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Defining moment for pope, victims, O'Malley

Historic meeting with Benedict was hatched in secrecy

Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley had repeatedly exhorted the pope to come to Boston in recognition of the archdiocese's close association with the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley had repeatedly exhorted the pope to come to Boston in recognition of the archdiocese's close association with the clergy sexual abuse crisis. (Justine Hunt/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / April 19, 2008

NEW YORK - It was just over five months ago, early on the morning of Nov. 12, when Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley heard the news.

Pope Benedict XVI's ambassador to Washington was addressing the American bishops at a meeting at the Baltimore Waterfront Marriott. The pope was coming to the United States in April, and his only stops would be Washington and New York.

O'Malley was clearly disappointed: He had repeatedly exhorted Benedict, during visits to Rome and through pleas to the ambassador, to come to Boston in recognition of the archdiocese's close association with the clergy sexual abuse crisis. A papal visit, O'Malley had said, could prove healing for some victims.

As it turned out, O'Malley's pleadings had an impact, although not in the way he initially hoped. If Benedict could not come to Boston, Boston would go to Benedict.

Two months after rejecting a stop in Boston, Vatican officials called the Archdiocese of Boston to float the idea of a papal visit with Boston victims in Washington, at the Vatican ambassadorial residence sometimes called the pope's house because it is where visiting popes stay. The meeting would not be on the pope's official schedule, but the pope would, as O'Malley suggested, speak face to face, and one on one, with men and women whose lives were upended when they were sexually abused by Roman Catholic priests in Boston.

The result was the unprecedented 25-minute meeting Thursday afternoon between the pope and five abuse victims from Boston. The session, which Vatican and archdiocesan officials kept quiet through two months of planning, promises to be a defining moment of Benedict's trip to the United States. Whether it marks a turning point in the church's posture toward the abuse crisis remains to be seen; a top Vatican official, Cardinal William Levada, told reporters yesterday that "it's possible" that the church would change some of its internal laws governing the handling of accused abusers.

But, certainly, the meeting has become a defining moment of O'Malley's career, which has been permanently entwined with the abuse crisis. O'Malley had headed two dioceses - Fall River and Palm Beach, Fla., - wracked by abuse scandals when he was tapped in 2003 to take over the crisis-torn Archdiocese of Boston, still reeling from the revelations of widespread abuse and coverup that led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law.

Now, not only did O'Malley arrange this week's historic meeting between victims and the pope, but he included victims who had left the Catholic Church and had been critical of its leaders. And O'Malley made sure the pope knew exactly what had happened in Boston - he handed the pontiff a handmade book listing the names of nearly 1,500 alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse from the Archdiocese of Boston, and as the pope slowly turned the pages, the cardinal mentioned that some of the victims died from suicide or drug abuse.

When the pope saw the book of names, "there was an audible intake of breath," said the Rev. John J. Connolly, who is a special assistant to the cardinal for abuse issues.

And then, one by one, the victims rose to speak with the pope, as he clasped their hands.

"I actually kept my head down; I couldn't believe it until I saw his little red shoes," Olan Horne of Lowell said. "I looked up, and I had the eyes of somebody's grandfather looking at me. He was a very sincere, humble man."

For O'Malley, the meeting was a moment of quiet triumph - and a reminder of the skills that brought him to Boston in the first place.

"When he came to Boston, he so quickly and decisively settled the outstanding cases, and it was thought at the time that that was one of the reasons he was appointed here, and he obviously got a lot of favorable attention because of it," said James M. O'Toole, a Boston College historian and the author of "The faithful: A History of Catholics in America," being published this month. "In the aftermath, it seems his stock went down in the parish consolidation effort, and that happened very quickly after the settling of the cases. But this seems a return to his strong suit."

The meeting between Benedict and the victims was set into motion a little more than two months ago, when the Vatican agreed to allow O'Malley to choose five victims to meet with the pope.

"The Holy Father had asked me to arrange for a meeting with survivors," O'Malley said, explaining the genesis of the gathering.

O'Malley turned the planning of the event over to his two top aides on abuse-related issues, Connolly and Barbara Thorp, who heads the archdiocese's victim outreach efforts. Connolly and Thorp have unusually strong people skills, and although they were appointed by Law to help the archdiocese through the abuse crisis, they have become trusted advisers to O'Malley and friends to some victims.

The Vatican offered no guidance or restrictions about which victims could be invited, according to Connolly, so he and Thorp began reviewing the names of every victim who was in touch with the archdiocese.

Connolly said they tried to pick five people who might benefit from a meeting with the pope, would be comfortable meeting with him, and who were, in Connolly's words, "people who would be honest, forthright," and civil. The five who were chosen had all met O'Malley, and the cardinal approved, but did not determine or alter, the list, Connolly said.

Three weeks ago, Thorp called the five and asked whether she and Connolly could meet with them. One by one, the archdiocesan officials drove to the victims' homes and offered them the opportunity to meet with the pope. Each accepted and agreed to keep the matter private.

"There are many others we could have asked," O'Malley said.

Three men and two women were chosen, most of them middle-age, but one a woman in her 20s. Three are Mass-attending Catholics; two are not. Horne, 48, and Bernie McDaid, 52, of Peabody had been abused as minors, in different parishes, by the Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham, who is dead. Faith Johnston, 23, of Haverhill was sexually abused by the Rev. Kelvin Iguabita, who is in prison. The other two victims have not publicly identified themselves.

Connolly said the archdiocese wanted to avoid advance publicity about the event because it was intended to be a pastoral encounter between the pope and individual Catholics, and he was worried that it would lose that character because of media attention.

The victims, Connolly, Thorp, and O'Malley all met for the first time at the Cathedral rectory last Sunday. Connolly ordered pizza, Thorp brought salad and cookies, and the group talked about its hopes and expectations for the gathering with the pope.

On Wednesday, Connolly, Thorp, and the victims, along with some family members, boarded a flight from Logan to Dulles, hoping Connolly, whose picture has occasionally appeared in the media as an aide to Law and O'Malley, would not be recognized. Connolly, as is his practice when traveling, did not wear a clerical collar.

On Thursday, the group went to the papal Mass at Nationals Park. There, the victims heard the pope talk directly about the abuse crisis, and they began to feel more hopeful about their meeting.

"I don't go to Mass, but I went, and I was totally taken by the pontiff when he brought up the sexual abuse crisis and the suffering it caused - it hit me that this may mean something," McDaid said. "My mother was enjoying the Mass - she's 81 - but I couldn't really enjoy it, because I'm not a Catholic anymore. So there was a loss there, but also a feeling that something really was going to happen, a relief, like my years of pain might leave now."

Horne asked Connolly to hear his confession. It was the first time, Horne said, that he had been to confession in 30 years.

After the Mass, the group returned to its hotel for a buffet lunch, while Connolly, with a police escort, picked up O'Malley at the bishops' hotel in Crystal City. At 3:15, the cardinal, the victims, Connolly, and Thorp piled into a van and, escorted by a single police car, drove down 34th Street toward the nunciature.

The meeting was short, emotional, and dramatic. At 4:15, the pope entered the chapel where the victims were seated and knelt in prayer. O'Malley led the gathering in prayers, introduced the victims, and presented the book.

After the meeting, the victims and the church officials stepped outside.

Their van had not arrived, so they wandered into the nunciature's gardens. A passing kitchen worker agreed to take a picture, but someone would have to hold his cat.

So, with the late afternoon sun beginning to set, the victims and the church officials, including Thorp holding a stranger's cat, stood together in the yard.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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