Pope Francis has been warmly welcomed by political leaders and thousands of ordinary people since arriving in New York City, but many survivors of sexual abuse by priests have had a different reaction.
“It’s been very difficult for Pope Francis to be in my backyard,” said Megan, a member of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “There’s still so much hurt.”
She and other survivors spoke to Al Jazeera at a rare public support group meeting in New York City on Tuesday, sharing their anger and frustration about what they say is a lack of substantive action by the Catholic Church to hold the priests who abused them accountable. All of them asked to be identified only by their first names.
For some survivors, the visit has triggered flashbacks. Peter said he was abused by a priest in his seminary boarding school starting from the age of 13. During the “kiss of peace” section of the service, the priest would come down from the altar to hug him, Peter said. When Francis was met by President Barack Obama with a hug when he landed at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Tuesday, Peter said those memories came flooding back.
“The hug between Obama and Francis has been on my mind,” Peter said.
He and the eight other survivors who met on Tuesday said they felt Francis has not done enough to address crimes committed by members of Catholic clergy in the U.S. and abroad, and church leaders who covered up their crimes.
Up to 100,000 American children may have suffered sexual abuse by clergy, according to insurance experts who presented a paper at a Vatican conference in 2012. At least 4,300 Catholic clergy were accused of sexual assault, and only 300 convicted, according to Bishop Accountability, a private group that has tracked the issue. In many cases, priests were moved from parish to parish instead of being defrocked and reported to authorities.
Francis has vowed to end “the scourge” of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. In June, he created a Vatican tribunal to investigate clergy accused of covering up or failing to prevent such abuse. In remarks at Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, he referred to the abuse scandal by talking about “difficult moments,” but did not utter the words “sexual abuse.”
Francis is expected to meet privately with victims of sexual abuse during his U.S. visit.
Despite that gesture, critics said bishops’ lobbying groups have been fighting efforts by survivors to obtain justice by opposing bills that would extend the statute of limitations on past cases of child sex abuse in some states. SNAP members and advocates of the bills say that these civil lawsuits, rather than criminal cases, are often the only legal avenue they have to find justice.
The Church has said that allowing victims to sue over abuse decades ago would open the way for cases based on flimsy evidence as well as take a further heavy toll on its finances.
One survivor, David, who is in his 60s, said he buried thoughts of his abuse for decades, and now he wants answers. “I didn’t think about it for four decades … then three, four, five years ago it popped into my brain and I can’t get it out,” he said, adding that the traumatic memories have begun affecting his 38-year marriage.
When he tried to seek legal help, David was told he was no longer able to file a civil case because of New York’s statute of limitations law for child sex abuse. In New York, victims must bring criminal or civil charges against their abusers by their 23rd birthday.
But for many victims, it takes years to come to terms with their abuse. Another member, Barbara, said she was abused by a parish priest in middle school and high school but buried the trauma until she began having anxiety attacks and anger issues she couldn’t explain. She said she recognized her abuse only after seeking therapy as an adult.
SNAP is advocating for the Child Victims Act, a bill pending in state legislature that would eliminate New York’s statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse crimes.
Concrete legal action is more important, survivors say, than speeches or gestures of reconciliation. When another abuse survivor at the SNAP meeting recalled being given a tranquilizer by a church leader after reporting his abuse, Peter compared the pope and the pageantry around his visit to a tranquilizer, a convenient way to forget what’s wrong. “There’s not much being done — but ‘here’s a tranquilizer,’” Peter said.
With wire services