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Victims of abuse recall meeting with pope

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Olan Horne, 48, a survivor of clerical sex abuse, believes that Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States marks a turning point in the way victims of sexual abuse are treated in the Catholic Church.

"I saw it in his face, heard his voice. He understands," said Horne, one of six survivors who met Thursday with the pope. Horne spoke with the St. Louis Beacon from his Massachusetts university food service office.

Benedict brought the shameful issue up last week at three masses at Washington Nationals and Yankees baseball stadiums and at St. Patrick's Cathedral, at a New York seminary campus and at a news conference aboard his plane, Shepherd One. He also discussed the issue with the bishops in Washington.

"Benedict told the bishops to meet with survivors as he had; this pope gets it," said Horne. "I like to say that I'm from Missouri and you are going to have to Show Me. Benedict showed me."

Horne has no connection with Missouri, but for years he has embraced the state motto as his own. Horne repeatedly has demanded that the Catholic Church "show me" how it has taken the issue of sex abuse of minors seriously in a public way.

"I never gave up, I always had hope. I didn't have much faith, but I always had hope," said Horne, who has not attended Mass in years and baptized his children but never took them to church or allowed them to make their First Communion.

Bernie McDaid, 52, is another Boston survivor; he is a painting contractor in Boston. He tried to tell his story to Pope John Paul II in 2003. He traveled to Rome but saw only Vatican officials, he told the Beacon from a Boston construction site. This time was different.

The meeting with the pope

About two weeks before the papal visit, Horne and McDaid were invited to meet the pope privately with other survivors in Washington, D.C., at the residence of Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican's diplomat to the United States.

The six survivors of childhood sex abuse who accepted the invitation also were invited to the papal Mass at the new Nationals stadium before the gathering. Afterward they were whisked in a van under police escort to the meeting. Those who didn't know the other victims were introduced only by first name.

The pope entered the 25-by-15 foot chapel at the archbishop's residence and immediately knelt in silent prayer. Then he spoke to the survivors for what Horne recalled was about 20 minutes. Then, each of the six had a private visit with the pope.

A woman on the Boston archdiocesan victims' assistance staff handed the pope a book with 1,600 first names written on its pages. Cardinal Sean O'Malley explained to Pope Benedict that the list was of all victims of clerical sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese who had asked its bishops for pastoral care. Pages were left blank to symbolize those victims who had never voiced their tragic complaints, O'Malley explained.

"The pope was shocked at the number," Horne said. "You could see the sincerity of the shock on his face. Benedict had never known that there was that many in Boston. He was stunned. So was the Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Pietro Sambi. That was a moment. They do have a tough role."

O'Malley asked the pope to pray for the victims listed in the book, and the pope promised to do so.

The pope may know more about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church than most American bishops. In his previous post leading the Congregation for the Faith, he reviewed all the cases of bishops' removing abusive priests. After late 2002, American cases fell into his in-basket like a torrent.

The pope spoke for about 20 minutes, asking forgiveness and speaking of his personal shame over the depraved priests who crushed the innocence of children, Horne and McDaid said.

The most dramatic moment of the gathering came when the only woman victim's turn came for her private time with Benedict, Horne said. With all the others' heads turned to give her privacy, she stood facing the standing pope. She wept as words escaped her.

"Her sounds were filled with sorrow, like an aria," said Horne. "So sorrowful, yet the sweetest sound, as if it were being exhaled. There was complete reverence around the room. No one interrupted. No one said anything like 'it's going to be all right.' Her sobs floated around the room, settled around all of us in the room. Then it was expelled. You saw the pain in Benedict's face."

Tears came to many eyes in the room, Horne said.

Horne's story: Meeting the pope with an open heart

Horne surprised himself at what he said to the pope after years of calling for meetings between popes and survivors.

Since he became an adult, he has rarely gone to Mass. A couple of hours before the visit, Horne went with his college-age daughter to the Papal Mass at Nationals Stadium.

