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Pope's Meeting with Abused Disturbs Some Victims

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Pope's Meeting with Abused Disturbs Some Victims

Pope's Meeting with Abused Disturbs Some Victims

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Pope Benedict's visit to the United States includes appearances before massive crowds. He celebrated Mass in a ballpark in Washington yesterday, and he's going to do it again at Yankee Stadium, but one of his most significant meetings included just a small group of people.

They were survivors in the sexual abuse scandals that have devastated the Catholic church. NPR's Tovia Smith spoke with a few of them.

TOVIA SMITH: Forty years ago, kids like Olan Horn and Bernie McDaid couldn't get their own local parishes to listen to their stories about clergy sexual abuse. Yesterday, they got to tell them to the pope, and Horn says they got to hear the pope apologize.

Mr. OLAN HORN: For eight years, I've been asking to hear the words from the top and from no one else, and we heard them today. And we heard them face to face, without a filter, without a proxy. It wasn't symbolic. It was from him to me.

SMITH: Horn says the meeting included tears, prayers and powerful emotions all around. He says Pope Benedict listened intently as survivors described the devastation from clergy sexual abuse and how the pain still haunts them today.

At 48, Horn is a large and commanding presence, but he brought the pope photos of what he calls his innocence lost.

Mr. HORN: I presented him with some pictures of me as a child, and I explained to him that I wanted him to keep them with him, and I wanted him to understand that when he was making decisions, or when he had a policy or choice to make to take them out and put them on the desk.

I've carried those pictures with myself, and I never knew. I've had them since I've been eight years old, that's 40 years ago, and they're the only two I've ever separated from myself. That was a true gift from me to him, and he accepted them graciously.

SMITH: The men say they also gave the pope a big book with nothing inside but the names of children abused by priests. The last page was blank, as Horn puts it, to represent all those victims we'll never know.

McDaid says he thinks the pope did get a new understanding of the enormity and the extent of the problem.

Mr. BERNIE McDAID: I looked at him, and he looked at me, and I said: I was not only sexually abused, I was spiritually abused, and I want you to know that. And then I said something to the effect of: Holy Father, I want you to know you have a cancer in your flock, and you need to correct that, and I hope you do. You need to do more. And he acknowledged me with a nod, looked straight at me and thanked me.

SMITH: McDaid and Horn say they pressed the pope on what they say has been the church's inadequate response to clergy abuse. Horn says the pope didn't offer any specific commitments, but he did seem especially open to their insistence that he punish bishops who covered up for pedophile priests.

Mr. HORN: We were forthright about that there's a problem with some of the bishops, and it's destructive, and he acknowledged it, and he nodded his head, and I think it was just an extraordinary moment. He acknowledged, outwardly, that his intention is to make the responsibility upon his bishops to follow his prerogatives and that that promise was to us, and that there seemed to be the-buck-stops-here mentality, which we've never had before. There's always been a level of plausible deniability in all that's been done.

SMITH: Horn and McDaid were chosen to attend the secret meeting by the Boston Archdiocese. Both left the Catholic church a long time ago, but as advocates for survivors and church reforms, they've earned the trust of church officials as voices of moderation.

Many other survivors, who only learned about the meeting after the fact, were outraged that the pope would meet with such a small, hand-picked group. They see the meeting as little more than a well-orchestrated PR move by the pope.

Ms. SUSAN RENEHAN(ph): They basically used the survivors to their own ends once again, and yeah, it does make me angry.

SMITH: Fifty-nine-year-old Susan Renehan says she was abused by her parish priest in New Jersey until she was 14. She says the church has disappointed survivors with inaction so many times before, it's hard to keep hearing new promises.

Ms. RENEHAN: At the same time that they're saying these very nice words, I don't think anything's going to change. I - oh, God, I wish he'd go back to Rome.

SMITH: Also not quite convinced is Anne Hagen Webb, head of the group As she puts it: if the pope really wants to make a believer out of me, he could start by removing one of the bishops who enabled the abuse, not just by talking to some of the survivors.

Ms. ANNE HAGEN WEB ( Really what's so remarkable about today's visit is that we all are making such a fuss over it. Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, has known that hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands of children have been abused in the American church, and he is only now meeting with survivors? I think we have set the bar way too low for our church leaders, and I think we need to be calm and detached and a little bit skeptical.

Mr. HORN: I'm not going to be conned with a man in a collar. I guarantee you, my (censored) is pretty good on that one.

SMITH: Olan Horn says he is convinced yesterday's meeting does signal a genuine change within the church. He says he went into the meeting wary of being used as a pawn, but he left convinced of the pope's sincerity.

Mr. HORN: I know platitude. I've been served platters of it. This was not platitude. I left there with a promise, and I can guarantee you that I will hold this man's feet to the fire on the promise that he left me with today. And so will others. I'm not the only one.

SMITH: Horn says he understands the skepticism. He knows it well. But having lived for so many years with anger and despair, he's choosing - for now, anyway - to hold onto hope.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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