April 18th, 2008
12:06 PM ET

Pope meets sex abuse victims: The back story

[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/04/18/art.pope1a.jpg%5D

John L. Allen Jr.
CNN Sr. Vatican Analyst
Vatican Correspondent, National Catholic Reporter

Three days ago, I got an e-mail from a fellow journalist telling me that Bernie McDaid, a victim of priestly sex abuse whom I had met in 2003 in Rome, wanted to reach me. At the time, I was overwhelmed with coverage of the first day of Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to America, and inclined to file the e-mail under “things that can wait.”

My colleague’s teaser that “you’ll want to hear this,” however, stirred me to make the call right away.

I sensed something might be up, because two weeks earlier I had interviewed the Vatican’s ambassador in the United States, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, who told me that a meeting between the pope and sex abuse victims while Benedict was in America remained “within the field of possibility.” I also understood that such a meeting would be historic, since no pope had ever before sat down with victims to hear their stories, offer his apology, and solicit their advice as to how the church might respond.

As it turns out...
McDaid was among a handful of victims invited to meet with Benedict XVI in a strictly private encounter at the Vatican embassy in Washington on Thursday afternoon. McDaid shared that information with me on the basis of strict confidentiality until it actually happened, saying the victims had been warned that any advance disclosure could result in the meeting being cancelled.

For any journalist, sitting on a story of the magnitude of the pope’s meeting with victims was obviously frustrating. Nevertheless, those were the conditions McDaid and the other victims imposed. We understood that premature disclosure could also wreck the opportunity for the event to occur at all.

McDaid had reached out to me because of his experience in Rome five years ago. Along with two other victims from the Boston area, McDaid had come to Rome without any appointments or introductions from anyone, looking to get someone in the Vatican to listen. Though he didn’t succeed in seeing the pope on that occasion, he did meet with a senior aide, and the event put McDaid on the Vatican radar screen.

As the Vatican correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter, I profiled McDaid at the time, impressed by his dogged efforts to knock on Vatican doors until someone took him seriously.

Wednesday and Thursday, both CNN and my newspaper, the National Catholic Reporter, mobilized to be ready to move when the time came. In the end, the news broke on CNN’s Situation Room and on-line on NCR’s web site just instants after the Vatican issued a statement confirming that the meeting took place.

In a TV exclusive just hours later, McDaid and two of the other victims, Olan Horne and Faith Johnston, told their stories to CNN’s Campbell Brown and Anderson Cooper. Listening to all three describe the abuse they suffered, and what meeting the pope meant to them, made for some powerful television.

As things move forward, there will be legitimate questions about whether Pope Benedict’s strong language and gestures about the sex abuse crisis will result in new policies or structural changes in the church. But for those who thought it was time to just stop talking about it, Pope Benedict’s record this week certainly points to a very different approach.

Even if we had to wait a couple of days, that’s a story worth telling.


Filed under: John L. Allen Jr. • Pope Benedict
soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. KF

    To all those who insist they are concerned for the welfare of the sexually abused: are the majority of sexual abuse crimes against young people carried out by Catholic priests?

    Has any identifiable group – other than those who are the guilty among the Catholic hierarchy – so heinously offended against children and teenagers, then covered-up in this way?

    So, CNN, what IS the big picture of all identifiable groups who sexually abuse children in America? Pretending the problem is no larger than the number of guilty Catholic clergy's victims, is offensive to every victim not abused by a Catholic priest.

    Certain of your selections' love of passively implying all Catholics –let's not beat about the bush– as "convicted/complicit" from any convenient media-sponsored soapbox, says far more about the people pointing their fingers than anything else. Why do you keep giving them your megaphone? Isn't that that the stuff of what's commonly labelled 'fundamentalism'?

    There are MANY priests and bishops who committed absolutely no offense–sexual or otherwise. That is also a fact. Why not count them? They're innocent victims of the abusers, too.