"At that Mass, I realized that I hadn't given my daughter faith, but I could give my daughter something," he said. "I could show her never to give up. There was the head of the whole Catholic Church. And in an hour he was prepared to meet with me and other survivors. I had never given up hope that things might change. Given up faith sometimes, but never given up hope."

Ten minutes before the pope arrived, Horne asked a priest to hear his sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, popularly called confession. Catholics believe that in this sacrament Jesus directly provides the grace of healing and forgiveness.

When Horne faced the pope, he found himself telling the pope about his spontaneous preparation.

"I told him that I had not gone to confession in 35 years, but I went 10 minutes before I met him to ask forgiveness because I had hated him for years, I hated the church, I hated my God. I told him I wanted forgiveness so that I could be in the same place that he was when I met him. So I could have an open heart."

Pain fractured the pope's face like a man standing before a jury, Horne said, but as he finished Benedict smiled and grabbed Horne's hand.

Horne asked the pope to work to protect all children. "For a long time I have said that the church can show the world how to deal with this, how to protect children from abuse. The pope, the head of the whole church, has spoken out."

As long ago as 2002, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, then the bishop of Belleville and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, tried to address the scandal. Under Gregory, the conference commissioned studies of sex abuse of minors and hired academics and law enforcement experts to design and monitor diocesan-wide child protection programs. Some of the programs have been used by non-Catholic groups.

"I think the pope is ready to lead on this issue; I have been saying that for years," Horne said.

McDaid's story: A heartfelt thanks

McDaid rehearsed for days about what he might say to the pope. Then, he put most ideas aside and simply said that as an altar boy of 11, a priest had sexually abused him in the sacristy of his parish church.

"In the place where I prayed, I was sexually abused," he said. The abuse was not just of his body but of his spirit because it came from someone the boy saw as a spiritual authority. McDaid told the pope that, at that moment, he lost his belief system and his respect for all authority, including his parents. For years he fought depression, addictions as well as his parents' wishes.

"The pope looked very sad, he looked me eye to eye, looked down at the floor, looked at me and held my hand, didn't let it go," McDaid said. "I saw his body language, his eyes, heard the sadness in his German (accented) English. I didn't have to say, did you get it?"

McDaid feels a sense of accomplishment that Benedict has listened to their stories. McDaid only regrets that such a meeting had not happened years earlier. Instead of opposing each other, bishops, lay Catholics, priests and victims must now begin to work together, McDaid said.

"We have to work collectively to help those who have been abused and to protect children from this treacherous abuse that steals your spirituality."

McDaid was so bursting with appreciation that he got a message to the pope on his plane just before takeoff.

McDaid's message said simply: "Thank you from my heart and soul."

His mother, 81, is jubilant that after years of turmoil and mistrust, her son has been comforted by the pope.

Other survivors are still angry

Not all were impressed by Benedict's efforts for survivors. David Clohessy of St. Louis, a spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told the Beacon he didn't expect that the survivors meeting with the pope "would change anything." Some survivors have criticized the group of six for meeting with the pope.

Horne understands their frustration. "Two-thirds of the bishops (holding office in 2002) were protecting priests."

Horne holds some bishops in high esteem for their leadership, including Minneapolis Archbishop Harry Flynn. However, admonitions by Flynn and Gregory and programs of the National Conference of Bishops can be sloughed off by indifferent bishops.

"I have had a lot of face time with bishops," he said. "I used to think bishops were like owners of a doughnut franchise, they all put purple sprinkles on for Lent and green on St. Patrick's day. I learned that is not true. If they don't want to do something, if they don't understand sex abuse, other bishops can't make them. ... They report only and directly to the pope and his departments."

Now that Benedict has spoken to them and now that Sambi's antennae are on alert, change must come, Horne said.

"The pope gets it," Horne said.

Patricia Rice of St. Louis is a freelance writer who has written widely on religion.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.