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

Pope Francis.

Andrew Medichini/AP

Pope Francis.

ROME - From the age of 8 until he was 13, Peter Saunders was sexually abused by a member of his family, a lay teacher, and two priests of the Catholic school he attended. Growing up in a devout Catholic home, it was especially difficult for Saunders to cope with the shame, which may be part of the reason it took him 24 years to acknowledge what had happened.

Today, the 57-year-old Saunders heads a London-based group called the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC), which for the last 19 years has been helping other victims overcome their suffering by providing a support system.

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“I created NAPAC because when I was finally ready to talk about what had been done to me, I realized there was no one who could understand,” Saunders said.

Saunders was one of six abuse victims who met Pope Francis on Monday, describing the encounter afterwards as a “life-changing experience.”

Saunders expressed optimism that Francis will follow through on his pledges of zero tolerance and accountability.

“I believe him to be a sincere man,” Saunders said, “and I believe him to be someone who wants to do this right.”

Saunders spoke in an exclusive interview with the Globe about the meeting with Pope Francis, and the following are excerpts from that conversation.

Globe: So you met the pope today…

Saunders: Actually, I met him for the first time last night. He came into the refectory as we’re having dinner, and he was just tossing food on his plate like any mortal would. I told the person seating next to me, “There’s the pope!” As he was standing up to leave, I caught his eye and waved to him and he came over. I was pinching myself, thinking, “Is this really happening? Is the pope coming towards us?”

He shook all our hands and said hello, and I said, “I hope Argentina wins the World Cup…”

What did he say about that?

Saunders: He laughed… he absolutely wants for Argentina to win. He didn’t say it out loud, but you could see it in his eyes, he’s a closet fan.

What was the impact of that first meeting?

Saunders: It was a game-changer. I remember going to bed last night having my unease laid to rest. I’d met the guy and realized that he’s just an ordinary man in an extraordinary job. I don’t want to talk in the name of the others, but I think he put all of as at ease with his informality. He’s so down to earth he didn’t even want for us to stand up to greet him. And it was lovely.

What can you tell us about this morning?

Saunders: We went to mass to his little chapel and it was just a few people there. His homily, or sermon as we call it, was fantastic. In that sermon he said all the right things. After mass and receiving communion from the pope, we had an official photograph while shaking hands with the pope, and that was probably the only formal part of the whole thing. I shook his hand and gave him a little pat on the shoulder. It was good.

He’s granted me something that the prime minister, and the deputy prime minister and all these other ministers of state in the UK never have. I had the benefit of a discussion with him, with no limits, no intermediaries, just him and I … and the interpreter, since I don’t speak Spanish and his not comfortable in English. It was a life changing moment for me.

What were you thinking?

Saunders: Towards the end of mass, I got very, very emotional. I was thinking about my mom and dad, particularly my dad. He died 19 years ago and never knew what happened to me as a child. I don’t know how that would have affected him if he’d found out, because he was very devoted to the church. I think he was as devoted to the church as he was to my mother, which if you know my mother you would understand. She was a challenging lady...

I was thinking about how overwhelmed he’d be to know that his son was ten feet from the Holy Father, listening to him preach and then receiving Holy Communion. I think my dad would have been very happy about that. Proud isn’t the right word, but he’d have been happy.

It was my dad’s death that made me realize that I couldn’t hold on any longer. Before that moment, I’d never understood or come to terms with the impact the abuses I suffered all those years before had had on me. The physical stuff, the sexual abuse ended ages ago, but it remains in your head as though it was yesterday. I think this pope understands that.

You mentioned the pope said all the right things. Would you say he, and the Church, are doing the right things?

Saunders: I can only talk about what the Catholic Church has done in the UK, because it’s the one I know up close. They have done a huge amount of work to ensure that the children are protected, which is the primary goal. I know they’ve been really careful about screening who they allow to the priesthood.

