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Just a couple of hours after Pope Francis served lunch to 300 District homeless people outside of St. Patrick’s Church, a group of sexual-abuse survivors gathered outside of the Wilson Building to urge him to hold the clergy accountable, and to highlight legislation before the D.C. Council that would eliminate the statute of limitations on sex crimes committed against children.
The rally, organized by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a group with more than 10,000 members, was attended by six survivors who held pictures of themselves taken during the years they had been abused, and who gave candid testimony of their experiences. The survivors said the pope’s visit to the U.S. offers a unique opportunity to remind people that the Catholic Church has resisted confronting the sins of some of its priests, actively protecting them from prosecution and failing to explicitly punish bishops who have tried to cover up any scandal.
“I want to make sure victims know that they’re not alone out there,” says Becky Ianni, SNAP director for the District and Virginia. “And I think it’s really hard when every store you go into, there’s a poster of the pope. And that when the pope speaks out to Congress and to the bishops, [he does so] instead of speaking or reaching out to victims and telling them they’re courageous.”
During his speech to U.S. bishops at St. Matthew’s on Wednesday, Pope Francis remarked that clergymen had shown “courage” throughout the Church’s child-sex-abuse scandal. “I have supported your generous commitment to bring healing to victims—in the knowledge that in healing, we too are healed—and to work to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated,” he said. The Guardian reports that U.S. dioceses paid $1.7 billion in settlements between 2004 and 2013.
Ianni, who was raised Catholic, says she was abused by a priest in Alexandria when she was nine years old. The abuse continued until she was 11, she says, because the priest had befriended her family and become “a constant fixture” in her home, visiting a few times a week. Everybody loved him.
“He would basically rape me with his hands in the basement and then go up and have dinner with my parents,” she recalls. “I just remember being terrified because I didn’t know [whether] it was sex. I just knew it was wrong [and] felt that God was punishing me…I felt like a dirty little girl.”
Ianni didn’t tell anyone about the abuse until she was 48. (Her abuser committed suicide in 1992 after another victim had confronted him.) Ianni adds that Pope Francis—although he’s signaled his intent to create a Vatican tribunal to hold bishops responsible for covering up sex crimes and has appointed a committee on sexual abuse by priests—hasn’t done enough to “insist and demand” more concrete steps: publishing the names of perpetrators online and turning over any records when cases come up, for example.
At-Large Councilmember David Grosso—who in March introduced a bill to allow victims of child sexual abuse more time to file recovery claims in civil court—was present at the gathering. The two-page bill would remove the statute of limitations on these claims and “provide a 2-year period for people whose claims were barred by a previous statute of limitations to bring those claims.” It’s now under council review, as is a three-page bill proposed by Councilmember Mary Cheh that would increase the number of sex crimes that may be “prosecuted at any time.”
“In his prayer meeting with U.S. bishops yesterday, Pope Francis spoke of a ‘generous commitment to bring healing’—this stance must extend to those who have suffered sexual abuse,” Grosso said in a prepared statement. “I am calling on the pope to hold the bishops of the Catholic Church accountable for abuse committed on their watch. It is past time for the Church to support better laws that protect children, expose predators, and punish enablers.”
Explains Ianni: “It wasn’t my abuse that took me away from the Church, it was when I went to the Church with my abuse, how I was treated. So I felt abandoned by the Church and abandoned by God. And with all this pope stuff I’m hurting too, because it reminds me of what I once had.”
Photo by Andrew Giambrone