Victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy demanded on Wednesday to meet Pope Francis to press their call for the Church to apply a zero-tolerance policy including the dismissal of bishops who covered up such offences.
The 12 victims met with five Vatican officials a day before the start of an unprecedented conference on clerical abuse that aims to guide senior bishops on how best to tackle a problem that has decimated the Church’s credibility.
All the survivors of abuse who took part in the meeting, which lasted more than two hours, said they were disappointed the pope did not attend, even though he was not scheduled to be there.
“We need to have a discussion with the man who makes the rules and has the power in this institution, and that’s Pope Francis,” said Peter Isely, an American from Milwaukee who was abused when he was a boy by a priest.
Isely said the discussion had become “a little bit confrontational, a little heated at times but polite”.
The four-day conference is bringing together presidents of national Roman Catholic bishops conferences, Vatican officials, experts and heads of male and female religious orders. It takes place as the 1.3 billion-member Church still struggles to enact a concerted, coordinated and global effort to tackle a crisis that is now more than two decades old.
Scandals over sexual abuse of minors have deeply damaged the Church’s credibility in the United States, Chile, Australia, Ireland and elsewhere. Billions of dollars have been paid in the United States alone in settlements.
“We made our demands for zero tolerance. We want the pope to write into universal law: zero tolerance for the cover-up of sex crimes. They can do it right now,” Isely told reporters after the meeting with the officials, all of them clerics.
He and other victims said bishops who had covered up abuse should be dismissed from the priesthood, known as laicization, just like those who had committed the abuse itself.
One of the Vatican participants said the pope was never due to attend on Wednesday as he would see other victims of abuse during the conference. Victims who address the gathering will remain anonymous at their request.
Victims have scoffed at the Vatican’s presentation of the conference as a teaching session that is necessary because not all bishops are totally familiar with how to deal with abuse.
“We were very stern and very eloquent about what needs to happen, especially applying the laws that already exist and applying them.”
Father Federico Lombardi, one of the five Vatican officials at the meeting, said the Vatican participants knew that “if the Church does not really confront these problems, it loses its credibility ... we are perfectly aware of this and that is why the pope wanted this meeting.”
Phil Saviano, whose story of the abuse by a priest when he was 12-years-old in Massachusetts was told in the 2015 Oscar-winning film “Spotlight”, said he demanded that the Vatican turn over documents on molesting priests, past or present.
“It would be a wonderful sign of transparency and maybe some people who are bailing out of the Catholic Church, especially in the United States, may take it as a sign that maybe things are going to get better,” Saviano said.