Pope Benedict XVI prayed with tearful victims of clergy sex abuse in a chapel, in an extraordinary gesture from a pontiff who has made atoning for the great shame of the US church the cornerstone of his first papal trip to America.
Benedict’s third day in the US began yesterday with a packed open-air Mass celebrated in 10 languages at a baseball stadium, and included a speech to Roman Catholic college and university presidents.
But the real drama happened privately, in the chapel of the papal embassy between events.
The Rev Federico Lombardi, a papal spokesman, said that Benedict and Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley met a group of five or six clergy sex abuse victims for about 25 minutes, offering them encouragement and hope.
The group from O’Malley’s archdiocese were all adults, men and women, who had been molested when they were minors. Each spoke privately with the Pope.
“They prayed together. Also, each of them had their own individual time with the Holy Father,” Mr Lombardi said. “Some were in tears.”
Bernie McDaid, one of the victims, said in an interview with CNN that he told the Pope he was an altar boy when he was abused and “it wasn’t just sexual abuse, it was spiritual abuse. And I want you to know that. And then I told him that he has a cancer growing in his ministry, and needs to do something about it. And I hope he hears me ... and he nodded”.
Mr McDaid and two other victims said in the interview that the meeting was candid and emotional.
Well over 4,000 priests have been accused of molesting minors in the US since 1950. The church has paid out more than £1 billion, much of it in just the last six years, after the case of a serial molester in Boston gained national attention and inspired many victims to step forward. Six dioceses have been forced into bankruptcy because of abuse costs.
Expected to address the problem only once during his six-day trip – at a Mass with priests in New York City tomorrow – Benedict has instead returned to the issue repeatedly, beginning in a news conference on the flight from Rome to the US.
He has called the crisis a cause of “deep shame,” pledged to keep pedophiles out of the priesthood and decried the “enormous pain” that communities have suffered from such “gravely immoral behaviour” by priests.
On Wednesday, he told bishops the problem has sometimes been very “badly handled” and said it was their God-given duty to heal the wounds caused by abuse.
He asked each parishioner at Mass yesterday “to do what you can to foster healing and reconciliation, and to assist those who have been hurt”.
But yesterday’s afternoon’s session went a step further. Mr Lombardi said it was believed to be the first-ever such session between a pope and abuse victims.
Gary Bergeron, 45, an outspoken abuse survivor from Boston who was not in the meeting, failed in his attempt to meet Pope John Paul II, Benedict’s predecessor, when he spent a week at the Vatican a few years ago.
He called yesterday’s meeting “a long-sought-for step in the right direction”.
Some victims had called on Benedict to travel to Boston since it has been the epicentre of the problem. Instead, Cardinal O’Malley presented the Pope with a notebook listing the names of victims of sexual abuse from the Boston Archdiocese. There were more than 1,000 names, Mr Lombardi said.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests called the meeting “a positive first step on a very long road”.
The session came just hours after the Pope celebrated the first public Mass of his US pilgrimage.
More than 45,000 people filled Washington’s Nationals Park as the Pope led the service from an altar erected in centrefield.
In his homily, Benedict called the US a land of opportunity and hope but decried that the nation’s promise has been left unfulfilled for some.
He said he detected anger and alienation, increasing violence and a “growing forgetfulness of God”.
“Americans have always been a people of hope,” the pontiff said. “Your ancestors came to this country with the experience of finding new freedom and opportunity.
“To be sure, this promise was not experienced by all the inhabitants of this land; one thinks of the injustices endured by the native American peoples and by those brought here forcibly from Africa as slaves.”
The Pope also met Jewish and Muslim leaders, along with leaders of other faiths, and affirmed the church’s commitment to interreligious dialogue.