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THE PAPAL VISIT

For local victims, too little, too late

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Anna Badkhen
Globe Staff / April 16, 2008

Despite the most extensive and ardent papal condemnation of sexual abuse by Catholic priests since the scandal rocked the church six years ago, victims across Massachusetts angrily lashed out at Pope Benedict XVI's words yesterday, saying they rang hollow and false.

Benedict's assertion that he is "deeply ashamed" of the legacy of clergy abuse was, on one hand, a deeper acknowledgment of the victims' suffering than anything yet offered by the Catholic hierarchy.

But after years of official denials by the church and policies that seemed to put the fates of offending priests above those they preyed upon, victims in Massachusetts largely viewed Benedict's words as too little, too late, and chafed at what they said is a systemic failure by the church to take more substantive action.

"These words don't mean anything," said David Carney, a Dedham native who said he was abused by a priest when he was 15. "If you want to fix a problem, do something about it."

Allegations of sexual abuse and the church's sheltering of accused priests reverberated across the country and triggered hundreds of lawsuits from victims, ultimately costing the church more than $2 billion - at least $150 million of that in the Archdiocese of Boston, the epicenter of the scandal. Revelations of widespread abuse, resulted in charges being filed against Massachusetts priests, including the Rev. John J. Geoghan, and forced the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who was criticized for failing to remove accused priests from ministry.

But the Vatican's responses, in the eyes of some victims, have remained largely insufficient, falling short of a full acknowledgement of the damage caused to individual victims of abuse and to the larger community of faithful whose beliefs in the church had been deeply shaken.

Benedict's pledge yesterday to "do all that is possible" to eradicate sexual abuse by clergy did not satisfy some Massachusetts victims who saw in some of the pope's words a continued focus on the reputation of the church instead of on the abused.

"I went public with my abuse back in December of 1992," said Phil Saviano, founder of the New England chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests who said he was raped by a priest when he was 12. "And here it is, 2008, and we have the head of the Catholic Church who is still apologizing, still promising to make reforms, still promising to get on top of the issue."

Benedict called abuse by priests "a great suffering for the church in the United States and for the church in general and for me personally."

"Did he mention the fact that this was a lot more painful for the children than it was for the church? I'm insulted," said Susan Renehan, a single mother from Southbridge who said she was repeatedly molested by a priest when she was in the seventh and eighth grades.

"That's the problem with the church: They are so self-absorbed in their holiness that they forget that there were actual children that were tortured and raped and then let go," she said.

Maryetta Dussourd, who said her three children and four nephews were abused by Geoghan in the 1970s, called the pope's remarks "hollow."

"It almost sounds like the church was the victim, but it's about our innocent babies," said Dussourd.

The victims said the Catholic Church has to do more than issue monetary settlements to people who have been molested by priests. They said the church should set up and finance special facilities where victims can go for therapy. Some victims also said the church must re-examine core policies such as the requirement that priests be celibate.

Many said they had hoped the pope would travel to Boston to personally address victims, an invitation repeatedly extended by Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley but declined by Benedict.

"He should be ashamed that he is not meeting with survivors and talking with us," said Robert Costello of Norwood, who said he was molested as a boy, referring to Benedict's comment that he was "deeply ashamed" of sexual abuse by priests.

Several victims gathered for an emotional news conference in downtown Boston yesterday to comment on the pope's remarks. The event was organized by Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who represents dozens of people who say they were abused by Catholic priests.

"I'm not asking this man to walk in my shoes. I'm asking him to walk next to me," said Gary Bergeron of Salem, N.H., who said that he, his brother, and father were abused sexually by priests. Bergeron called the Pope's decision to bypass Boston "an opportunity missed."

Anne Barrett Doyle, a cofounder or BishopAccountability.org, a Massachusetts group that tracks suspected sexual abuse by priests, said Benedict's comments indicated that "he had no intention to come here to clean house."

The pope "glossed over the culpability of the bishops . . . who knowingly allowed children to be put in harm's way, transferred abusers from one parish to another, did not turn in abusers to the police," said Doyle. "What I fear that this signifies is that he will once again fail to point blame to bishops who supervised the abusers, who knowingly kept child abusers in ministry."

Before he became pope, former cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was responsible at the Vatican for deciding whether to discipline priests accused of sexual abuse. But he has said or done little in public about the abuse issue until yesterday.

Anna Badkhen can be reached at abadkhen@globe.com.

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