When David Clohessy was young, his Roman Catholic priest would regularly take him on overnight trips to go camping, skiing or canoeing in Missouri. And then, once the sun had set and Clohessy was sleeping, the priest would assault him.
Decades later, Clohessy doesn’t want any child ever to be in that situation. That’s why he’s fighting for justice as the director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, nicknamed SNAP, and that’s why he was so frustrated Friday morning after reading the newest statement from Pope Francis.
In keeping with his modern image, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church issued a 264-page document called “Amoris Laetitia,” or in English “The Joy of Love,” urging church leaders to be more welcoming toward followers who may be gay, lesbian, divorced or remarried. But there’s one group of people still waiting for that kind of recognition: clergy abuse survivors. They said Francis, who’s been hailed for tackling everything from climate change to Cuban diplomacy, again skipped over the international scandal that’s implicated thousands of suspects in sex crimes and cover-ups. Before writing policy documents, they argued, he needs to solve the ongoing crisis in the church.
“It’s very tough for us to understand how seemingly every other issue takes precedence — especially because on everything else, the pope really is powerless,” said Clohessy, who lives in St. Louis. “But instead of taking real action that makes a real difference, he’s content to do, and, in fact is masterful at, these meaningless feel-good gestures that are essentially public relations maneuvers.”
“Amoris Laetitia” mentions the word “abuse” only six times. It’s linked with the church once, to say that “the sexual abuse of children is all the more scandalous when it occurs in places where they ought to be most safe, particularly in families, schools, communities and Christian institutions.” The Catholic Church’s sex scandal is otherwise left out.
The worldwide crisis includes more than 17,200 Americans who have alleged they were abused by more than 6,400 clerics from 1950 to 2013, according to a review of data by BishopAccountability.org, a website and nonprofit that tracks reports of sexual misconduct in the church. An award-winning 2002 Boston Globe investigation is widely credited with exposing the U.S. part in the scandal, which resurfaced this past November with the release of “Spotlight,” a movie that showcased the reporting process and recently won the Oscar for Best Picture.
The pope hasn’t ignored the issue entirely in the three years since his election. In Rome in 2014, he condemned the perpetrators and officials who helped cover up molestations. When he visited the U.S. last fall, he met with victims and told them he regretted “that some bishops failed in their responsibility to protect children,” pledging to “follow the path of truth wherever it may lead.”
In Clohessy’s opinion, Francis hasn’t done enough. Most of the priests accused remain in good standing with the church. Though the pope created a commission on the issue and suggested a Vatican tribunal for suspects, neither have made significant progress, the Associated Press reported last month.
The pope’s Friday statement on a host of separate issues was especially irritating to people like Clohessy because while the pontiff isn’t capable of revolutionizing the church’s stance on homosexuality, he does have the power to protect children from abusers by removing offenders. “The irony is that with clergy sex abuse there’s no theological or even policy changes that are needed at all,” Clohessy said.
For some survivors, the abuse and lack of action from the church cost them their faith. Phil Saviano said he didn’t think his family would believe him if he revealed as a teenager that he’d been abused by a priest at his church near Boston. The Rev. David Holley, who was later convicted on molestation charges, first began interacting with Saviano when the boy delivered newspapers to the rectory six days a week. He felt special and fortunate because the priest would take him aside to show him card tricks. At one point, the man got a set of cards with pornographic images on them. Eventually, he forced Saviano to perform oral sex on him.
“I wasn't nearly as lucky as I thought,” Saviano said.
Saviano went public with his story years later, in part because of his health: Saviano had AIDS. “I thought, ‘What have I got to lose? How much harder can this be than what I’ve already gone through?’ ” he said. He contacted the Boston Globe to recommend an investigation into the state’s abusive priests, kickstarting the series featured in the film “Spotlight.” Saviano is played by Neal Huff in the movie.
Saviano, who is no longer a practicing Catholic, said he wasn’t surprised Francis didn’t address the clergy abuse scandal in Friday’s document because it would have sparked too many questions.
“My hunch is that it was intentionally avoided so as not to open the door to more questions from people saying, ‘Well, OK, what exactly are you doing about the sex abuse problem within your organization?’ ” he said.
Saviano explained he’d like to see another, separate statement like “Amoris Laetitia” focused solely on clergy abuse. But they can’t be empty words. “If you’re gonna make a public relations move, you have to back it up with something concrete,” he added.
Some of the issues linked to clergy abuse are topics at the core of Catholicism, said Terry McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org in Waltham, Massachusetts. Gender politics and sexual orientation are two examples. Another is divorce, which was central in “Amoris Laetitia.”
With clergy abuse, “Here we have an issue very intimately related with the family, actually, and [Francis] doesn’t make the logical connections,” McKiernan said. “If this is ever going to get significantly better — and I don’t think it has yet — the church itself has to be acting better, and the pope definitely has a role to play in that.”
However, not all survivors and advocates came to the same conclusion after reading about Francis’ Friday announcement. John Salveson, the president of the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, said he doesn’t care what the pope says — he wants the Department of Justice to launch an investigation into the Catholic church.
“I don’t know why our attorney general, or some attorney general along the way, would not have paid attention to this,” said Salveson, a businessman in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, whose abusive priest followed him to college at the University of Notre Dame. “The bishops should be in jail, the cardinals should be in jail and the perpetrators should be in jail. [Francis] doesn’t get to have his own private brand of justice and throw people out of the club.”
Clohessy, the director of SNAP, has proposals for the pontiff, as well. Francis could defrock priests accused of rape and discipline bishops who covered up the crimes. Francis could fight for better secular child safety laws and call off Catholic organizations lobbying state governments to keep their statutes of limitations brief. Francis could make bishops post the names of priests accused of abuse on their websites.
Clohessy added actions like those, not simple policy statements, might even turn around declining church membership, which has fallen by 3 million people since 2007.
“He and other church officials seem willing to write documents and tweak policies and strike desperately welcoming poses hoping to keep and regain questioning Catholics when, perhaps in one fell swoop, he could take practical steps to safeguard kids that would be much more effective at reassuring and winning back those who have left or are considering leaving,” Clohessy said.