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As Pope Resigns, Clergy Abuse Survivors Remember 2008 Meeting

Bernie McDaid keeps a framed photo of his meeting with Pope Benedict by his front door. "It was a tough moment," McDaid says.
Bernie McDaid keeps a framed photo of his meeting with Pope Benedict by his front door. "It was a tough moment," McDaid says.

Among those watching the papal transition closely are survivors of clergy sexual abuse, including a handful who were selected to meet with Pope Benedict XVI five years ago as the crisis raged.

The group left the meeting hopeful that that Benedict would make significant changes in how the church handled both past and current cases. Among those at the meeting were Olan Horne and Bernie McDaid.

It would be hard to blame Horne or McDaid for being cynical, having survived repeated sexual abuse by their priest only to find out that it had also happened to thousands of others and was covered up by the church. It's little wonder they reacted as they did when they heard the pope was resigning.

"My mind just immediately went to that there was a scandal or something behind it," says Horne.

Since then Horne has read the stories swirling around and heard the news that Britain's most senior Catholic cleric resigned amid allegations of inappropriate behavior with priests. Secrets have a way of coming out, Horne says, not that it brings him any satisfaction.

"My intent never was to inflict shame and damage. I've come from shame and damage. I want to work the problem. I don't want to work the Catholic Church," says Horne.

It was that conciliatory bent that earned Horne and McDaid one of just five invitations to represent survivors in that 2008 meeting with the pope. McDaid keeps a framed photo of the moment right by his front door.

"He stood on a little box so he could be my height, and he grabbed my hands and held tight," he says.

McDaid told the pope about his pain — physical, emotional and spiritual — and his lifetime of doubts and distress. Horne gave the pope a picture of himself as a young boy, hoping it would remind the pontiff of the children he needs to protect.

Benedict offered apologies and prayers, and both McDaid and Horne left feeling like he got it.

"Right after I met the pope, I kept saying, 'Was I foolish, actually, for putting myself in a position to maybe be taken for a photo opportunity?' But I took it as a genuine move, and I know that he sincerely responded," Horne says.

Since that day, however, Horne says he's been disappointed — so much so he's taken his framed photo of the meeting down from the wall at his house. Horne says he was frustrated there was no follow-up, and even as the issue of child sexual abuse continued to rock the church and other institutions, he says the pope failed to step up and assert the moral authority or be the model he could have.

"For me, it's been a vacuum. I don't think there was leadership," Horne says.

"They were trying to move on, and Benedict was at the forefront of trying to move on, and so I say he failed miserably," McDaid says.

McDaid says he's not sorry to see Benedict leave.

"One down and many more to go. That's kind of mean-spirited, but it's coming from the painful side of me," he says.

McDaid says it hurts that the church has not removed all the bishops and cardinals who were complicit in the cover-up, including in his case. And, he says, it's appalling that some of them will help choose the next pope — for example, Cardinal Roger Mahony, who's facing an onslaught of litigation in Los Angeles.

"And what's he do? Right after a deposition, he leaves the deposition and gets on a plane and goes to Rome. Give me a break," McDaid says.

And Sean Patrick O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston, has also gone to Rome and is one of those mentioned as a possible successor to Benedict, albeit a long shot. O'Malley earned credibility among survivors for the way he handled claims early on and for enacting new policies to prevent abuse.

McDaid says picking O'Malley would be a sign that the church understands the ongoing depth and breadth of the issue.

"He saw it firsthand. That's all I've got to go on. That doesn't mean I'm delighted, but he's the best they've got," McDaid says.

For his part, however, Horne says he doesn't think it matters at all who becomes pope.

"My belief and hope has never come from what the Vatican is going to do. It won't be the Catholic Church that fixes this problem," Horne says.

Rather, Horne says, survivors and their supporters will drive change, regardless of whether the next pope presses the issue more forcefully.

"If it is done, great. If it isn't, then we just have more work to do in the streets from the bottom up. And it says it even in the Bible, if you have an issue with a man, take it up with him directly," Horne says.

Five years after his extraordinary meeting with Benedict, Horne doesn't know whether he'll ever have such an audience again. But he says he does have a date with Cardinal O'Malley set for April and intends to keep it — whether O'Malley is wearing red shoes in Rome or his brown frock back in Boston.

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