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Critics: Bishops Lag Behind Pope's Promise To Deal With Abusive Priests


Later this week, Pope Francis heads across the Atlantic - first to Cuba and then on to the United States. Such enormous crowds are expected in this country that authorities are still calculating how to handle them. One group, though, has mixed feelings about this hugely popular pope - they are people who, as children, were sexually abused by their priests. Many feel the church still has not entirely faced up to the problem. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The abuse of children by people they think are good leaves deep emotional scars. Becky Ianni of Alexandria, Va., was sexually violated over and over when she was 9 years old by a priest who was a family friend, a man she believed was God's representative on Earth, someone she saw every Sunday when her parents took her to church.

BECKY IANNI: He would be saying mass and he'd hold up the chalice and all's I could think about - those hands hurt me and I'm an evil person. I was a dirty little girl. It wasn't his fault. It was mine. And he told me, if I ever told on him, I'd go to hell.

GJELTEN: Ianni related her abuse experience last year in a session with the StoryCorps project. She said the thought that she was a bad person and that God didn't like her was so traumatic that she literally buried the memory, until 40 years later, when she came across a picture of herself with the abusive priest. Slowly, all the old feelings of shame and guilt that she had as a 9-year-old girl returned.

IANNI: So I went to the church and asked them, I really needed reassurance that it wasn't my fault and that I wasn't going to hell. They didn't give me any reassurances. They said, oh, you have a complicated case. We'll have to see what we're going to do. And so they didn't tell me and I wrote them and I said I need - I need to know from a priest that I'm not going to hell. And they never answered.

GJELTEN: At that point, she drifted away from the church and from God, feeling she had been abandoned. Comfort came only later when she got in touch with other survivors of abuse. Ianni and others say they're somewhat encouraged by Pope Francis, who insists the church under his leadership will have zero tolerance for abusive priests. This summer, he established a tribunal where bishops who protect abusive priests will be held to account. But Becky Ianni and David Lorenz, another sex abuse survivor, point out that U.S. bishops are still unwilling to release the names of all those priests whom they know to be accused of child sex abuse. It's one example where bishops are lagging behind the pope's promise of reform.

DAVID LORENZ: The pope will say we need to do everything we can for victims. We need to do this, we need to do that. And yet, he'll say that and everybody applauds and says what a great pope he is, but, in fact, the bishops do exactly the opposite.

GJELTEN: Abuse survivors in New York and other states are pushing to lengthen the statute of limitations on clergy abuse cases, but the church is resisting. A statement on the New York bishops' website says they objected to the church being singled out for special treatment. A spokesman for the New York bishops declined to be interviewed. But in an email, he said the church has taken tremendous steps to address the issue of child sexual abuse. He says, it has offered financial, psychological and spiritual assistance to abuse victims. Terence McKiernan, who heads a group called Bishop Accountability, would like Pope Francis to signal support for statute of limitation reforms.

TERENCE MCKIERNAN: The clergy abuse crisis is not simply another issue. It has had drastic effects on the degree to which people are willing to donate to the church, the degree to which people are willing to show up on Sundays. And if he were to step forward about this issue, he would change a lot of minds.

GJELTEN: As an abuse victim, Becky Ianni also has some deeply personal feelings about the upcoming papal visit. She fears it will bring back of the pain of loss and separation she felt when she fell away from the church.

IANNI: I kind of built up this wall and decided, OK, I don't need God, don't need the church. And for the last seven years, you know, I've been sort of in an OK place. And now as the pope starts to come, I'm getting anxious again. All those feelings of I'll raise my kids Catholic, everyone's so excited about the pope coming and I'm feeling this gap again.

GJELTEN: Pope Francis will be meeting with U.S. bishops on his visit here. There's no word yet on whether he will meet with abuse survivors or whether he'll speak about what more he intends to do about the clergy abuse problem. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
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