Pope meets with Boston victims of priestly sexual abuse

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI held an unscheduled meeting with victims of priestly sexual abuse, shortly after pledging the Church’s continued efforts to help heal the wounds caused by such acts.

The Vatican said the pope met privately in a chapel at the apostolic nunciature with “a small group of persons who were sexually abused by members of the clergy.” The group was accompanied by Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley.

“They prayed with the Holy Father, who afterward listened to their personal accounts and offered them words of encouragement and hope,” a Vatican statement said.

“His Holiness assured them of his prayers for their intentions, for their families and for all victims of sexual abuse,” it said.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican press spokesman, told journalists the meeting involved victims from the Archdiocese of Boston and lasted about 25 minutes. During the encounter, each of the five victims had a chance to speak personally to the pope, who spoke some “very affectionate words,” he said.

Father Lombardi said it was a very emotional meeting; some were in tears.

“It’s what I’ve wanted since 2003,” said Bernie McDaid of the papal meeting, “and now I finally got it.” He was one of numerous youngsters abused in the 1960s and ‘70s by then-Father Joseph Birmingham, who has since been laicized.

Faith Johnston, 23, who as a young teen was abused over several months by a Colombian priest inside her parish’s rectory, told CNN of the papal meeting, “I had my mother’s rosary beads, which she gave to me before I left home, and I was clutching those and praying for the strength to say the right thing.”

Johnston added, “I didn’t end up saying anything (to Pope Benedict). I got up to him and I burst into tears. But honestly, I don’t think any words I could have said ... my tears alone -- it just spoke so much.”

Olan Horne, abused by Birmingham after he was transferred from McDaid’s parish to his own, told CNN April 17 that one thing he, McDaid and Johnston had to do during the meeting “was to allow the Holy Father to be the Holy Father. And I think there was a great balance between that and him hearing us.

“I’ve been hopeful; I’ve been hopeful for eight years. I have struggled in my spirituality. But hope has been my faith, and my hope was restored today. From what I heard, and I believe we received a promise today, and I believe not only myself but a lot of people received a promise today,” he said, adding that he believed Pope Benedict spoke sincerely and addressed the issue at the Mass at Nationals Park.

McDaid told CNN: “Today’s (papal) Mass did something. I don’t go to Mass, but today I went with my mother, and his sermon there and his apology about the sexual abuse blew me away, and I had tears in my eyes that I wasn’t expecting to have. It was an incredible moment for me.”

Johnston said Pope Benedict “congratulated me on my upcoming wedding, and he said he would pray for me and my future husband and for our future family.”

Horne told CNN the meeting with the pope “was unscripted, it was free-flowing. There was no filter to it whatsoever. We had unfiltered access. Nobody told us we couldn’t say what we want. And everybody in that room did say exactly what they wanted to say,” and that Pope Benedict was “forthright” in his responses to their questions.

At the end of the meeting with the victims, Cardinal O’Malley gave the pope a book listing the first names of the approximately 1,000 victims of sexual abuse in the archdiocese within the last several decades, Father Lombardi said, so the pope could remember them in his prayers.

Recalling that moment, Father John Connolly, Special Assistant to Cardinal O’Malley and who was present at the meeting, told reporters at a press conference in Boston April 19 that when the pope accepted the book, which was elaborately lettered and decorated by a local artist, he did not pass it off to an assistant, which is the routine practice of bishops. Instead, the pope drew it to himself. “I could hear a short intake a breath as he realized what he was holding.”

“He told me afterwards how much meant to him to have this experience,” Father Connolly said.

“The meeting was moving and prayerful,” Cardinal O’Malley told reporters at the press conference.

The Holy Father sincerely wanted to know the pain that the victims had suffered, he said. “He acted as a pastor to those who have been hurt.”

The cardinal stressed that as time moves on he hoped that advocates for the protection of children will see him and the Church as being on the same side in the fight. “

When a reporter asked if he intended to follow the example of the pope and meet with victims, the cardinal replied: “I have met with hundreds of victims on an ongoing basis and will continue to do so.”

The cardinal also said the meeting with the pope and the victims has helped lift the burden from the priests. “So many priests have led selfless lives of sacrifice. To be tainted by this has been very painful.”

Pilot correspondent Neil W. McCabe contributed to this story