    Here's a challenge to the fair-minded: If you start counting and sorting the sexual abuses, and divide by their abusers and their enablers, you very soon run out of clergy - even with absurd assumptions. This newly-beloved principle of applying Napoleonic Code in the case of every single American priest has sadly acquired the force of a media-encouraged custom among some. Or editors like it to appear so.

    The blind thesis: 'all the priests abused all the victims' either resembles a demand for justice or the throng of an angry mob. Which is it? Either way, every person who displays their anti-Catholic prejudice like this is spitting on the vast, overriding majority of the victims of such abuse. Anyone who ACTUALLY cares will research and run the numbers. Refusal of this on principle simply confirms an agenda or illustrates grossly insistent ignorance–at the expense of most victims. What has happened to reason here? Who has counted this? The media?

    When will editorial boards like the one that selected these responses stop shrugging off their responsibility in fueling this sacrifice of fairness to spurious vengeful impulse? It erodes civility.

    The above example –that of the media's favorite angry sound bites - turns American society's youth sexual abuse tragedy into a means to an end. The self-selecting individuals selected by the media get their 15 minutes of fame, and the media gets to "report on public opinion."

    Time-Warner, for example, selects these responses. That selection either accelerates erosion of civility in society or dampens it. What does that end-result build in America? And how American is CNN? Innocent priests and bishops are victims in this tragedy. Don't Americans love to stand up for ALL underdogs, not just the ones whose oppressors they love to hate the most?

    I do not want you to publish anything I've written here, but I DO want you to act on it. Use your power to promote American-style fairness, not tabloid-style exploitation. Tell all the facts instead of optimizing for sales through convenient selection. And if the self-selecting are the loudest, do the legwork to counterbalance for reality. Distinguish yourselves as journalists precisely by FAILING to output reality TV style entertainment: no matter how convenient nor profitable.

    We all know nothing is ever a case of 'everybody thinks this' or 'everybody thinks that' but it's a very tempting impossibility to many in the heat of a moment. If the media isn't the cooler head that speaks–which includes selecting responses–for reason, then it doesn't matter what your Comment Policy is, you have already scorned unnumbered victims by that neglect.

    April 19, 2008 at 1:45 am |
  2. Bettyanne

    I don't believe anything this Pope or any priest has to say. My twin sons now 42 years old, were sexually abused from age 11 to 16 in a parish in NJ. Our family has never been the same since they finally told us. This parish priest, acted like your best friend. The Catholic church is a sick organization and the furthest from being Christians. I never heard that Jesus would approve of such behaviors. Talking is all well and good but action speaks louder then words. Our parish priest would get the boys drunk and then molest them, besides having them watch porn, as young boys. I could go on and on. But one of things I found out you can tell Catholic what happened to my sons but most don't do much unless it happened to their children.

    April 19, 2008 at 1:32 am |
  3. Annie Kate

    The pope's apology to the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests was a good beginning to the resolution of this horrible period in the history of the Church. I do not believe that this pope will stop with an apology and I look forward to seeing how Pope Benedict will heal the church and its members for an unspeakable crime committed by officers of the church who were trusted by the community because of their position. This has been a long time coming and I'm glad the pope has started the process of healing for everyone.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    April 18, 2008 at 5:20 pm |
  4. Sina Cornelius

    It is a shame that the man who is considered "The Spiritual Leader" in many countries touts the rights of the unborn and life begins at conception mantra (which I believe as well) seemingly abandon them after birth and allow their underlings to have full reign over their own sinful lust without regard, repentance, or punishment for the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual hell that they have inflicted on the most precious gift from God; other than His son Jesus; and the future of mankind .

    Millions of dollars are spent in "sin money" to try and salve their consciences; however, it does not negate their dirty deeds nor does it fix the problem because these men are not held accountable for their actions and the money comes from the very people they are suppose to be a light unto. Instead, they have become the devil's instrument and have plunged their flocks into the pit of darkness. Unfortunately, some of the flock will never recover from the abused heaped upon them.

