Why Pope Francis's Comments On Clergy Sex Abuse Upset Survivors

They ask why Francis would praise U.S. bishops for a supposed "generous commitment to bring healing to victims."

Pope Francis praised U.S. Catholic bishops for their response to the clergy sex abuse crisis Wednesday during an address in Washington -- comments that victims called “insulting” and “hurtful.”

The pope applauded what he said was bishops’ "generous commitment to bring healing to victims." And he praised them for courage in facing “difficult moments in the recent history of the church in this country without fear of self-criticism and at the cost of mortification and great sacrifice.”

John Salveson, a Philadelphia business owner who was victimized by clergy sex abuse, said he found the pope’s commentsbizarre.”

“First of all, he’s characterizing the bishops’ response as generous,” Salveson told The Huffington Post. “They have treated victims for decades like adversaries. It’s just been horrible. I don’t know how you could ever characterize them as generous.”

Barbara Blaine, of Chicago, president of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, released a statement decrying the years of clergy abuse that the church tolerated. By praising bishops, Blaine said in the statement, Francis revealed his own reluctance to take decisive action.

“His remarks today confirm what we’ve long said and suspected: this pope, like his predecessors, is doing and will do little if anything to bring real reform to this continuing crisis,” Blaine said. “Those who care about kids must focus on secular authorities, not church figures (however popular they may be).”

Dennis Coday, an editor for National Catholic Register, criticized the pontiff for dancing around the issue without offering specifics.

“At the very least he could have used the words ‘clergy sexual abuse of minors,’” Coday wrote in an National Catholic Register opinion piece. “This oblique reference will do nothing to assuage the fears of victims’ advocates who believe Francis is more public relations manager than crisis manager when it comes to sexual abuse.”

Allegations of sex abuse in the church have been pervasive for decades, but few priests have been convicted and sentenced to jail. The abuse crisis erupted in 2002, The Associated Press noted, with a high-profile case of one pedophile priest in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Roman Catholic priest John Geoghan listens to Judge Sandra Hamlin at Middlesex Superior Court in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 21 February, 2002. Geoghan was sentenced to 10 years in jail for having sexually abused a 10-year-old boy in 1991.
Roman Catholic priest John Geoghan listens to Judge Sandra Hamlin at Middlesex Superior Court in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 21 February, 2002. Geoghan was sentenced to 10 years in jail for having sexually abused a 10-year-old boy in 1991.
TOM LANDERS via Getty Images

The Boston scandal revealed that abuser priests were allowed to remain in ministry positions without parents or police knowing, and persuaded thousands of people across the country to come forward with abuse claims. The allegations prompted grand jury investigations in several states and compelled bishops to survey how American dioceses had dealt with perpetrators and victims going back decades.

The U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops acknowledged in 1992 that some bishops had attempted to cover up abuse. Under enormous public pressure, the bishops conference pledged in 2002 to oust any guilty clergy from church work and to enact safeguards for children.

Pope Francis announced plans in June for a tribunal to hear allegations that bishops failed to properly handle sex abuse cases. But there are no signs the tribunal will begin operating anytime soon. This year, three bishops resigned in crises over their failures to protect children.

One major impediment to change, said Salveson, is the statute of limitations in criminal laws that allows abusers to escape justice years after their crimes.

“It usually takes decades for people to come to terms with this, and by that time there’s no legal remedy,” Salveson said.

The U.S. Catholic church has actively fought against reforming the statute of limitations in several states, which undermines the work survivors and advocates have done to shift the status quo.

“If [the church] supported those reforms, I predict they would breeze through in every state where they supported it,” Salveson said.

Salveson, 59, said he was sexually abused for several years starting at age of 13 by his parish priest in Long Island, New York. In 1980, long after the abuse had ended, he wrote a letter to the diocese outlining what had happened to him and suggesting that the presiding bishop remove the priest from the parish. It took nine years for that to happen.

Salveson said he isn’t optimistic the church will “straighten up and fly right.”

Despite his frustration, Salveson said he’s heard rumors Pope Francis will meet with survivors during his six-day visit to the U.S. Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput hinted at the same during an August conference of religion journalists. He noted that such meetings are never publicized ahead of time.

If the pope does meet with survivors of clergy abuse, Salveson said he hopes the pope will see the human side of an issue that other church leaders have handled as “risk management.”

“I would hope that actually spending time with a survivor would open his eyes that this is more than managing risk,” Salveson said. “It’s the church’s moral obligation.”

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