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Sex-Abuse Victims Meet Quietly with Pontiff


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

In a dramatic development today, Pope Benedict XVI has met with victims of clergy sex abuse. The meeting took place this afternoon behind closed doors in Washington, D.C. It was not on the pope's official schedule. Survivors of clergy sex abuse had called on the pope to meet with them during his six-day U.S. visit.

NPR's Tovia Smith is with us now to tell us a little bit more. Tovia, what we do know about this meeting?

TOVIA SMITH: Well, we now know from the Vatican that the Pope has met with these survivors. He listened to them, and he prayed with them, is what they say. We know there were five of these survivors from the Boston area, some were in the meeting as survivors and as Catholics to meet with the Holy Father on a kind of pastoral level.

Others were in there just as survivors, to have the chance to confront the head of the church, which has often looked the other way and covered up for priests and let this abuse go on for years.

Some, I know, wanted the pope to hear their pain, just to listen to how their lives had been shattered. And they wanted to hold his feet to the fire, so to speak, to demand more reforms, more accountability. They want more lay involvement in the church, stricter punishment of bishops who covered up for pedophile priests, better enforcement of safety reforms.

But I know that for some survivors, the biggest thing this meeting really is about being heard after so many years of the church turning a deaf ear to be sitting face to face with the pope and getting to tell him about their suffering. They're hoping to make the church kind of get it in a way that people say the church hasn't got it before.

NORRIS: Survivors has - have been asking for such a meeting, demanding really this kind of meeting. Protesters on the streets had been asking, why don't you have time for us? Why did the Vatican keep this meeting secret? Was this a last-minute decision?

SMITH: Well, I can tell you what the Vatican has said. When they seem to be hinting a week ago that something might be in the works, they suggested that making any meetings with survivors public and making it a public spectacle - as you know it would have kind of immediately become - would, as one Vatican official put it, it would not be the best way to heal survivor's wounds.

And they say their primary goal is to help them heal from this very deep hurt. But I can also tell you that many survivors, who I spoke with, who heard that comment were incensed by it - first by the way, the church was kind of deciding for them what was best for their healing, and also on another level, because these are people who have felt brushed aside by the church for years.

And now, they said they would feel brushed aside or kind of shut out again. And also, as another survivor put it to me, it would be demeaning to have a meeting behind closed doors, because behind closed doors is where all the abuse happened.

This guy went on to say that, this would just be more of the secrecy and the sneakiness that got the church into trouble in the first place.

There's one other idea that folks thought that maybe publicizing this meeting would make the discussion bring the focus on to who is in, who is out, and so on and kind of shift the focus away from what was happening on the meeting.

NORRIS: This was a big decision for the pope to sit down with these survivors, these victims of the clergy sex abuse. Will this ultimately become part of his legacy?

SMITH: It must. I think that this is the first, as we know, papal visit to the U.S. since the sexual abuse scandal erupted.

Last time the pope was in the U.S., the U.S. was conspicuously absent from the pope's itinerary. But this time, Pope Benedict is here and he is holding this very dramatic meeting, what we believe to be the first in-person meeting between a pope and survivors of clergy sexual abuse.

NORRIS: Now, again, this meeting was behind closed doors. Just quickly before we say goodbye, Tovia, do we expect that we're going to hear beyond those closed doors what actually happened in that meeting?

SMITH: Obviously, the world waits to hear along with all the other survivors who want to know what did the pope say. But this is dramatic moment. It's an emotional moment for the folks who are in there. And my understanding is that these guys want to spend just a little bit of time to process what happened, to share with their families what happened, and they will be ready in the very near future to share what happened. So, stay tuned.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Tovia Smith. Thanks so much, Tovia.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.