    This is not only a black eye on the Catholic Church and Christians in general but on the Lord Jesus Christ Himself and then we wonder why so many people reject Him. The Pope needs to wake up and realize that the people who do nothing to stop these actions are the ones that are responsible for this rejection and that he is the chiefest of sinners if he does not take actions to prevent further abuse and to hold his clergy accountable for their actions and punish them in a way that will prevent any more of "God's precious gifts" being damaged.

    We, as adult Christians, must lift our voices for those who have no voice or we become as guilty as those that preformed these reprehensible acts of violence.

    April 18, 2008 at 4:02 pm |
  5. jimmy vekmen


    April 18, 2008 at 3:54 pm |
  6. Riley Hawkins

    It is such a shame that it has taken a visit from the Pope to bring the child abuse problem from priest to light. As a catholic myself, I could never understand why we in America would put more news press to dog abuse than the humans being abused by priest. I felt even worst when you know the Catholic Church would move priest from parish to parish instead of taking action. How many child abuser priest are in prison? These are people who are impacted in a negative manner for the rest of their lives. Where are the groups that protest child abuse from priest like PETA does for dogs? More important, will this issue move out of sight out of mind again within the next few months?

    April 18, 2008 at 3:41 pm |
  7. C Herman

    I will know the Catholic Church takes this seriously when they establish a policy where no priest (or any other worker) shall be alone with a child/youth. This will prevent most of the problems. Children sent to be with the priest for extended time alone only set up the possibility. It's just not a good idea and will prevent even the appearance of evil. That's where we are today.

    April 18, 2008 at 3:39 pm |
  8. Wally

    The Pope didn't do anything wrong to apologize for. He's not responsible for sick molestors

    April 18, 2008 at 3:13 pm |
  9. Nathan Prophet

    The recent sex abuse scandal by the Roman Catholic Church – known and tacitly condoned by the entire church hierarchy, is but another in a long, long line of Catholic Church abuses to humanity. While the Church does provide comfort and material aid to some needy people, we see that the church power hierarchy still controls and manipulates its members. This will continue until the masses of Catholics rise up in protest to their so-called "Priests", "Nuns", "Bishops", "Cardinals" and most of all, the "Pope". The entire Catholic Church is but a twisted, distorted charade of Christianity. Do you really think that Jesus Christ would dress up in all the Pope's regalia and waltz down the Red Carpet and ride in the Pope-mobile and have people kiss his diamond ring? I think not. Jesus of Nazareth was a poor peasant; he did not want adulation and riches as does the Roman Catholic Church. Why can't Catholics the wold over see that truth?

    April 18, 2008 at 2:59 pm |
  10. Trevor

    Let us not all forget that the priesthood is just like any profession. Yes they are supposed to be aware of what's wrong and what's right but they are human, too, subject to mistakes and errors in judgment. And just like Jesus, they are also prone to temptations but unlike Him, they cannot resist them.

    April 18, 2008 at 2:57 pm |
  11. Susan


    As a member of the Catholic Church, I was glad to hear that
    Pope Benedict XVI was meeting with victims of the sex abuse scandal
    that has devastated the lives of many young men and women. This is long overdue. The CC has gotten away with sweeping this under the rug for far to long. Many lives have been ruined along with the reputation of the institution.

    As I watched the interviews with Mr. McDard, Mr. Horne & Ms Johnston, I was moved by the willingness to share their conversations with us. They have waited many years to have this scandal be addressed and for someone to say it was wrong. I hope that the the words spoken to each of them by the Pope begins a healing process and will start to bring peace and closure for them.

    As there are many others who have suffered by the actions of some priests, I hope that the stern words given by the Pope to the cardinals and bishops will begin a healing process for all of those affected.

    In lay sociaty these abuses are criminal matters. The CC should not be able to hide criminals .


    April 18, 2008 at 2:56 pm |
  12. TONY C.





    April 18, 2008 at 2:48 pm |
  13. Arthur Dennison

    The Holy Father has brought a continued message of compassion and truth with his words and now with his actions by meeting with these abuse victims. His entire trip only increases my admiration for him.

