By Anthony Barich
Pope Benedict’s July 19 apology to the victims of clerical sexual abuse was underscored by a personal meeting with four of them on his last day in Australia.
The Pope also celebrated Mass with the victims, a statement from the Vatican’s Press Office, announced on July 21.
“As an expression of his ongoing pastoral concern for those who have been abused by members of the clergy, His Holiness Pope Benedict XV celebrated Mass with a representative group of victims,” the statement said.
“He listened to their stories and offered them consolation. Assuring them of his spiritual closeness, he promised to continue to pray for them, their families and all victims.
“Through this paternal gesture, the Holy Father wished to demonstrate again his deep concern for all those who have suffered sexual abuse.
The Mass and meeting were similar to those the Pope also held in New York during his visit to the US in April.
On July 19 those destined for priesthood or religoius life heard firsthand the Pope emphasise the importance of retaining trust as he apologised to victims of clerical sexual abuse in Australia during a Mass for the dedication of the altar of St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney.
During the Mass with Australian bishops, seminarians, novices and Religious at St Mary’s Cathedral, the pontiff departed from his prepared homily, saying: “Indeed, I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering the victims have endured, and I assure them that as their Pastor, I too share in their suffering.”
In what he called a moment of rededication and renewal for the whole Church in Australia, he said: “Here I would like to pause to acknowledge the shame which we have all felt as a result of the sexual abuse of minors by some clergy and religious in this country.
“These misdeeds, which constitute so grave a betrayal of trust, deserve unequivocal condemnation, have caused great pain and have damaged the Church’s witness.
“I ask you to support and assist your bishops, and to work together with them in combating this evil.”
Lorena Portocarrero, 25, a consecrated laywoman who was in St Mary’s Cathedral to hear the apology, said it was clear from his delivery that the Pope was genuinely sorry for acts perpetrated by others.
“He was really sorry, and said that he understood it was painful for others,” said Lorena, part of the Marian Community of Reconciliation in Sydney, who was close to the Pope, sitting in the fifth row.
“He showed a lot of humility and he spoke from his heart. You could tell he was really sorry; when he was celebrating Mass he was really prayerful, he took his time each time he was talking.
“I was happy and sad as well. I’m happy because I’m happy that the head of the Church was able to say sorry to the people for the abuse done by members of the Church, who hurt the people whom they are meant to serve.
John Paul Escarlan, a 24-year-old second-year student at Holy Spirit Seminary in Parramatta, Sydney, said the Pope’s words were “a reminder not to betray the trust of the people I am meant to serve, because the Pope said it (the sexual abuse) was an evil thing”.
“I was personally touched by the message. Even though it was not the Pope himself who did the abuse, I was touched by the humility that the Pope has shown to us and he was a good model to be able to say sorry about the most important thing.
“The most important thing he will do is to say sorry to the victims whom the Church has hurt. It was a very good experience. Just to be there participating in the Mass that was celebrated by the Pope himself was a form of a blessing to me.”
He also said that hearing the testimony of a Religious Sister there reminded him of the sacrifice of a consecrated person.
“Listening to the sharing of the nun there, what she was trying to tell about her life as a religious person, I was inspired about my own discernment, and said to myself, this is the life I’m going to take.”
The Pope also said that sexual abuse victims should receive compassion and care, and those responsible should be brought to justice.
“It is an urgent priority to promote a safer and more wholesome environment, especially for young people,” the Pope said.
“In these days marked by the celebration of World Youth Day, we are reminded of how precious a treasure has been entrusted to us in our young people, and how great a part of the Church’s mission in this country has been dedicated to their education and care.
“As the Church in Australia continues, in the spirit of the Gospel, to address effectively this serious pastoral challenge, I join you in praying that this time of purification will bring about healing, reconciliation and ever greater fidelity to the moral demands of the Gospel.”