Clergy Abuse Survivors’ Open Letters to the Pope

Pope Francis’s first U.S. trip won’t include Boston. Three survivors wrote open letters on whether it should.

Pope Francis.
Pope Francis. –Tony Gentile/REUTERS

This September, Pope Francis will make his first visit to the United States since he ascended to the papacy in 2013. His itinerary will include stops in Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and New York.

It will not, as of now, include Boston, the epicenter of one of the biggest scandals in the church’s history. In 2002, The Boston Globereported on a widespread sexual abuse cover-up within the Boston Archdiocese, the effects of which are still felt today.

Although Massachusetts is the second-most Catholic state in the country, and Boston one of the most Catholic major cities, a Pope has only visited us once. That was in 1979 when Pope John Paul II said Mass on Boston Common to an estimated 400,000 people.

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Pope Francis has met with some survivors of sexual abuse by priests. He called for a Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, led by Boston’s own cardinal Seán O’Malley. Yet, many victim advocacy groups believe the Vatican does not have an adequate system of justice, and the church has not done enough to punish accused priests.

Some survivors ask: If he is truly interested in making reparations and healing, isn’t Boston the best place to start? Or is it for the best if he stays away?

Boston.com asked three sexual abuse survivors — Ann Hagan Webb, Robert Costello, and Bernie McDaid — to write an open letter to Pope Francis about his visit, and whether or not it should include Boston. The church’s response to the survivors’ letters can be read here.

From Ann Hagan Webb, a psychologist, the Rhode Island Coordinator of SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests), and survivor of sexual abuse by a priest:

The Best Place to Begin

Dear Pope Francis,

Thus far your Vatican’s response to the sex abuse of countless children by Roman Catholic priests has been approached by “commissions’’ and “studies’’ and “meetings with victims,’’ at its best. (At its worst, it denied responsibility for the clergy or the flock outside the Vatican walls to the international court in Geneva.). All these efforts were announced and carried out with great media hype. Particularly egregious were the meetings that you and other Popes held with victims. They were all hype, and included praying with and for the victims, and empty apologies. The abuse survivors were used as pawns in PR events designed to make the Pope look good, but affect no change toward greater protection of children. No consequences resulted for the Bishops and Cardinals who chose to protect the The Church rather than the most vulnerable members of their flocks.

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So, Pope Francis, if you would come to Boston to do more of the same, i.e. pray with victims, apologize for the sins of the pedophile priests, maybe shed a tear, then I say “STAY IN ROME.’’ Or have your dog and pony show somewhere else.

If your intention is to really make Bishops and Cardinals accountable for their complicity in harming children, then please come to Boston, and begin firing and defrocking bishops. Boston is the city where countless abuse survivors and advocates raised their voices together and demanded justice, beginning the avalanche of revelations around the country and the world.

Boston, then, is truly the best place to begin.

Ann Hagan Webb

From Robert Costello, an abuse survivor who reached an out of court settlement with the church in 1995:

Why the Sudden Change?

Dear Pope Francis,

I am sure you have a copy of the Book of Gomorrah by St. Peter Damian written around 1051. In several chapters he mentions his contempt of priests sexual contact with boys. He speaks of the damage done to the church by these offending priests. He asked Pope Leo IX to take some form of action but his pleadings were ignored.

We are now going on 964 years and 114 Popes later with no noteworthy attempts to change the rules regarding abusive child molesting priests. The carnage is now spread worldwide!

Just how many commissions has the Vatican appointed to investigate the centuries-old appalling, despicable, sexual, physical, and mental abuse by clergy?

And what of the results from these commissions? Other than the continued need for greed, and self-preservation at the sacrifice of millions of children.

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I read that, prior to your election to the Holy See, you didn’t meet with victims, survivors, or their family members. Is this true?

Why the sudden change in your core belief system? Is it because your actions and words are now under a worldwide microscope? I find the fact that you would not be open to these meetings severely hypocritical since your advice or instruction to the newly appointed Cardinals is to meet with the marginalized. To be “compassionate’’ to seek to “reintegrate’’ the “marginalized’’, and to “respond immediately.’’

I am the marginalized you speak of; the church you now pilot has treated me as trivial and insignificant. This communication is exactly the kind of conversation that you have been asking for. Truth no matter the cost.

I have also been an advocate for other victims and survivors of clergy sex abuse. I mention the victims because many of them never reached the level of survivor. They are dead. Dead from drug overdoses, dead from accidents they had no control over because they were under the influence, trying to erase haunting memories. Dead from suicide, like five young men, all victims of Rev. Robert K. Larson in Kansas, who took their own lives unable to see past the pain.