    April 18, 2008 at 2:41 pm |
  14. darlene corbett

    cardinal law...should return to the U.S. and be sent to PARISH as a priest with PASTOR TO TELL HIM WHERE TO GO AND WHO TO SERVE...instead of living in Rome like a king. He should meet with every person abused and ask for forgiveness.......

    April 18, 2008 at 2:35 pm |
  15. iAN mACdONALD

    It would be interesting to know about the screening process that was established to choose the five people that were invited to meet the pope . . . the questions they were asked in the process and the background checks that were made.

    April 18, 2008 at 2:25 pm |
  16. Greg Morgan

    It is good to see the highest level of the Catholic Church acknowledging, in a face-to-face way, the harm that was done by many Catholic priests.

    But the betrayal of the children whom priests victimized consists not just of the actions of those priests themselves, but also of the church hierarchy, which concealed those priests' crimes from law enforcement authorities, and reassigned those priests to other unsuspecting congregations. The news media need to investigate the extent to which Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, was involved in the enforcement of the Vatican's policy of protecting and enabling serial sexual predators.

    April 18, 2008 at 2:13 pm |
  17. Steve

    The apology from the Pope is fine and good, but what about justice? What about the bishops who were complicit in the abuse, knew it was going on, and did nothing? Or worse, those bishops, mainly Mahoney in Los Angeles and O'Brien in Phoenix, who simply transferred the pedophiles to other parishes where they continued to abuse? Why aren't they in jail? That is what I would have asked the Pope. Until that happens, justice will not be done. Why can't we prosecute those who were accomplices?

    April 18, 2008 at 1:44 pm |
  18. Shannon

    Watching the interview with the three Boston Catholic sexual abuse victims last night was very touching. My father was sexually abused while in the seminary as a teenager. Because of that experience, we grew up with a very depressed, angry, alcoholic and abusive father who still seems like a lost child. On top of that, the parish priest where we grew up was also convicted of sexual molestation of many altar boys and teenage boys at our parish. One of my brothers was an altar boy during that time. Fortunately, nothing happened to him but the priest molested several of his friends. This priest often went after young boys who came from divorced families who didn't have a father figure to protect them. Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee knew of these problems but did nothing as he himself was an active homosexual at the time. Weakland just reassigned this priest. Our good priest at our parish even left the priesthood because he couldn't deal with the scandal. My brother has left the church and is also a confused and cynical person because of this scandal. I am so happy that the Holy Father met with these victims because the sexual abuse scandal has caused so much damage and has affected so many families. Fortunately, my other siblings and I have held onto our Catholic faith. We hope that this public apology will help bring many hurt and scandalized Catholics like our brother back to the Catholic Church.

    April 18, 2008 at 1:35 pm |
  19. Kathleen

    As a Catholic who has always been appalled by what I consider bad leadership from the Vatican, I am very impressed that this Pope sat down and talked to these victims, unlike his predecessor who I definitely believe should NOT be on the path to sainthood. Although I am concerned that he talked about shame in the context of pornography in America instead of the context where it belongs, the cowardly conspiracy of bishops to cover up the problem and transfer the pedophile priests to new parishes and new victims, I am nevertheless stunned by the goodness of Benedict sitting down and talking to these victims and saying he was sorry. This one thing, seemingly simple, but a great step for the Vatican, will go a long way toward beginning the process of forgiveness in this issue.

    April 18, 2008 at 1:20 pm |
  20. joe

    Ask Weurl (shown directly behind the Pope) about Jack Conner, convicted pedofile priest from Boston, who he moved to St. Alphonsus (grades 1-8) in Wexford, PA after he was convicted once.

    The devil will show these bastards what they've done. Only the catholics are dumb enough to "forgive." Give me a break.

    April 18, 2008 at 12:52 pm |
  21. Betty Ann

    I am so glad Pope Benedict is addressing this issue. This is a good start, Thank God!

    April 18, 2008 at 12:07 pm |