(RNS6-FEB24) Guest columnist David Clohessy is national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. See RNS-CLOHESSY-COLUMN, transmitted Feb. 24, 2004.

Clergy abuse victims are divided over Pope Francis' offer to meet

(RNS) Pope Francis’ announcement this week that he would meet with victims of sexual abuse by priests is dividing victim advocates, with some dismissing the move as “meaningless” and others endorsing it as a positive step, albeit taken belatedly and under pressure.

“A welcome and overdue change,” said Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org, a prominent activist pushing the Catholic Church to overhaul its policies and practices on clergy abuse.

“Good to hear Pope Francis speak out and meet survivors,” tweeted Marie Collins, an abuse victim whom Francis named to a Vatican commission to promote reforms, on hearing that the pope compared clergy abuse to a priest celebrating a black Mass.

But others said Francis' first-ever encounter with victims -- and his pledge for “zero tolerance” for abusive clerics of any rank -- was simply stagecraft aimed at distracting the public from what they say are the pope’s larger failures to address the abuse crisis.

(RNS6-FEB24) Guest columnist David Clohessy is national director of SNAP, the Survivors  Network of those Abused by Priests. See RNS-CLOHESSY-COLUMN, transmitted Feb. 24,  2004.

David Clohessy is national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Photo courtesy of David Clohessy

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“His upcoming and self-serving meeting with victims is more of what we've seen for decades -- more gestures, promises, symbolism and public relations,” Joelle Casteix of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said in a statement shortly after Francis announced the meeting during an in-flight press conference Monday night (May 26) on his return from a visit to the Holy Land.

Francis initially said that the meeting would take place in early June, but Vatican officials later said it's not clear when it will take place, though it is expected to happen in the next few months.

In an interview the day after Francis' announcement, SNAP’s David Clohessy reiterated his view that the meeting will actually hurt efforts to force the church to reform because it will be all window dressing.

“I would challenge anyone to point to a single tangible sign of progress that has emerged from any of these meetings,” Clohessy said, citing Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s various encounters with victims as well as other meetings between victims and church leaders.

Clohessy said he would not try to stop victims who might be invited by Rome from joining the meeting at the Vatican, but he said they should be prepared to feel betrayed by the church once again.

Bernie McDaid, the founder of Survivors Voice, seemed to echo that view. McDaid was one of four clergy abuse victims who met with Benedict in Washington in 2008; he called that meeting “weird” and this week told The Associated Press he thinks the meeting with Francis will be a “dog-and-pony show.”

“I believe it's always going to be church first, children second,” said McDaid, who has not been invited.

Are these contrasting responses simply differing tactics that can lead to the same end -- justice for victims and reforms in the church -- or do they represent deeper divisions that could undermine the cause just as it could be chalking up its biggest victories?

“We are not at all uncomfortable with being the voice that says, 'Slow down, think it through,'” Clohessy said. “No, I don’t think it’s a problem.”

But Thomas Doyle, a priest and canon lawyer who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the church’s record on abuse, said that while he understands the hesitancy of SNAP and many victims , he is “somewhat hopeful” that things are changing under Francis, even though Doyle harbors no illusions about the institutional church.

“It’s worth the risk” -- to meet church leaders such as the pope -- “because you never know when something is going to change,” said Doyle, who has counseled many victims.

“I’ve seen enough difference in the present pope to think that possibly he’s thinking for himself and will get beyond the other input he’s getting (from Vatican insiders) and will possibly do something constructive.”

But the ambivalence among victims themselves may be a big hurdle to pulling off a successful meeting.

When the Vatican approached Collins about joining a blue-ribbon panel that Francis set up in March to set an agenda for abuse reform, she agonized over whether to accept.

She emailed Doyle and asked if he would “think less of her” if she said yes and worried that she “would appear to be a traitor.” Doyle’s response: “Absolutely not. Do it!”

Collins said that after accepting the pope’s invitation, she received both support from fellow victims as well as criticism from those who see the commission as “a sham and my inclusion as part of a public relations stunt.”

In subsequent interviews and in a powerful column in The Irish Times, Collins defended her participation as a risk she could not avoid.

“If there is the slightest chance that this commission can bring in change within the church that will lead to children being better protected and survivors being better treated then I cannot turn my back on it,” Collins wrote.

Francis said he expected to meet with victims from Germany, Ireland and England. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston -- epicenter of the U.S. abuse crisis, which then opened the door to the global scandal -- is helping to organize the encounter, as he has done with past papal meetings.

But church sources say that if O’Malley cannot find victims from the U.S. to participate it could be viewed as a setback for the pope's efforts.



  1. — Meeting with victims is one thing, but he already knows what to do to protect kids today.