Will you lead by example? Will you come to have a conversation with others and me when you come to the United States?

Your appointment of Cardinal O’Malley to head yet another commission to look into the Church’s response to the clergy sexual abuse scandal has many survivors worried that the ball will just be kicked, and kicked down the road for years and years to come. After all, the commission can only make recommendations. At its beginning, this commission had no offices and no funding. How am I to believe that you truly mean to help the marginalized?

Now let’s get back to the present. You need to know what happens to a survivor when you announce that you are planning an upcoming visit to the United States. I know I am not alone in saying this, however I will speak from my own personal experiences.

When I first heard about your plan, I felt a punch in my gut, my whole body became tense, and I began to sweat. My mind began racing as my body went numb. I physically felt ill. The first emotion was one of hope, feeling that you would finally address head-on the clergy abuse scandal and maybe, just maybe, after so many years I could speak with you, the Pope, share ideas and, yes, let out my frustration. However I then remembered the institution you lead and how it keeps its hierarchy sheltered from the world. I have firsthand experiences with this policy. Ask Cardinal Law about how Fr. McCormick kept him in the dark. You would never meet with me!

The next feeling was that I need a drink! Then came the tears and utter grief of my years of wretchedness because no one listened. Nor could I speak under the threat of harm by my perpetrators. I stifled my feelings in glasses of my grandfather’s Old Grand Dad and Pepsi.

Next came the shame, shame that was embedded into my soul by an evil man who was, to me, Jesus walking the earth. And then confusion that always comes rushing forward. Jesus did this to me! He hurt me. He penetrated my body over and over again for years, even in my own home. How could an all-knowing, all-seeing God allow this to happen? I needed an answer and still do.

Blinding rage comes next. The words “they knew, they knew’’ are still pounding in my head as I write this letter. After my perpetrator, Fr. John Cotter, was discovered and before he was reassigned to another parish to prey on its children, a large party was thrown. There he was, greeting all the parishioners just at the front of the hall next to the stage. He gave a wonderful performance laughing and joking with the church’s faithful as they dropped cards filled with money into either of the large boxes at his sides. To me it seemed they were thanking him, paying him for sexually abusing their children. All this went on with his superiors knowing what kind of monster he really was. How could I tell then, with everyone thinking he was such a Holy Man?

Then an infuriating rush of outrage, that you are coming to the U.S. for the Ordinary Synod on the Family. How was I to expect any meaningful change in Vatican policy when Extraordinary Synod in Vatican City seems to have missed the point that the Roman Catholic Church has played a role in destroying families?

My feelings also included disgust, desolation, misery, and depression. I had several sleepless nights and multiple calls and meetings with my therapist trying to contain my crippling emotions. I know that the physical abuse is not happening now. However the way I was treated is only magnified with your coming to the U.S.

I saw Pope John Paul II on the Boston Common when I was in high school. Even the rain did not dampen my spirit of joy. I had buried my sexual abuse deep inside.

When I went to New York City to see Pope Benedict XVI and demonstrate my frustration at the lack of action being taken, other like-minded people joined me. When the Pope’s entourage was about to come into view someone, somehow had arranged to have garbage trucks cross the intersection and block the pope’s view of us and ours of him. The fact that trash trucks were used was telling of how survivors have been and are treated by the Roman Catholic Church.

So now you are coming to the U.S. Will you come to Boston? Come to the epicenter of the current clergy sexual abuse crisis? Did you know that there is a group of people (STTOP — Speak Truth to Power) who support survivors and they have been standing in front of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross every Sunday for the last 13 years in support of the marginalized? Cardinal O’Malley must have mentioned this to you. They stand on the sidewalk in front of his Cathedral. You should pay them a visit. They are still strong Catholics trying to heal a broken Church and to support the marginalized you speak of.

Others may not want you to come to Boston because it would only stir up painful memories and they have moved on. This may be true, but when you come here to the U.S. it will be all over the media. There will be no escape from the torrent of coverage that will accompany you.

You will be repeatedly asked questions regarding the clergy sex abuse crisis in the U.S. Why not come to Boston? You could come to ground zero and work your way up.

Namaste,

Robert Costello

From Bernie McDaid, founder of Survivor’s Voice, and the first survivor to meet the Pope:

Three Popes Later

As one of the first survivors of clergy sexual abuse to come forward in Boston, I had the unique opportunity to publicly expose a (nearly) 2,000-year-old institution that was protecting hundreds of pedophile priests and molesting thousands of innocent children. Together with a few brave souls from good old St. James Grammar School, we reminisced about the same gory details and horrid memories most of us had buried long ago. These courageous schoolmates and I realized that to stop these monsters from harming more children, we’d have to state our full names in print and stick our faces in the cameras for the world to see.

