April 21, 2008
Pope Benedict XVI held a private meeting with survivors of clergy sexual abuse.
It took many by surprise.
His predecessor John Paul II never did. The Pope decision to meet survivors was courageous and symbolic. It also sent a strong message to the Church. The Pope is with the victims.
The Church never tolerated such abject and criminal behavior, which has always been considered a mortal sin. Yet in the U.S. more than 4,000 priests that have been accused of molesting children since the 50s. More than 2 billion dollars have been paid to victims in the past six years and six dioceses have been forced to go into bankruptcy because of those payments.
However, very often in the past, the Church's reaction to reports of abuse by priests was very much the same as the reactions of some CEOs when faced with a scandal. They are tempted either to deny what happened or to try covering it up.
The Pope by his recent actions is a model for any CEO when faced with a scandal:
- The message came from the top. (You can't go any higher!)
- He gave the example. On Thursday the Pope in his homily at an open-air Mass in Washington said: "Today I encourage each of you to do what you can to foster healing and reconciliation, and to assist those who have been hurt." He did just that a few minutes later, in his private meeting with survivors.
- He showed empathy. One of the victims, Bernie McDaid, said. "He looked down at the floor and back at me, like, 'I know what you mean.' He took it in emotionally. We looked eye to eye."
An apology always needs to be translated into action. Victims advocacy groups such as Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) ask for more transparency, more vigorous action against priests accused or suspected of abuse and a change in canon law that would explicitly bar sexual abusers from the priesthood.
We could be witnessing a turning point in the Church's reaction to clergy sex abuse and more concrete measures to prevent such crimes. That will be a sign of hope.
As the author and inventor George Iles said: "Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark."