Francis did not receive Australian abuse survivors' request for meeting, says spokesman

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has not received a formal request for a meeting with Australian survivors of clergy sexual abuse while they are in Rome for a series of extraordinary government hearings with Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s chief spokesman said Friday.

Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi told reporters in a short briefing that both the Vatican’s Secretariat of State and one of the pope’s secretaries had told him they had not received any sort of request from Australian survivors.

About 15 survivors of clergy sexual abuse came to Rome from Australia this week to witness Pell, an Australian who serves as the head of the Vatican’s treasury, testify via video link Sunday-Wednesday to their country’s Royal Commission Into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse.

Several of the survivors told reporters that they had made a request for a meeting with the pope on Monday, asking that any encounter be held before Friday, when they were flying home. The survivors provided a copy of a handwritten note they said they had faxed to the Vatican’s Prefecture of the Papal Household.

While the papal household, led by Archbishop Georg Gänswein, is the Vatican office that normally helps set the pope’s calendar, Francis also has a number of private secretaries. Lombardi did not specify on Friday which of the secretaries had indicated there had been no receipt of a formal request from the Australians.

Pell, who served as the leader of two Australia archdioceses before becoming the head of Francis' new Secretariat for the Economy two years ago, testified to the Royal Commission via video link from Rome to Sydney for four nights this week.

The hearings were rather intense, with lawyers grilling the cardinal on his knowledge and responses to clergy sexual abuse in the 1970s and '80s -- first as a priest, then as an advisor to a bishop in southeastern Australia, and finally as a bishop himself.

During the last night of testimony, the cardinal admitted that when a schoolboy came to him in 1974 to say that a Catholic teacher was "misbehaving with boys" he did not report the matter to authorities.

Pictures of the letter the Australian survivors say they faxed the pope requesting a meeting have been published online.

"We would like to request a meeting to discuss a commitment to the children of the past and the children of the future to implement systems so this is never to be repeated," the survivors state in the handwritten note.

Following the final night of his testimony Wednesday, Pell met with some of the Australian survivors for several hours Thursday and made a statement to the press at the conclusion of the meeting.

In that statement, the cardinal said he would be "happy to assist with requests to meet Pope Francis, but has to rely on the officials responsible for considering those requests."

A member of Francis’ new Vatican Commission for the Protection of Minors, Jesuit Fr. Hans Zollner, also met some of the Australian survivors Thursday.

"Fr. Hans appreciated very much the victims’/survivors’ concerns and their proposals for preventative measures, and he will report back to the other members of the Pontifical Commission, so that all can learn from the victims’/survivors’ experience," said a statement from the commission.

Francis has had two public meetings dedicated to survivors since his March 2013 election to the papacy, once in Rome and once during his visit last September to the United States.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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