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Catholics divided on meaning of pope’s meeting with victims

New Englanders touched by the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church are divided over whether Pope Francis’ first meeting with victims was sincere or a publicity stunt, but they agree on one thing: The gesture will mean little unless the pontiff pushes for change.

“I think meeting with six victims is a great start. It doesn’t mean that anything is going to change,” said Phil Saviano, a Roslindale resident who established the New England chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

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Francis met on Monday with six victims, two each from Ireland, Germany, and the United Kingdom, in the hotel where he lives on Vatican grounds. They also joined the pontiff for his morning Mass.

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, attended the meeting, said Harry-Jacques Pierre, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston. O’Malley is a member of the pope’s new Commission for the Protection of Minors and also organized Pope Benedict XVI’s first meeting with abuse victims, which happened in Washington, D.C., in 2008.

Francis is expected to visit the United States in September 2015.

The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said he doesn’t know whether Francis might meet with survivors from Boston, the epicenter of the abuse crisis.

“I do believe that [Monday’s] very moving meeting with survivors in Rome gives us a clear idea of how seriously and sincerely he is taking this matter,” Rosica wrote in an e-mail.

‘The pope made an unambiguous commitment to hold bishops accountable for failing to protect children.’

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During his homily, Francis promised that any bishop who fails to protect minors “will be held accountable.”

Anne Barrett Doyle, codirector of BishopAccountability.org, a Waltham group devoted to collecting documents about the abuse crisis, said Francis’ pledge was a first.

“The pope made an unambiguous commitment to hold bishops accountable for failing to protect children,” Barrett Doyle said. “We have not had a papal promise like this to date, one so plainly said. Now, we can hold the pope accountable for following through with this pledge.”

Some were skeptical, though, saying Francis has maintained the status quo with bishops since becoming pontiff in March 2013.

Paul Kellen, a founding member of the National Survivor Advocates Coalition, said the church so far has done much to shield bishops, but little to help sex abuse victims.

He cited the example of former Boston archbishop Bernard Law, who was accused of protecting abusive priests during his tenure, and was given a prestigious post at a basilica in Rome in 2004 by Pope John Paul II instead of being demoted.

Kellen also referred to Robert J. Carlson, a former auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who responded 193 times in a court-ordered deposition that he could not remember details about priest child sexual abuse during his tenure. Carlson now leads the archdiocese in St. Louis.

Victims of abuse, Kellen said, “would believe that there was some value in what happened to them if it became the motivation to change the behavior of the institution. . . . That’s what I’m looking for.”

Some also found fault in Francis’ apology, in which he sought forgiveness for “sins of omission on the part of church leaders.”

“Allowing child abuse and denying child abuse occurring are not acts of omission. They are acts of commission,” said attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who has represented victims of clergy sex abuse.

“One has to question whether the pope truly understands the evil of child abuse,” Garabedian said.

Francis has also been criticized for how he handled abuse cases when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires — specifically for not meeting with victims and for denying he had handled the case of an abusive priest.

Despite that record, the pontiff seemed genuine about this week’s meeting, said Bob Hoatson, a former priest who established a nonprofit, Road to Recovery, to help sex abuse victims and their families.

“Let’s capitalize on his sincerity and his commitment to hold bishops and the church accountable,” Hoatson said.

Hoatson listed steps he believes Francis should take to prove his commitment, including dismissing several bishops, asking civil authorities to investigate sexual abuse allegations leveled against church officials, and providing free lifetime treatment for victims.

Related coverage:

Abuse victim calls meeting Pope Francis a ‘life changing experience’

Pope Francis meets sex abuse victims, vows zero tolerance

John L. Allen Jr.: On sex abuse, pope’s problems both simple and complex

Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com.
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