His sorrow at the clergy sex-abuse scandal was genuine. His shame was real, acquired through reading hundreds of victims’ case files during his tenure as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith.
That was how some local observers saw one of the major aspects of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States.
The pope spoke to journalists about the abuse crisis during the plane ride to the U.S. and, throughout his April 15-20 visit, and he met personally with a few Boston-area victims, whose archdiocese was at the epicenter of the scandal.
“He acknowledged — in a voice more powerful than any of us locally could express it — the church’s genuine sorrow for (the abuse) and the church’s commitment to continuing healing and reconciliation and continuing commitment to do all in our power to make the future safer than (was) the past for the children,” Bishop Matthew H. Clark observed.
Bishop Clark said he believes the pope’s words and actions underscored the importance of the existing policies for preventing and reporting sexual abuse within the church, evaluations of the policies’ effectiveness and outreach to victims.
“I think those things to which he encouraged us are things that we are already doing,” the bishop said.
Nazareth College history professor Timothy Thibodeau, a papal historian and commentator, said the pope deserves credit for reaching out to victims. Yet Thibodeau also contended that it was not a coincidence Pope Benedict addressed the clergy sex-abuse scandal first and frequently during his visit. For one thing, the mainstream media would have brought up the sex-abuse scandal if the pope had not addressed it directly, he said.
Secondly, the professor said he believes the pope had to address the scandal to be taken seriously when he called for religious freedom to be seen as a key component of human rights. Speaking during the 60th-anniversary year of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Pope Benedict XVI’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly addressed countries that have supported recent religious crackdowns, Thibodeau said.
“One had to go before the other,” he remarked. “The church has struggled to have any credibility on human-rights issues since this (sex-abuse) scandal.”
In general, Pope Benedict XVI’s academic demeanor contrasted greatly with Pope John Paul II’s superstar charisma, Thibodeau said. Whereas Pope John Paul II embodied his message, Pope Benedict’s followers must pay close attention to his words, the professor said.
“With the sound-bite, celebrity culture we live in, I think it’s tough for him to communicate to a mass audience,” Thibodeau observed.
Based on the mainstream media’s mostly positive coverage of the visit, Thibodeau said he believes the trip was a success in reaching the American public.
Bishop Clark observed that the pope’s words and actions showed him to be down to earth and accessible. In one moment at a St. Patrick’s Cathedral Mass in New York City, for example, Pope Benedict compared himself to St. Peter, who often needed the Lord’s patience, understanding and forgiveness, the bishop noted.
“My guess is that a lot of people who attended to what he had to say, and how he carried himself, probably had a changed perception at the end of it, probably perceiving it a gentler, more pastoral, more compassionate kind of presence,” Bishop Clark said.