Pontiff Prays With Sex Abuse Victims

Pope Benedict XVI told a massive crowd in Washington that 'great efforts' have been made to deal honestly and fairly with the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic church. Video by AP
By Jacqueline L. Salmon, Michelle Boorstein and Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 18, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI talked and prayed with a small group of victims of clergy sex abuse yesterday, the first publicly known meeting between a pontiff and victims since the most recent scandal erupted in Boston six years ago.

The 25-minute meeting at the Vatican Embassy put an intensely personal focus on a subject that has become an important part of the pope's Washington visit. It came after a morning Mass that Benedict celebrated for about 45,000 people at Nationals Park, the new baseball stadium in Washington.

Later, he met with interfaith leaders and Catholic educators, telling the latter not to stray from the mission of the church. The pope's visit to the nation's capital ends this morning, when he flies to New York. There he will meet with United Nations officials.

The Mass was the third time in as many days that the pope addressed the sex abuse issue, telling the silent crowd: "No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse. . . . Nor can I adequately describe the damage that has occurred within the community of the Church."

A few hours later, the pope met with at least five abuse victims, all middle-aged men and women from Boston. Benedict requested the meeting, said Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the Boston archbishop, who was present during the gathering.

"It was very positive -- healing, I think -- and very prayerful," O'Malley said, describing some of the victims as being in tears. "It was a moving experience." The meeting was not announced in advance, and the names of the victims were not made public.

Each of the victims had a brief private conversation with the pope. Afterward, O'Malley gave Benedict a list of more than 1,000 people victimized over the years in the Boston archdiocese and asked the pope to pray for them.

National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" quoted Bernie McDaid, a victim who attended the meeting, as having told Benedict: "Holy Father, I want you to know you have a cancer in your flock and you need to correct that, and I hope you do. You need to do more."

Gary M. Bergeron, 45, a sex abuse victim from Boston who was not included in the meeting, welcomed it. "This is the first time in seven years that the leader of the Catholic Church has come out saying the behavior of the past is not acceptable anymore," he said.

Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, never met with sex abuse victims. Bergeron and a small group of Boston area victims flew to Rome in March 2003 in an effort to see John Paul II. They knocked on doors for five days and eventually met with an official from the Vatican secretary of state's office. But they failed in their effort to talk with the pope.

Since 1950, more than 5,000 U.S. priests have been accused of abusing about 12,000 children, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The church has spent about $2 billion on legal claims.

While Benedict was planning his trip, some U.S. cardinals urged him to include a meeting with victims, according to Bishop Gregory M. Aymond of Austin, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse. Other parties had urged him to visit Boston, the epicenter of the scandal.

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