By John L. Allen Jr., NCR senior correspondent
Washington, D.C. -- In an unexpected and essentially unprecedented move, Pope Benedict XVI met quietly with five victims of clerical sexual abuse this afternoon at the Vatican’s embassy to the United States, located in Washington, D.C.
Listen to an interview with NCR senior corresponsent, John L. Allen, Jr.
Prior to this afternoon, no pope had ever met with victims of sexual abuse by priests. That omission has been oft-cited by critics of the church’s response to the crisis as an indication that Rome and the papacy are out of touch with American realities, or in denial about the magnitude of the problem.
All five victims who met with Pope Benedict today are from the Boston area, and sources told NCR that Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston played a role in arranging their encounter with Pope Benedict. In the end, however, those sources say, it was the pope’s choice to take the meeting.
At least some of the victims plan to make a public statement later this afternoon.
The Vatican has issued a statement saying that the meeting took place, and one of the victims who took part, confirmed the meeting for NCR shortly after it concluded.
Benedict is today is wrapping up the first leg of his six-day visit to the United States. He has repeatedly engaged the sexual abuse crisis during this trip, speaking about it for the first time before he even arrived.
“We are deeply ashamed, and we will do all that is possible that this cannot happen in the future,” the pope said in a session with reporters aboard the papal plane Tuesday en route to the United States.
Benedict argued that efforts to address the crisis have to unfold on three levels: the legal and juridical, the pastoral, and programs of prevention to ensure that future priests are “sound.” Pointedly, the pope said that “it’s more important to have good priests than to have many.”
In his address to the American bishops at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Wednesday evening, he returned to the theme. The pope devoted five full paragraphs to sexual abuse of children, referring to it as “evil” and a “sin.”
In perhaps the most dramatic phrase, the pope conceded, quoting Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. bishops, that the crisis was “sometimes very badly handled.”
The pope pledged the church to pursue healing and reconciliation with those “so seriously wronged.”
Again during his Mass Thursday morning at Washington’s Nationals Park, the pope offered strong language about the crisis.
“I acknowledge the pain which the church in America has experienced as a result of the sexual abuse of minors,” the pope said. “No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse.”
The pope went on to ask all American Catholics to “do what you can to foster healing and reconciliation, and to assist those who have been hurt.”
In tandem with his meeting this afternoon, these references suggest a broad desire on the part of the pope to signal to American Catholics that he “gets it” -- meaning that he grasps the depth and gravity of the crisis.
Observers often point out that as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was responsible for overseeing the church’s internal judicial process resulting from accusations of sexual abuse against a minor. In that role, the future pope read virtually all of the case files, arguably giving a more detailed “on paper” understanding of the crisis than most American bishops.
By most accounts, Benedict was deeply affected by that experience.
Whether today’s meeting, or Benedict’s repeated public references to the crisis, will ultimately satisfy victims remains to be seen. In an April 17 interview with CNN, David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said that the pope’s rhetoric would ring hollow until it was backed by action.
Specifically, Clohessy called for Benedict to extend the “zero tolerance” policy of the American bishops to the universal church, and for at least a couple of American bishops associated with the crisis to be fired.
Clohessy spoke before news of the pope’s meeting with the five Boston-area victims became public.
Despite the endurance of such question marks, the pope’s forceful language, coupled with today’s meeting, is likely to at least diminish impressions that the pope is “out of touch” with the American situation.
Expectations created by the pope’s language, some observers say, could also make it more difficult for church officials to resist pressure for transparency, including the full disclosure of relevant documents related to allegations of sexual abuse, in the future.
Editor’s Note: Listen to John Allen discuss this event with Tom Fox this evening in a podcast that will be posted to NCRonline.org.