Local Catholics bring home lessons from Pope’s visit; critics call for more action

St. Louis Public Radio


As St. Louisans who traveled to see Pope Francis during his U.S. visit in Philadelphia last weekend return home, some said they were “awestruck” by an experience they described as “thrilling.”

But not everyone was pleased with the Pontiff’s words, particularly around the issue of clergy sex abuse.

For many who took the journey, being among the millions of faithful and other observers was a highlight of the trip. De Smet Jesuit High School theology teacher Tim Wilmes said the Pope’s joy was “infectious” among the crowd at the World Meeting of Families.

“Saturday was a really emotional day for all of us, the perfect culmination of him expressing that joy back, talking about how important families are and that sense of community,” he said. “It was so nice because we had felt that on Thursday and Friday.”

Junior Michael Arens said going to the conference on families was important to him because he had hoped to pray for his family, and in particular, an aunt who recently had surgery, in the Pontiff’s presence. He not only felt his faith deepened by seeing the Pope, but also from the speakers at the conference, who challenged him to express love and mercy in his everyday life. …

Other observers took issue with some of the comments the Pope did make. Von Stamwitz said the Pontiff made a misstep in his comments early in his U.S. visit in which he praised American bishops for their “courage” in dealing with the clergy sex abuse scandal.

Von Stamwitz said the Pontiff later added lines “at the last minute” to a later speech in “which he spoke more forcefully to the ugliness of the abuse that’s happened.”

“He seemed very genuine when he said, ‘My heart breaks and weeps when I think of what has happened,’ and he specifically said this has been allowed to happen by prelates, priests and bishops,” she said. “I think he corrected himself there, and I like that about this pope. I think he makes some mistakes but he’s willing to learn, willing to listen and willing to change and speak more forcibly when he’s made a mistake or omitted to say something important.”

But for others, that correction was not enough. Father James Connell, a retired priest from Milwaukee who is part of the Catholic Whistleblowers group that advocates for victims and reform in the Church, said the Pope’s initial words were very upsetting.

“It was surprising to me that he would speak that way,” Connell said. “It was as if he had no understanding at all of the extent to which the bishops have been part of the problem, the way they have not dealt with removing abusive priests, not warning about abusive priests, the whole history that’s been there for years, and it was just oblivious to it.”

That said, Connell praised Pope Francis for his later comments and his meeting with victims. But Connell said he needs to see more action.

“Words have been said before by a lot of church leaders and the actions have been more limited,” he said. He said while the Pope established a Vatican tribunal to hear cases of bishops accused of covering up cases of abuse, it has not yet been set up. He also added that his group has submitted two cases against former St. Louis archbishops Cardinals Justin Rigali and Raymond Burke to the tribunal, but has not yet gotten a response.

“So this Pope has spoken strongly about a tribunal to hold bishops accountable; we’ve responded to what the Pope has brought forward,” Connell said. “This is the direction he’s going, but now he needs to do it. He needs to actually put that together, he needs to announce how it’s operating, and cases need to be sent to the attention of that group and we need to see some real action. So we’re still short on action and that needs to be done, and maybe we’re headed that way, we can hope and pray.”

That call to action was seconded by St. Louisan David Clohessy, who is the director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). He said the Pope erred in referring to the clergy sex abuse scandal as a “past tense problem” and “missed a real opportunity to prod American bishops to do more or in fact to mandate that they do more.”

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