When I stepped up to the microphones and stared into the cameras, my knees began to buckle. Fifteen minutes of fame isn’t what you might think it is, especially when the subject matter is your own clergy sexual abuse. The conference room was full of reporters and the sounds of cameras clicking endlessly. “What should I say or not say,’’ was my first thought. “What will people think of me?’’ I had my doubts. But when the red lights flashed on and the cameras zoomed my way, I stopped shaking, and suddenly, I wasn’t afraid. It was as if this moment had been waiting in the depths of my psyche to come out and the rebel inside me that had been raging for years, finally found his cause.

The media plastered our faces all over the evening news and onto the front pages of the newspapers the following day. Many more people came forward from several other parishes where our infamous pedophile priest had been transferred. About fifty men joined our lawsuit against this pedophile priest named Father Joseph Birmingham. Although he died a relatively young man in his fifties, we conservatively believe he molested at least a hundred boys in his illustrious career.

Boston became Ground Zero, the epicenter for clergy sexual abuse, and a shock wave rippled across the globe. “CRISIS IN THE CHURCH’’ flashed almost every evening across the TV screens, like a stock ticker tape. The numbers of victims grew as more priests were named, and then a priest was murdered in jail. Many victims began to contemplate suicide from unresolved painful memories from their childhood pasts as the lawsuits dragged on. The frenzied press couldn’t gobble the stories fast enough during the biggest betrayal in the Catholic Church since Jesus broke bread with Judas at the last supper.

When I first came forward, I thought for sure that most people, including the Catholics, and the current priests, my lawyers, judges, and politicians on all sides would stand up for the innocent children, but it became the fight of my life to get support. My world literally changed overnight. Everywhere I went, people stared and pointed, and some of them whispered behind my back. Even the people I knew for years shunned me, or simply didn’t know what to say. When I met with Cardinal Bernard Law in the summer of 2002, I asked him why the abuse was so prevalent in Boston. “Is it the water Bernie?’’ I asked. He shook his head and looked down at his shoes like a puppy dog caught in a cookie jar. “I wish it was only the Boston water,’’ he replied.

“You’re shitting me, Bernie,’’ I said, and watched the Cardinal slouch deeper into his chair. “Chicago, L.A., all the major cities,’’ he mumbled and looked down again at his shoes. And, right there, inside Bernie’s mansion on the sloping hills in Brookline, above the manicured lawns and the trolley cars below, what I intuitively knew but hoped was not true became a reality. Clergy sexual abuse was rampant and happening to thousands of children all over the world.

I co-founded a group “The Survivors of Joseph Birmingham,’’ and we pressured Cardinal Law, Bishop McCormack and several other priests to meet with us or face humiliation in the press. The New York Times and countless other newspapers, both nationally and internationally, quoted us as a unified movement, but our little group couldn’t order a cheese pizza among ourselves without a fight. It was extremely difficult for our voices to be heard during a time when the clergy sexual abuse scandal took center stage and the protection of innocent children took a back seat to so many other issues.

In 2002, when I dared say, “The problem comes from that little guy in the white cap and white robe,’’ people acted very strange. The Boston Catholics and their voiceless faithful were afraid of losing the very pews they sat in, and blaming the head of St. Peter’s church could be the final dagger in their parish. The Boston Brahmin couldn’t, or wouldn’t, believe the magnitude of the situation and their political cronies looked the other way. And our lawyers weren’t suing the Vatican — nobody sues the Pope.

But my rebellious spirit pushed on, and in March of 2003, I traveled to Rome and requested a formal apology from Pope John Paul. Frustrated by all the red tape, I snuck past the gatekeeper on the second floor and headed deeper into the Vatican. The Pope lives somewhere on the third floor, and I was going to meet with him. In a back room, two Swiss Guards dressed in colorfully striped suits grabbed me by my arms and escorted me down a swirling marble staircase and out into the gray cobblestone streets in St. Peter’s Square. The sun was setting behind the statues of St. Peter and St. Paul as the two guards walked backed to their posts inside the Vatican. The heavy bronze doors closed behind them, and I felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Without the red slippers, getting to the head of over a billion Catholics was going to be a daunting task.