    Quoted by the pope: ” We must go ahead with zero tolerance”
    What is Pope Francis doing about the bishops and cardinals who do not follow the “zero tolerance” policy.? The pope’s grandiose promises and words do not protect kids.
    Tragically the sex abuse and cover up within the church hierarchy throughout the world is still going on to this day. Cardinals and bishops are still not removing accused predator clergy, and they are still not reporting to law enforcement. Their so called “zero tolerance” policy is not being followed by the bishops who created it. They don’t have to, because there is no punishment to force the bishops to change their ways of protecting their power and the institution rather than protecting innocent children.

    Everyday the pope delays in taking significant actions to demote, fire and discipline the high ranking church officials who continue to protect the child predators, another child is being sexually abused within the archaic system. And Pope Francis needs to immediately disclose the names and the reasons that he claims 3 bishops are being investigated.

    Delays and silence are not an option anymore. It only hurts, and by speaking up there is a chance for healing, exposing the truth, and therefore protecting others.
    Judy Jones, SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests,

  2. I respect the good work organizations like SNAP and people like Ms Jones are doing. That said, it is possible to be an advocate for survivors and not agree with her assessment of Pope Francis’ administration.

    Frankly, it’s not good for Roman Catholicism to have a top-down pope. That tends to absolve the middle management (ie bishops) of responsibility. We hear from the bishops: the CDF tied our hands; canon law prevents, the police didn’t pay attention. There are a few thousand Catholic bishops around the world. These are the people who have to put their training in moral theology, pastoral ministry, and human administration to work. There is no parent, God, Mary, or the pope who is going to do it for them.

    Once bishops start holing one another accountable: that’s when I think we’ll have made true progress.

    And let’s face it: Pope Francis meeting abuse survivors will be a significant symbolic moment. I think advocates would do better to keep the pressure on bishops. Pope Francis isn’t going to allow the outrage of advocates to sway him.

  3. One abuse survivor said that meeting with Pope Benedict was “weird”.
    David Gibson reports on that response. However, there are others:

    “Joseph Magro, 38, one of eight victims of clerical abuse who met with Pope Benedict XVI during his recent visit to Malta. Magro said the meeting “was truly a most beautiful gift, after all this suffering, we all cried, even the Pope.”

    In the interview published by the Italian daily Il Giornale, Magro, who proudly showed the rosary he was given by the Holy Father in Malta, shared details about his meeting with the Pope.

    “I did not have any faith in priests. Now, after this moving experience, I have hope again. You people in Italy have a saint. Do you realize that? You have a saint,” he said, referring to Pope Benedict XVI.

    Later, explaining his discussion with the Holy Father, Magro said, “When I told him my name was Joseph, the Pope’s eyes grew wide and he said, ‘Joseph, like me!’ Then I asked him: ‘Why did the priest do this to me, why did he abuse me?’ He replied that he prays for me and we then prayed together.”

    Magro said he could see that the Pope “felt great sorrow. I could see he was suffering with me. I didn’t want to make him suffer, I didn’t tell him about the abuse that I suffered, but he wept with me, even though he had no fault in what happened.”

  4. All organizations have elements of the self-serving, and that includes SNAP.
    All organizations hide the truth and cover things up, but this fact does not justify it. It is just human nature at its worst. Some organizations have just been more skilled than others at the deception.

  5. Mr. Flowerday:
    “Top-down” popes as you call them never existed, at least in this fashion, until now. The media is responsible for perhaps the most ultramontane papacies in the history of the Church. Everyone looks to the pope, and have been at least in this fashion, since John Paul II, who knew how to use the media.

    Technically every bishop is “pope” or “successor to Christ” in his diocese and the papacy is the symbol of unity and his role as supreme legislator is only to keep the churches unified.

    This is just altogether unfortunate that we now have an uber pope that was created not by Christ, the Scriptures, theology ancient, medieval, Renaissance, or modern, but the Protestant media, albeit unwittingly.

  6. I am not surprised these victims groups want nothing to do with the pope’s meeting.

    If they did, then it would be an acknowledgement that things are being recognized, addressed, and good, effective policies will follow or are already in place.

    IF this happens, Clohossey and Blaine and all the rest suddenly lose the meaning of their existence. They have pinned, it seems, their purpose and reason for living on this issue. Plus it garners them some publicity and social status. They will never be happy with ANY solution, or ANY action or policy because this would be tantamount to surrender, their lives no longer have meaning (or funding!).

    No big surprise.

  7. Go to the meeting on one condition!!!! The pope answers questions, and abuse vicitims get to speak equal time. he wants to pontificate to the vicitim of his kid screwing crew.

  8. I do hope the Church can bring some justice and balance here. Our world so needs the Church to be fully grounded in integrity.


  10. Criminal charges must be filed against the Vatican.
    The Pope must be included in the indictments. This is a grand coverup.
    No victims should go to see the Pope without bringing their lawyers.

    This is not a game. The Pope heads a criminal organization.
    And like many of the pedophiles themselves, the Pope is delusional and in denial about the severity of what they have done.

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