Is Pope Signaling Change in Abuse Policy?

In his first visit to the U.S., Pope Benedict XVI has addressed the issue of clergy sex abuse several times – including holding a surprise meeting with some victims of abuse in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.

Canonical law expert Nicholas Cafardi says he sees signs that the pope may be weighing changes to church law that will make it easier to deal with the abuse problem.

"Right now, the United States has a canon law that does deal effectively with the problem," Cafardi says. "But we have to realize that this is not a problem which is unique to the American priesthood. This is a problem that has had repercussions across the Catholic world in many other countries."

Cafardi says penalties for dismissing priests who abuse children have existed for more than a thousand years.

"The problem is that that particular part of the law was not followed," he says. One reason why, Cafardi says, is because the system requires sufficient proofs of guilt and a trial to protect the rights of the accused. "That canonical system was seen by many bishops, and those advising them, as too complicated to use," he says.

Clergy Abuse Victims Meet with Pope

Bernie McDaid and Olan Horne i i

hide captionBernie McDaid and Olan Horne

Marisa Penaloza/NPR
Bernie McDaid and Olan Horne

Bernie McDaid and Olan Horne

Marisa Penaloza/NPR

On Thursday, a handful of clergy abuse victims met with Pope Benedict XVI in Washington, D.C., and shared their painful stories.

Two of the victims — 52-year-old Bernie McDaid and 48-year-old Olan Horne — say they've been trying to get the church's ear for nearly 40 years.

They first came forward as boys, reporting their abuse by a parish priest. A few years ago an utterly frustrated McDaid made a trip to Rome to try to talk to Pope John Paul II. On Thursday, Pope Benedict finally heard his story.

"It was like something I've been waiting over seven years for," McDaid says. "It was a moment I wasn't ready for."

McDaid recounted his story of suffering — how his life was shattered and devastated by the abuse and how big the problem was — and says the pope thanked him.

Horne says that apology seemed more meaningful than any others he'd heard, calling it a "moment of hope."

A burly and commanding man, Horne is the first to tell you he doesn't quite look the victim, but he went to the meeting with the pope armed with photos. He says he wanted Benedict to see the "innocence lost" and the devastation the clergy abuse has caused him.

"He accepted them graciously," he says.

According to Horne, the pope committed to doing more to staunch the sex abuse scandal, including holding the bishops accountable, but he didn't reveal any specifics. Still, they left the meeting convinced.

"I left there with a promise [to] hold feet to the fire," Horne says.

The men got the invitation from the Vatican through the Boston Archdiocese. They have both left the Catholic Church, but as vocal advocates for abuse survivors, they have gained the trust of Boston church officials as moderate voices for reform.

"We do not come to destroy the church and take it down brick by brick," said Horne. "We are trying to open the windows, and let the sunlight in."

Horne concedes it's optimistic. But even though he's given up religion, he said he still has faith.

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