By Sr. Mary Ann Walsh
Reports on Pope Benedict’s September 16-19 visit to England and Scotland and his meeting with victims of sexual abuse by clerics recalled the similar meeting that took place in Washington when the pope visited the United States in 2008. Cardinal Séan O’Malley of Boston was at that meeting, as he recounts in the just released book, Benedict XVI: Essays and Reflections on His Papacy. (Full disclosure: I’m the editor.)
Here in Cardinal O’Malley’s own words:
Prior to Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States in 2008, much discussion took place about whether or not the Holy Father would address the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Once the Pope arrived, his words and actions made clear that he would not avoid this painful reality. In the midst of Pope Benedict’s second day in Washington, two of my colleagues from the Archdiocese of Boston and five survivors of clergy sexual abuse gathered in the chapel at the Vatican embassy for what turned out to be an historic and pivotal meeting with the Pope. We spoke with the Holy Father about the impact of the abuse crisis, and heard his message of hope and reconciliation. For many Catholics in the United States, and members of the wider community, this meeting was the high point of the Papal Visit and one of the Holy Father’s most important actions.
During our very prayerful and emotional encounter with the Holy Father, we were blessed with an extraordinary opportunity to witness Pope Benedict not only as the leader of our Church, but as our pastor. The Holy Father took care to address each person individually and provided the survivors the time to speak freely.
It was evident that at times they shared their painful experiences in a whisper. The Holy Father listened intently, often clasping the survivors’ hands, and responded tenderly and reassuringly. One of the survivors, unable to find words, conveyed her heartache through tears that spoke volumes with her ‘sounds of sorrow.’ Though we would not hear the Pope’s private conversation with the woman, by observing her moving from tears to a calmed, smiling expression, we knew that the Pope had gently comforted her. Later that day, she shared with us that the Holy Father had offered his congratulations on learning that she would soon be married. In doing so, the Holy Father helped her to experience a healing moment and to see a future that would hold the promise of renewed hope and joy.”
Similar meetings have occurred since then and reveal the pastoral side of the pope who has taken strong steps to address the terrible human sin that has blighted the Catholic Church and been strongly condemned by him. The crime touches him deeply, as he indicated to reporters flying with him to the United States: “I am deeply ashamed and we will do what is possible so this cannot happen again in the future.” He went on to say that, “It is a great suffering for the Church in the United States and for the church in general and for me personally that this could happen . . . It is difficult for me to understand how it was possible that priests betray in this way their mission . . . to these children.
Pope Benedict has enough staff to deal with painful and troublesome matters. That he chooses to become so personally involved in addressing this crisis speaks loudly of his caring, commitment, and leadership.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh is Director of Media Relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. She is a member of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and an award-winning writer who has edited books on Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI and has been published in numerous publications, including America, USA Today, Washington Post, and Editor & Publisher. Her latest book, Benedict XVI: Essays and Reflections on His Papacy (Sheed & Ward), has recently been released.