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April 23, 2008
Column #1,391
Pope Benedict XVI Addresses Sex Scandal
by Mike McManus

WASHINGTON - Pope Benedict XVI deeply touched American Catholics on his first papal visit to the United States and moved many Protestants as well.

At Nationals Park, a baseball field converted into an open air cathedral I asked Mary Ellen, why she and her grown daughter arose at 3 a.m in Wilmington, Del. to drive to the Mass.   "It was the opportunity of a lifetime," she exulted.

Anticipating heavy security, with electronic detectors and searches of every bag, people arrived two hours early, but were entertained by a 400 voice choir and orchestra projected on a huge screen. The joy of the crowd erupted when the "popemobile" made a slow circle around the field, with everyone waving yellow and white papal flags, shouting "We love you! Viva Papa!"

Judy Parejko traveled from Wisconsin to be "with more than 40,000 members of my family. We couldn't control ourselves. Whenever he gestured, we responded with a roar of joy.
Being there was like a taste of the divine - being with so many others praising God and celebrating Mass together - the ultimate love feast."

Benedict had one central goal - to frontally address and help heal the church's major psychic wound stemming from the scandal of 5,000 priests having molested at least 12,000 children. More than $2 billion has been paid to victims. Five dioceses declared bankruptcy - San Diego, Tucson, Spokane, Portland, OR, Davenport, IA. With an acute shortage of priests,  1,000 churches have closed even though America's largest denomination has grown to 67.5 million.

The Pope began to focus on the scandal as flew to America, telling reporters on the plane,  "I am deeply ashamed, and we will do what is possible so this cannot happen again in the future."

In his homily at Nationals Park, Benedict asserted, "No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse. It is important that those who have suffered be given loving and pastoral attention." He made similar comments at four other public events.

However,  his most important gesture was a privat, unannounced meeting with a half dozen victims selected by Cardinal Sean O'Malley, Archbishop of Boston.  No cameras were present. However, three of the victims told CNN how awed they were by the experience.

Olan Horne traveled to Rome in 2003 hoping to meet with the Pope. However, no abuse survivors had ever met with the Pope until last week.  Therefore Horne saw the encounter with Benedict as "a very, very important step. We were very lucky to have what was an unscripted, free-flowing, unfiltered access.  No one told us what to say. He apologized. I did not think I needed an apology, but there was a great sense of hope. A new bell had been rung."

Faith Johnston, 25, who was molested by a priest when she was 14 years old, a man now in prison, burst into tears, unable to speak. The Pope congratulated her on her upcoming wedding and prayed for her and for her future family.

Bernie McDaid told him of being molested as an altar boy three decades ago, saying "It was not just sexual abuse, but spiritual abuse."  He looked the Pope in the eye, adding, "You have a cancer growing in your ministry," which he felt needed a substantial reform. To his surprise, after not attending church for decades, he went to Nationals Park and was "blown away" by the Pope's sermon, and was moved to tears.

He added, "This is the end of the beginning, a new start. There is real hope there will be action following this meeting."

What sort of action? Cardinal William Levada said the church was considering changes in canon law on how to govern such cases. For example the statute of limitations might be changed that has prevented some victim complaints from being considered, because the abused often "don't feel personally able to come forward" for decades.

David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, reacted, "Talk is good. Meeting victims is better. But genuine reform is what's desperately needed.  Only 6 percent of the world's Catholics are in the U.S.  The other 94 percent are much more vulnerable to abuse. They have less sophisticated law enforcement.

"The Pope established a worldwide policy on saying the Latin Mass, but there is no worldwide Catholic Church policy on abuse prevention. Bishops who covered up sex crimes should be disciplined. If even one were removed it would send shock waves, sparking accountability that now never happens."

However, the Pope took important initial steps in speaking out on the issue, meeting victims, and pledging additional action.

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