God works in mysterious ways, so I have my doubts that it was pure coincidence that the Pope visited Philadelphia exactly ten years after the release of the landmark 2005 Grand Jury Report on Sexual Abuse in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. I was there in 2005 next to pioneering District Attorney Lynne Abraham as we introduced this massive, detailed document of decades of abuse and cover up by Cardinals Krol and Bevilacqua and others.
It is the only document of its kind in the United States and did more to educate the public about Catholic abuse and cover up than all of the bishops’ statements on the issue combined.
Of course, Pope Francis did not mention the report this weekend and neither did Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, but it was not necessary, because the report has left its mark: It is impossible in Philadelphia for anyone to hear about clergy sex abuse and not know that the cover up was real and the pain deep.
An Early Tactical Error by Pope Francis
On his first day in the United States, the Pope made a large tactical error by congratulating American bishops for their “generous commitment to bring healing to victims . . . and to work to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated.”
For those of us in the trenches on child sex abuse, this was intolerable; no one has labored more mightily to block victims’ access to justice than the bishops. (Just ask the state legislators in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.) He sounded out of touch and as though he had drunk a large cup of the bishops’ Kool-Aid on these issues.
A Second Tactical Error, Meeting With Victims Only in Secret
The Vatican and some bishops dropped hints that Francis would be meeting with victims while in Philadelphia, but the survivor community had no inkling of who or when that would occur. Early on Sunday morning, before he delivered an address to the bishops at St. Charles Borremeo Seminary, apparently he did have such a meeting—in secret. At first, everyone assumed it was a meeting only with clergy survivors, but, no, we are told that it was a meeting with victims of parents, teachers, and clergy. No names were released. Indeed the silence is so deafening that many assume that they must have had to sign a non-disclosure agreement as a prerequisite to such a meeting.
This was a colossal error in my view, because victims, particularly in Philadelphia, need to be brought out of the dark and treated like the victims of crime they are. By meeting with them in secret, the Pope perpetuated the antiquated and wrongheaded way we used to deal with rape survivors. They need not whisper their suffering; rather, they deserve our acclamation and affirmation. They also deserve justice.
Imagine what Francis could have accomplished by sending out a call to all victims of child sex abuse and their families to join him in a large public gathering in the sunlight. He could have showered the victims with his loving attention, much the same way he does so naturally with the needy and the disabled. It would have set an extraordinary example for American bishops who have devoted so much time to alienating victims in court and the state legislatures.
Just think what survivors might have thought had they heard a Pope say the following to them in public:
For those who were abused by a member of the clergy, I am deeply sorry for the times when you or your family spoke out, to report the abuse, but you were not heard or believed. Please know that the Holy Father hears you and believes you. I deeply regret that some bishops failed in their responsibility to protect children. It is very disturbing to know that in some cases bishops even were abusers. I pledge to you that we will follow the path of truth wherever it may lead. Clergy and bishops will be held accountable when they abuse or fail to protect children.
Instead, these are part of prepared remarks issued by the Vatican after the secret meeting. They lose some of their force and sincerity after the fact.
Finally, Pope Francis, Moved by the Victims, Gets It Right When He Speaks Off the Cuff
The meeting clearly affected him, though, as he began his remarks to the bishops at the seminary by delivering clearly heartfelt reproof for the abuse of children by clergy (and anyone else). In addition to saying the oft-quoted, “God weeps,” he said that “the crimes and sin of sexual abuse of children can no longer remain secret” and that he “committed the close vigilance of the church to protect the children, and I promise that all responsible will be held accountable.” For those in the abuse community, whether abused, family or friend, or advocate, this charge of no more secrets was finally a moment of balm they deserved.
His spontaneous comments continued on the plane home when he “strongly condemned priests who molested children as ‘sacrilegious’ and publicly acknowledged that bishops had covered up abuse cases. ‘When a priest abuses, it is very grave because the vocation of the priest is to make that boy, that girl grow toward the love of God.’ Francis said. ‘For this reason, the church is strong on this, and one must not cover these things up. Those who covered this up are guilty. Even some bishops who covered this up.’”
More balm for the soul of victims!
Of course, on these issues, the devil is in the details.
From Secrecy to Sunlight for Survivors: Statute of Limitations Reform Now
The Philadelphia grand jury reports from 2005 and 2011 challenged all Philadelphians to think about the safety of children. A groundswell has grown in favor of learning the identities of the hidden predators, and it has become common knowledge that the only tried and true route to unveiling hidden predators is to eliminate and revive the child sex abuse statutes of limitations. Among other recommendations, the 2005 Grand Jury Report recommended that Pennsylvania enact a “window” that would revive expired statutes of limitations for child sex abuse.
Over the last ten years, that has not happened, because the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference—i.e., Pennsylvania bishops now led by Archbishop Chaput—have lobbied with hammer and tongs against victims’ access to justice. Indeed, the deepest irony of the Pope’s entire visit was that he met with family, teacher, and clergy victims, presumably to make the point to the public that there is abuse beyond their priests. Instead, it was a reminder that the bishops’ relentless, self-interested lobbying against victims’ access to justice has hurt incest and other victims, too.
Yet, Archbishop Chaput has now said: “We’ve gone out of our way to explore in the past in response to the grand juries,” he said. “I think the people responsible for the grand jury reports would acknowledge our response as being very positive and thorough. The fact that people want more – what is the more they want that we haven’t done?” He added: “We might fail sometimes. But in terms of sincerity and commitment, we are doing all that can reasonably be done.”
Actually, Chaput has been nothing but unreasonable in Harrisburg, hiring not just one but two lobbyists to keep the victims from justice. He also spent millions in Philadelphia “investigating” accused priests and controlling the public’s access to information about the pedophiles in their midst, all the while keeping victims and courts from revealing the full story.
It is now time for everyone else to be reasonable. If the bishops cannot bring themselves to back the victims’ rights to justice, it’s time legislators stake out the high ground. Since the Catholic cover-up story broke in 2002, they have done so in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Minnesota, among many others.
Now is the time to follow, as Jesus said, “the way, the truth and the life” in order, in Pope Francis’s words, to “bring healing to victims . . . and . . . to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated.” What is the way? By reviving the civil SOLs, and eliminating the civil and criminal SOLs going forward.