With U.S. visit, pope projects softer image
But questions remain about next steps in the sexual-abuse crisis and outreach to young Catholics.
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With his face-to-face meeting with sexual-abuse victims, he stirred fresh expectation within a US church that has long been in limbo. He reminded Americans and those at the United Nations of the moral strengths – and responsibilities – of free and prosperous nations. His soft-spoken manner and nuanced messages gave a very different impression from his reputation as a hard-nosed conservative.
The jubilant welcome from the crowds, however, doesn't mean Roman Catholics are ready to change their views on church teachings. And along with sighs of relief, serious questions remain in the minds of the faithful. What happens now with the sexual-abuse crisis? Will words lead to actions? And what will he do to reach young Catholics, who are increasingly disconnected from the church?
Without doubt, the most momentous event of the six days was the pope's secret session in Washington with five victims of abuse from Boston. It was the only meeting in which he did most of the listening.
"I told him I was an altar boy ... and it wasn't just sexual abuse, it was spiritual abuse," said Bernie McDaid later on CNN. "Then I told him that he has a cancer growing in his ministry and needs to do something about it."
Faith Johnston, a young woman abused eight years ago, broke down in tears and couldn't tell her story, but her presence was eloquent evidence that the offenses were not just a product of the 1960s and '70s. Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston gave the pope a handmade book listing the names of 1,500 Boston-area victims.
The three survivors of abuse who later spoke in public said they felt comforted by the pope and he heard their messages. Other victims view the meeting as a definite step forward but say talk must be followed by much stronger actions.
"We do children an immense disservice if we set extraordinarily low expectations for such a powerful global figure," says David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. SNAP calls for greater accountability for the bishops who have moved abusive priests from parish to parish.
Many Catholics hope this step heralds significant change. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that the share of Catholics upset by the way the church has handled this scandal has spiked 20 points, to about 75 percent, since 2004.
"My deepest prayer was that he would appreciate how deeply wounded every Catholic has been," says Bostonian Svea Fraser. "Now there's a glimmer of hope we can name the elephant in the room and do something about it."