At SNAP conference, debate emerges about what Pope Francis will do

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke addresses the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests conference Aug. 2 in Chicago. Burke emphasized the importance of discipleship in abuse advocates' ongoing efforts to achieve justice for survivors of sexual abuse. (NCR photo/Brian Roewe)

Chicago — Pope Francis wasn’t present at the annual Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests conference, but on its second day his name created a running subplot to the ongoing survey of the group’s accomplishments in its first 25 years.

Barbara Blaine, SNAP founder and president, pushed back Saturday when she took the podium against earlier speakers who suggested Francis represented a change from previous popes. Change maybe in other areas, she said, but not on addressing clergy sexual abuse of minors.

“Most of us in SNAP are not optimistic about Pope Francis,” Blaine said in the opening to her speech. “He’s made real progress on church governance, he’s made real progress on church finances, but he has paid lip service to children’s safety.”

“We want to give Francis the benefit of the doubt but doing so does a disservice to children. Children need our skepticism; not our complacency. And children need papal action, real prevention steps; not apologies and promises,” she said.

Blaine went on to recap major moments of the scandal during SNAP’s existence -- from the 2002 Boston Globe reports and the adoption of the Dallas charter, to grand jury reports out of Philadelphia in 2005 and 2011, to the recent hearings of the Vatican before the United Nations -- pausing at each to relay her expectations of significant change to follow, but reported that none ever did.

“I beg anyone who can show me that there’s been significant change, please do. Tell me how the children are safer,” she said.

At various points Saturday, speakers and conference attendees extended criticism to the media for exalting Francis to rock-star status and not challenging or probing his record on abuse.

Earlier in the day, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, one of the original members to the lay-led National Review Board, said she looks at Francis “with cautious optimism” largely stemming from him emulating Vatican II principles. Still, she remains “anxious to see more action, particularly regarding the sex abuse scandal.”

Burke acknowledged Francis’ July meeting with abuse survivors at the Vatican, and his apology and promises to hold bishops accountable.

“Certainly, this was a nice gesture; it will remain to be seen however whether that is all it was – a nice gesture,” she said.

Burke devoted much of her time to discussing truth and discipleship – what she called “the essential armor of Catholic life” – and urged the audience to remain vigilant in protecting children, regardless of what emerges from Rome and church leadership.

Author and Pulitzer-prize winner Garry Wells reflected Jason Berry from the previous night in believing Francis “is so far proving to be different,” citing as evidence U.S. bishops who have abandoned large mansions and who have mirrored the pontiff's outreach to immigrants.

[Related: "SNAP conference opens by looking back, looking ahead"]

He said the pope’s tone won’t become noticeable at the diocesan level until he appoints a new wave of bishops, which will take time. Additionally, the uniqueness that Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, is alive and living in the Vatican also places the current pontiff “in a very ticklish spot,” Wills said.  

“I don’t think we can just give the pope indefinite slack to catch up; on the other hand, we do have to realize ... no other pope has had his predecessor living, and not only living but living next door. It’s very hard to do something that would be a direct insult to him,” he said.

But a more critical lens of Francis re-emerged in the day’s final panel, delivered by Anne Barrett Doyle and Terence McKiernan of

Barrett Doyle recapped research their organization has done in translating hundreds of court documents and news reports from Argentina about Francis’ record on abuse as cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires. She said the documents show that the at-the-time Jorge Mario Bergoglio, “stayed almost totally silent on [the abuse] issue.”

A review of archived homilies and statements from Bergoglio on the Buenos Aires archdiocesan website showed he discussed government corruption and income inequality but remained quiet on clergy sexual abuse, and said he never handled a case of an abusive priest.

Barrett Doyle also announced the website will launch a database of accused priests in the Philippines before the pope’s scheduled January trip.

Jennifer Haselberger -- the former canonical chancellor for the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese whose document disclosure has given spurred that area’s current abuse scandal -- in her speech, opened and closed to standing ovations, opted not to focus on her experiences in that role.

Rather, she offered a possible solution to bringing about accountability and transparency in the Catholic church. Haselberger suggested the truth and reconciliation commissions that emerged in South Africa following the end of apartheid as one model what would take a victims-centric approach and force acknowledgement of the acts and systemic failures in an attempt to restore the dignity of those harmed.  

She based her proposal on Francis’ request during the meeting with abuse survivors that the church make reparations for the committed crimes.

“If it is our goal as a community of faith to demonstrate accountability for the crimes of sexual abuse by our clergy, as the Pope’s request to victims suggests, then we should not rely on either canonical processes or civil or criminal processes to guide us. Instead, we should look for a process that has acknowledgment, healing and reconciliation as it primary objectives,” she told the audience.

Other sessions Saturday provided updates from SNAP chapters and abuse victims’ advocates outside the U.S. The audience heard the latest on the royal commission in Australia, which has reached its midway point. Speakers from Poland and Chile described the real threats they and other survivors face in speaking out against the church in nations where it maintains great authority in the public sphere.

As the conference began its final day Sunday, SNAP presented inaugural Pioneer Awards to three attorneys  -- Steve Rubino, Larry Drivon and Jeff Anderson – and journalist Berry.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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