ROME – Three years ago Pope John Paul II (search) summoned America's cardinals to the Vatican (search) for an emergency meeting on the unfolding crisis over clergy sex abuse. Now that those cardinals have returned, abuse victims fear the lessons from their suffering may be forgotten amid the ceremonies and papal politicking.
"It seems to me the victims offer a gift to the church," said Barbara Blaine, founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (search). "The church needs the voices of victims in order to sanctify itself, in order to redeem itself, because the church leaders were the ones responsible for this outrageous abuse."
Church leaders rarely mention the scandal when asked about the key challenges facing the next pope. Interfaith tensions, global poverty and declining religious observance in North America and Europe are widely considered more pressing. Some Catholic officials still think of the crisis as mainly an American one, even though Austria, Ireland and other countries have experienced similar scandals.
Sue Archibald, head of the victim advocacy group The Linkup, said she has little expectation that the cardinals will discuss abuse during their conclave to pick a new pope.
But she held out hope that John Paul's successor would be open to hearing from victims in a way she said John Paul was not. The pope had called sexual abuse of children a crime and a sin and said there was no room in the priesthood for predators. He said the crisis had caused "a deep sense of sadness and shame."
Yet many victims were angered that he never met with them to hear about their experiences and apologize, noting he had expressed regret to other groups who had suffered because of the church, including Jews and Orthodox Christians. In an Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted last weekend, 82 percent of Catholics surveyed said the new pope must do more about predatory clergy.
"We can only hope that this next pope will usher in an era with more openness, transparency and a willingness to address the deeper issues which affect the church," Archibald said.
Two years ago, Gary Bergeron and his father — both victims of sex abuse — traveled to Rome to speak with the pope but were unsuccessful. They were, however, able to arrange a meeting with an official in the Vatican office of the secretary of state.
"I think they got a clear indication of who we were and why we were there," Bergeron said. "It's an opportunity I wish I had been able to give to the Holy Father himself."
Bergeron, who was molested by a priest in the 1970s in Lowell, Mass., said he was also upset that the disgraced former leader of the archdiocese of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, would be participating in the conclave.
Law was Boston archbishop in January 2002 when the scandal erupted there with the case of one accused priest, then spread nationwide to become what church leaders describe as the worst crisis to befall the American church. Hundreds of accused clergy have been removed from parishes around the country in the last three years.
Law resigned from the Boston archdiocese in December 2002 and is now archpriest of St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome. In a rare interview last Sunday on the ABC News show "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," Law was asked his thoughts about his role in the crisis as the church was about to elect a new leader.
"I don't know that this is a time to be reflecting on that issue," Law said. "I think that all of us deplore in our own lives and in the lives of others a failure to live out fully the message of Christ. And in my own ministry, I have attempted to be faithful to that."