For Abuse Victims, Mixed Emotions on Pope's Visit

By John Salveson
Philadelphia Inquirer
July 17, 2015

I’ve been struggling for months with how to personally deal with this fall’s visit by Pope Francis for the World Meeting of Families.

I would like to share in the excitement — but I am deeply conflicted.

On one hand, I am a proud Philadelphian and active member of the region’s business and civic community who thinks the visit is good for the region. It signals once again that our city is growing in prestige and recognition as a world-class community. I’m confident we will shine brightly in the eyes of the world come September.

On the other hand, I am frustrated and angry. I was sexually abused as a child by a Roman Catholic priest. For 35 years, I have worked to help bring justice to child sex-abuse victims. In doing so, I have encountered the most relentless, heartless resistance to reform from the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church. With every story I read about the World Meeting of Families, all I can think of is the breathtaking hypocrisy of it all.

I believe many of the Catholic faithful are either tired of hearing about the clergy sex-abuse crisis or simply believe it has been corrected. I empathize with them. No one is more tired of talking about it than I am. And no one wishes it was fixed more than I do. But the reality is that the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic clergy — and the Church’s ongoing protection of its predators — is a global, decades-long, human-rights catastrophe. Consider this statement issued last year by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child about the Roman Catholic Church:

“The committee is gravely concerned that the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by, and the impunity of, the perpetrators.”

There are signs that Pope Francis recognizes he has a responsibility to deal with this problem differently than his predecessors. He has formed the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to advise him regarding clergy child-sex abuse. The commission includes two survivors of child sex abuse. The pope also recently accepted a recommendation by the commission that he establish a tribunal to judge bishops accused of covering up or failing to act in cases of child sexual abuse by priests.

I want to believe these actions will mean something. But if there is one thing I have learned in my dealings with the Roman Catholic Church on this issue it is this: The devil is always in the details. One must pay attention to what they do, not what they say.

So how can I personally deal with the visit and all the ensuing celebrations and acclaim? I don’t want to leave the region for the pope’s visit, and I don’t want to carry signs of protest on the Parkway during his Mass. What I want is for the people who participate in this joyous event to recognize that they exist in a community that includes a countless number of profoundly damaged clergy sex-abuse survivors. I want them to understand that there is a continued, urgent need to make fundamental changes to the ways the Roman Catholic Church protects its children and holds its leaders accountable.

There are many things I would like the Church to do to right the wrongs it has committed. Advocating to reform archaic statute of limitations laws, removing bishops who shielded predators, and revealing the identities of perpetrators who have been laicized would be a good start. But for the World Meeting of Families I have only two requests.

First, how about putting the issue of childhood sex abuse on the agenda for discussion and exploration? I can think of nothing that tears a family apart more than abuse, and the World Meeting of Families is the perfect setting for a comprehensive, compassionate discussion of this problem.

My second request is that Pope Francis, Archbishop Charles Chaput, and all meeting participants wear a black ribbon on their clothing to acknowledge the thousands of survivors who have never received the justice and support they deserve.

Why black? Because of the darkness that infects the souls of survivors. Because black defines the absence of light — light that must be shined on the abominable behavior of child predators and their protectors. And because black is the color of mourning — we mourn the survivors who have died by their own hand, or through their uncontrolled self-destructive behavior and despair when the church they loved refused to help them.

These two actions would demonstrate that the Church — leaders and people — recognizes it has a fundamental moral obligation to repair the damage it has done to the world’s children and their families. And it would tell the survivors that this pope, who holds such promise and generates such hope, has not forgotten them even as he basks in the warmth of the City of Brotherly Love.

John Salveson is president of the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse (








Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.