WASHINGTON – Pope Benedict XVI talked and prayed with a small group of victims of clergy sex abuse Thursday, the first publicly known meeting between a pontiff and victims since the most recent scandal erupted in Boston six years ago.
The 25-minute meeting at the Vatican Embassy put an intensely personal focus on the subject that has become an important part of the pope’s Washington visit. It followed a morning Mass that Benedict celebrated for about 45,000 people at Nationals Park, the new baseball stadium in Washington. The pope’s visit to the nation’s capital ends this morning, when he flies to New York.
The Mass was the third time in as many days that the pope addressed the sex abuse issue, telling the silent crowd: “No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse. … Nor can I adequately describe the damage that has occurred within the community of the church.”
A few hours later, the pope met with at least five abuse victims, all middle-age men and women from Boston. Benedict requested the meeting, said Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the Boston archbishop, who was present during the gathering.
“It was very positive, healing I think, and very prayerful,” O’Malley said, describing some of the victims as being in tears. “It was a moving experience.” The meeting was not announced in advance, and the names of the victims were not made public.
Each of the victims had a brief private conversation with the pope. Afterward, O’Malley gave Benedict a list of more than 1,000 people victimized over the years in the Boston archdiocese and asked the pope to pray for them.
David Clohessy, national director of the 8,000-member Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called the meeting “a positive first step, especially if real change results.” Clohessy, who said his group was not consulted about the meeting, remarked that “talk can lead to action, or talk can lead to complacency.” He called on the Vatican to demonstrate “clear public consequences for bishops who ignore or conceal child sex crimes.”
While Benedict was planning his trip to the United States, some U.S. cardinals urged him to include a meeting with victims, according to Bishop Gregory Aymond, of Austin, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse. Other parties had urged him to visit Boston, the epicenter of the scandal.
At the stadium, on a towering gold and white stage dominated by a 14-foot crucifix, the 81-year-old pontiff preached a message intended to buoy his wandering American flock while acknowledging the pain suffered by some of the more vulnerable members of American society. He spoke of the “injustices endured by the Native American peoples and by those brought here forcibly from Africa as slaves.”
Yet “hope, hope for the future, is very much a part of the American character,” he said.
At the Mass, a glowing Angela Clare Davis, 43, an office manager from Charlestown, W.Va., said, “I can die now.” She won a ticket to the Mass in a church raffle. “This is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me,” she said. “I am going to receive the Eucharist consecrated by the Holy Father’s hands.”
Papal experts have said Benedict does not like stadium Masses as he prefers to worship in a liturgically sacred space whenever possible. Nationals Park, however, had been turned into a hybrid ballfield-sanctuary. The service took place across the outfield, with the towering stage in center field.