Washington during the first major sexual abuse scandal in the U.S. church, which centered on a Louisiana priest, Gilbert Gauthe.

"Reports went over there, detailed reports," Doyle said. "I can tell you for certain that it reached the Vatican early in 1985, because I was working at the Vatican Embassy and I know that communications about the Gauthe case were sent to the Vatican -- and they were seen by the pope."

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