THE BLOG
09/28/2015 09:06 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

If 'God Weeps' About Church Sex Abuse, What Does a Pope Do?

2015-09-28-1443445066-4097551-GettyImages489799134.jpg Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the balcony at the US Capitol on September 24, 2015.

By Jason Berry

WASHINGTON -- Before Congress on Thursday, Pope Francis praised Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement "for her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed," likening her faith to "the example of the saints."

Inspired by Day, Barbara Blaine in the mid 1980s moved into a Catholic Worker House on the South Side of Chicago where women fleeing domestic abuse found safe harbor with their kids. The cavernous floors, long emptied of nuns, housed other young radicals who lived out Day's witness, working with broken lives, people on the ragged edge, the victims of what Pope Francis calls "the throwaway culture."

After the man she loved died in an automobile accident, Blaine began dealing with the traumatic aftershocks of being sexually abused at her Toledo high school by Father Chet Warren. Years later she went after him, won a legal settlement and finally got him defrocked.

The road toward those encounters began when Blaine founded Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) while living in the Catholic Worker House in 1988. SNAP has waged a long battle in helping victims seek legal redress against bishops who concealed sexual predators -- and pushing for structural changes to remove negligent bishops.

Pope Francis has met with several victims in Rome and established a special Vatican commission, with two abuse survivors on it, to advise him. Commissions move slowly, and what we saw in Philadelphia was the Vatican keeping the pope on message and anonymous victims out of sight.

On midday Sunday, as the pope went about his schedule in Philadelphia, the final day of his American trip, the Vatican issued a statement in carefully-controlled script saying the pope had met with three women and two men who had been sexually abused as children.

As of late Sunday afternoon, Blaine didn't know who the victims were, nor did anyone in the media. Their names had not surfaced in Monday news reports.

The Vatican's script was meant to dampen media coverage on the obvious question: what happened to the worst crisis of the modern church? How has this most extraordinary pope confronted such a core issue?

"I'm disappointed that Pope Francis isn't using this opportunity to advance substantive change," Blaine said stoically from Chicago. She had been giving interviews since the news broke. "SNAP has people on the ground in New York and Philadelphia today" -- trying to get their message out to the media.

As she spoke, the Popemobile paused in Philadelphia en route to Pope Francis's final Mass in the U.S. The pope has stopped at many of his events to embrace a child brought forth from the crowds.

Brian Williams on MSNBC said jovially that if Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York were not a cardinal, he might be mayor.

However, Dolan as archbishop of Milwaukee secreted $56 million in a cemetery fund in what became the longest bankruptcy battle in church history, pitting 500 abuse victims against Dolan's previous archdiocese.

The unresolved crisis of predator priests was not a convenient strand for this week's media narrative. But when Francis fleetingly raised the issue in complimenting bishops in Washington earlier in the week, Blaine winced.

"Calling those bishops 'courageous' was like a slap in the face to victims," said Blaine. "We believe they are the cause of the problem."

If the American journey of this pope did nothing else, it dramatized the profound sensitivity that Francis has for the people in the barrios and prisons and housing projects. He used powerful words after meeting with the small group of survivors in Philadelphia, telling bishops, seminarians and priests:

"God weeps for the sexual abuse of children. These cannot be maintained in secret, and I commit to a careful oversight to ensure that youth are protected and all responsible will be held accountable. Those who have survived this abuse have become true heralds of mercy - humbly, we owe each of them our gratitude for their great value as they have had to suffer this terrible abuse sexual abuse of minors," Francis said.

Blaine was not having much of the "heralds of mercy" compliment.

"We want to see what he will do with complicit bishops, how he's going to change the structure," she told GroundTruth.

Bishops have historically operated with de facto immunity for transgressions like recycling abusers. The crisis that shook the foundations of Catholicism in Europe, North America and Australia has spread to Latin American countries.

Pathological behavior in a clerical culture does not stop at geographic boundaries.

The Vatican's stage managing of abuse victims showed another side in televised moment on CNN. As anchor Jake Tapper sat with commentator-priests Edward Becker and James Martin, the camera showed Francis moving down the line of prisoners at the correctional facility in Philadelphia.

Tapper marveled at how the pope who just gone to see abuse victims was now meeting with prisoners. Left unspoken was the struggle of many abuse survivors who feel imprisoned by their past, the inability of the child to protect the adult s/he has become.

Francis had no distinguished record on this wrenching issue as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires. He did not meet with any victims in his time there nor display any leadership on the issue, a point that survivor groups in Argentina keep emphasizing to any reporter in earshot.

But Papa Bergoglio, as some Italians call him, has proven himself to be a pope with a powerful, reform-driven agenda. The story often lost on the American media is his struggle to change the internal dynamics of the Roman Curia.

Acting on the advice of his commission for child protection, Francis authorized a special tribunal within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to try bishops who are accused of complicity or gross negligence in dealing with sex offenders.

This is a new realm of church law. And SNAP has no one in a position to have dialogue or any form of negotiation with the Vatican. Instead the group has relentlessly criticized the pope's every move on the crisis as inconsequential.

Changing the largest institution in the world, one that is 2,000 years old, requires understanding its inner workings by talking to people on the inside.

Vatican officials and bishops who shrink from the very idea of a conversation with someone from SNAP might do well to look at Cuba's changing relationship with the US, made possible with help from Pope Francis. The diplomatic breakthrough took decades but it happened between the bitterest of geopolitical enemies with a strong nudge from the Supreme Pontiff, a man from Latin America who saw a growing church in the Marxist country and reasoned that anything he could do to strengthen dialogue and progress was worth doing.

The CDF tribunal could have a powerful impact on the behavior of bishops -- and the power of this and future popes to speedily remove them -- which would go a long way toward "protecting kids," a SNAP mantra.

The big test for Francis's reform agenda on the abuse crisis is whether the tribunal agrees to accept sworn testimony in civil and criminal cases as bona fide evidence in canon law procedures. If that precedent is established, abuse activists in any country who have forensic documents about a given bishop to back up their claims will have a process in play.

This pope is all about process. This week, the drama of his personality vastly overshadowed his approach to the internal changes in the Church of Rome. But the many statements and sermons and symbolic gestures he made across the byways of the three Eastern cities leave a large legacy indeed.

He is even more on record now, saying "God weeps" about predator priests.

What, then, does the pope do?

Jason Berry is a religion correspondent for GroundTruth. His books include Lead Us Not Into Temptation, Vows of Silence, and Render unto Rome.