But the slippers came in the form of a retired judge from my hometown; an elderly Polish gentleman who vacationed in the Vatican gardens with John Paul made a phone call on my behalf. The very next day the Vatican’s Secretariat of State Department sent Monsignor Green to my Italian hotel room with direct orders from the Pope to take my requests back to him that very evening. I told the Monsignor that I wanted a public apology from John Paul, and he shook his head. “The Pope will never do that,’’ he said, and took another sip of his tea.

Although the fruitions of that meeting helped resolve the long awaited settlements in the stagnant Boston lawsuits, John Paul’s failing health kept him insulated from the political situations erupting in the Catholic Church, and it is quite possible that the Monsignor omitted my request for an apology. I often question what the Pope was being told (or not told) near his end, and wonder what he would have done had he not been so sick. But he died without an apology and, even though his 25-year tenure was marred by clergy sexual abuse, history recorded him as a saint.

Shortly after his death, a beady-eyed German took the name Benedict XVI and appeared after the white smoke dissipated from the roof pipe above Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Then, Europe erupted with clergy abuse reports from Ireland, Germany, Holland, Belgium and even Italy. More and more people came forward from around the globe, and the numbers of those abused were staggering. Pressures mounted on the Vatican to do something before their church crumbled, and in April 2008, Shepherd One touched down on American soil with the new Pope on board.

On a sundrenched cherry blossoming day at a mass in Washington D.C., together with a small group of survivors from Boston, my long awaited apology came through a stack of speakers at the Washington Nationals baseball stadium. Tears ran down my face when Pope Benedict said that long awaited word, ‘SORRY.’ It had taken me six long, hard fought years of fighting with Bishops and Cardinals, a trip to Rome, and finally, a failing populace in the church pews before I heard those words. But would the Vatican hold itself accountable for this problem? I would have to wait.

Later that afternoon, inside the Nuncio’s private chapel, I became the first survivor of clergy sexual abuse to address the head of St Peter’s church. I told Pope Benedict I was abused in the sacristy, a room of the altar that I was sure he was familiar with. I told him my life was never the same after the abuse, and that I became a teenage alcoholic and drug addict. I warned him that his “flock’’ had a cancer — a malignant cancer — and that he needed to do something about it.

“Yes, yes, yes, my son,’’ he said and shook his head and glanced over at Cardinal O’Malley. But a non-discerning look appeared on his face and he wasn’t sure what to say next. An awkward silence filled the chapel as I waited on a reply. Then he squeezed my hands and I heard the faintest of whispers in a mumbled tone, “Sorry, sorry, sorry,’’ and he stared down at his little red shoes.

The final crumbs of my Catholicism were fading fast. A genuinely heartfelt moment could have gone a long way. I had just poured out my heart and soul to this man. O’Malley had promised us a lengthy conversation with the Pope, only not like this, not in a chapel, and I was angry. But this was not the time or place to argue, and I handed Pope Benedict an Irish Bread that my Catholic-devoted mother baked for him — a symbolic breaking of bread — a time-out from all the resentment I had for this man and his church. “This is from my family to yours,’’ I said and left the altar.

There was hope in America that day for the distraught Catholics and their struggling church, but my hopes faded when Pope Benedict was found to be complicit in the sexual abuse scandal as a bishop in Germany. For the first time in over 600 years, a living Pope relinquished his power and another man took his place. And now, one Pope sits in the Vatican, while the other one lives in his shadows — a sign to all that this is indeed the most serious of times in the changing Catholic Church.

The new Pope is on his way to America this fall. A people’s Pope called Francis, who washes strangers’ feet and embraces both old and young. A humble man, who lives in an apartment instead of the Vatican Palace, and who likes pizza. But is Francis the last Pope in a dying church? One doesn’t have to be a Nostradamus to see the impending doom ahead if this problem continues to rear its ugly head. Or is this Pope the man to turn his church around from the approaching gates of Hades?

A more current and important question to ask is, “Will Francis come to the epicenter of clergy sexual abuse on his first trip to America, or will he stay away from Boston as he would a 13th Century plague?’’ His predecessor found time to stand at Ground Zero in New York, and it would seem only appropriate that he stand at Ground Zero in Boston and honor those who lost their lives from these horrific crimes. Perhaps he could have a moment of silence for all the suicide victims, maybe a memorial mass for all the tortured souls, and bless the families of those still suffering from the abuse.

Oh, and one more question Francis, a proverbial million dollar question from me and those like me. Why is it always about your church and not about the protection of the innocent children? Have you ever contemplated that in your nightly prayers?

AMEN, FRANCIS, AMEN

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