Pope Francis To Meet With Victims Of Clerical Sex Abuse

The pontiff will meet with six survivors Monday. Correspondent Sylvia Poggioli tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer the pope has been criticized for being slow to address the issue of sex abuse by priests.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Tomorrow, Pope Francis will meet, for the first time, with survivors of clerical sex abuse. The meeting will be at his Vatican residence. His decision to meet with six European survivors comes after criticism that this pope has been slow to speak out on an issue that has severely damaged the credibility of the Catholic Church. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is with us now on the line from Rome. Sylvia, hello.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hello, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So this meeting with survivors is a private one. And I understand that the Vatican has not released any details about it. Do you know who's going to be there?

POGGIOLI: There'll be six people - two each from Britain, Germany and Ireland. The victims are in the 30's age bracket, which suggests their abuse occurred 15, 20 years - maybe more. They will attend a mass in the chapel in the pope's residence. And then they'll have an opportunity to give Pope Francis a first-hand account of their suffering. Each group will be accompanied by a member of the pope's commission on the protection of minors. One of the escorts will be Marie Collins, the Irish woman who was abused by a priest at the age of 13.

WERTHEIMER: Rachel Martin spoke with Marie Collins not very long ago on this program. Sylvia, the Vatican was criticized this year by two United Nations committees. What did the committees say?

POGGIOLI: Well, the U.N. committees on the rights of the child and against torture accused the Vatican of systematically following policies that allowed priests to rape and molest tens of thousands of children worldwide and blasted the practice of transferring suspects from one parish to another to cover up their crimes. In an interview, Pope Francis defended the church, saying it tackled the issue with the utmost transparency and responsibility.

But then in April, Francis asked forgiveness from victims of sex abuse and compared the crime to a satanic mass, and he vowed zero tolerance. And in a signal, you could say, of increased accountability inside the church, the Vatican announced just nine days ago that the Polish Archbishop, Jozef Wesolowski, accused of sex abuse while he was Vatican ambassador in the Dominican Republic, had been expelled from the priesthood. He was defrocked. He could now face a criminal trial and even prison if confirmed guilty. But the Vatican has yet to issue a blanket, worldwide order to all dioceses to report suspected cases of clerical sex abuse to civil authorities.

WERTHEIMER: Sylvia, what was Pope Francis's record on the issue of sex abuse before he was pope when he was Bishop of Buenos Aries?

POGGIOLI: Little was known in English-speaking world until the Boston-based group bishopaccountability.org recently published a report showing that when Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was president of the Argentine Bishops Conference, the future Pope Francis was silent on the issue. In the book he wrote together with his friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka, then-Cardinal Bergoglio says there were no cases in his diocese. And when a bishop called him for advice, he told him not to allow the suspect to exercise as a priest and to start a canonical trial. But according to this new report, Bergoglio was aware of at least four cases in Argentina. And his former spokesman says the cardinal declined to meet with the victims. The report says it would have been particularly appropriate for Argentine victims to be present at the meeting with the pope tomorrow.

WERTHEIMER: There also are not going to be any abuse survivors from the United States at that meeting. And that is, of course - the entire scandal first erupted here back in 2002.

POGGIOLI: Yeah. And that's also surprising because the person who heads the pope's commission on protection of minors is Cardinal Sean O'Malley, archbishop of Boston, who has worked hard to try to restore credibility to the archdiocese where the scandal first exploded. Now presumably, Cardinal O'Malley had a lot to do with selecting the participants in this meeting tomorrow. So the absence of American victims is striking.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reporting from Rome. Thank you very much, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Linda.

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