Pope to Meet with Abuse Victims in U.K.

Wall Street Journal
September 8, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI plans to meet with victims of clerical abuse during his visit to the U.K., according to a church group helping to arrange the session, but the Vatican faces criticism from victims' supporters about the secrecy surrounding such gatherings.

The first papal visit to the U.K. since 1982 comes amid a wave of sex-abuse allegations against the Catholic Church in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe. The matter has shed a spotlight on how the pope, in an earlier post in his native Germany, handled the case of a priest who was a sexual offender.

During his U.K. trip next week, Pope Benedict is expected to talk with as many as 10 individuals in a private meeting, said Bill Kilgallon, chairman of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission, which sets standards for preventing abuse and dealing with abuse allegations in the Catholic Church of England and Wales.

Mr. Kilgallon, who is helping arrange the meeting, declined to name the participants or give a location for the gathering. "For the individuals it's a private matter," he said, adding that an intimate setting allows both the victims and the pope to be candid.

Representatives of the Catholic Church in England and at the Vatican wouldn't confirm a meeting, but said that any that does take place would be conducted in private to protect the victims.

The pope's meetings with sex-abuse victims during recent trips, including to the U.S. and Australia, have at times helped defuse criticism that he is out of touch with the crisis. Some victims praised an April meeting in Malta and recounted how the pope's eyes welled with tears during their talk.

Other victims criticize the secrecy, saying it mirrors the church's refusal over decades to publicly acknowledge abuse cases. The church typically shuns victim-advocacy groups that have openly criticized the pope, these victims say. For the meetings, critics say, church officials hand-pick individual victims and ask them not to discuss the meeting publicly before allowing them to speak with the pope.

"Why can't we talk to the pope in public?," said Margaret Kennedy, of Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors in the U.K. A more-open encounter would be a public acknowledgment by the Vatican of the abuse, she said, and allow survivors to request measures that the church should take to address these issues.

Mr. Kilgallon said the safeguarding commission approached abuse victims whose cases had been investigated and sent to the authorities. He said those he expects to meet the pope represent a variety of experiences and backgrounds. The group doesn't include individuals now living in Ireland, a focus of attention on abusive clergy.

The Irish government last year released two reports detailing decades of widespread abuse in schools and other institutions. About 80% of Ireland's population is Catholic, compared with about 10% in Britain.

England also has seen cases of abuse. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, former head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, faced scrutiny for his decision in the mid-1980s, while in a previous post, to allow a priest accused of abuse to continue working. The priest was convicted on two occasions for sexual assaults on boys—in 1997 by a U.K. crown court and in 2002 by the central criminal court in London, receiving a five-year sentence on each occasion.

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor wasn't available to comment. He has apologized publicly and instigated reforms on how the church handles abuse allegations.

The pope in recent months has taken steps to address the matter, such as defrocking abusive priests, stepping up Vatican rules for reporting abuse, and accepting the resignation of bishops who decades ago failed to report abuse. The pope doesn't require church officials to report sex abuse to civil authorities.

Some victims remain frustrated. Bernie McDaid, of Boston, was among those who met privately with the pope during his U.S. visit in 2008, but now dismisses the gathering as a Vatican "PR move."

Mr. McDaid says he was contacted by church officials in Boston before the pope's visit and asked not to discuss the meeting with anyone until afterward. Mr. McDaid was flown to Washington and escorted by church officials to the Holy See's embassy for the meeting.

"I put my hand on (the pope's) heart and told him you have a cancer in your flock, and you need to do something about it. And he did nothing," Mr. McDaid said.

Another problem, victims say, is that many people are left out of the meetings. When the pope visited Australia in 2008, Anthony and Christine Foster, the parents of two girls who were abused by the same priest, requested a meeting. Their request riveted local media because one of their abused daughters had died from a drug overdose.

For days Vatican and church officials declined to comment on whether Pope Benedict planned to meet with victims in Australia. On the final day of his trip, the pope held a private meeting with four victims whose names weren't disclosed. The Fosters' surviving daughter wasn't among them. "They claim to feel the pain of victims, but they seem not to want to listen to the victims that have hurt the most," Mr. Foster said.

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