But there’s still work that needs to be done. There are still people coming to NAPAC telling us about the bad experiences they’ve had with the church. I think that it’s almost engrained that the church has been more interested in self-protection than in being transparent. The way to change that perception is with action.

Many critics claim that Francis took too long to have this meeting, that he hasn’t done enough to fight clerical sex abuse, and that there are still many issues to be addressed. What’s your view?

Saunders: I know of many people who are very, very angry with the church because of their experience. I won’t deny them their experience. People have the right to be angry if they were wrongly treated. During my personal journey, since I disclosed the abuse, I found a lot of support from many people, including many Catholic people.

You’re probably familiar with SNAP [the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, the leading victims’ advocacy group in the United States]. I’ve been to three of their last four annual conferences and I met some people who, very understandably, are very angry with what’s happened to them and the response of their local church. I understand that completely. But like me, many of the people who go to the SNAP conferences are still devout Catholics, supporting those who have been badly let down.

As a result of being hurt by so many when I was a child, I’m wary of aspects of certain groups of people. When I see people in clerical dress, I step back and protect myself by taking control. I was very badly taken advantage of as a child and that’s engraved in my head. But with Pope Francis this morning, I did not have a hint of uncomfortableness. He’s been in office over a year, and I can’t begin to imagine the amount of work he has. Some will be able to justify their critical position saying that he hasn’t done much, or hasn’t acted fast enough, but I believe him to be a sincere man. I believe him to be someone who wants to do this right.

The man I met today, I don’t think is a man who would let us down. He’s a different kind of pope. He’s certainly a pope of the people. Surely that’s what a priest is supposed to be, a man of the people.

I know I’ll attract some criticism for talking about this, but it won’t be the first time. Whatever else people can do, they can’t deny me my faith. I urged the pope this morning to instruct his priests and bishops to work with civil authorities when there’s any potential danger for children. He was nodding to it a lot. He didn’t say much, but I think he knows what was being said to him. I trust him, and I can only hope that he doesn’t betray that trust.

You described this as a life changing experience. In the grand scheme of things, how important do you think it is that pope Francis met with the six of you?

Saunders: The pope hasn’t only met six victims. He’s 77 years old, which means he’s met hundreds of victims of sex abuse, not necessarily at the hands of priests. He’s certainly celebrated a great number of masses that had victims of sex abuse among those in attendance. This was the first official thing. I’m praying that he’s going to send a message to every bishop and diocese around the world saying that they must never cover up something like this.

A sermon, hopefully the one [Pope Francis] gave us this morning, should be read in every church around the word. I know it would touch the hearts of many people, who in turn will touch others that might feel inspired to come back to the church.

Why do you think you were chosen to meet the pope?

Saunders: I know I wasn’t chosen because they thought I was good for a public relations stunt. I don’t know why I was chosen, but I can guess. I have made myself known amongst the Catholic leaders in England. I’ve been on the radio following an interview with the Archbishop of Westminster, and I had a go at him, really quite strongly. They haven’t chosen me because I was a safe bet, quite the contrary.

I’ll never really know why I was chosen, but I guess God had something to do with it.

When you read in the press that the pope was going to be meeting with victims of sex abuse, did you ever think you might be in the group?

Saunders: God no! I remember thinking “I hope he meets real people”. I know for a fact that he did. I can honestly say I sat and looked into the eyes of a real man, who happens to be the pope. And I found an honest, sincere guy, full of love, and that’s good enough for me, because none of us is perfect.

Many people, when they found out I was coming, told me: “Pete, don’t think you don’t deserve it, because you do”. Like many abuse victims, I grew up thinking I didn’t deserve anything. I always feel that if something good happens to me, it comes with a price. One of my abusers told me as a child that I was never going to amount to anything. It was a lie, but I grew up believing it. During the last few weeks I’ve been pinching myself, thinking, is this real? And it was, I met him.

What can you tell us about NAPAP?

Saunders: The idea came into my head nineteen years ago when my dad died and I had no one to talk to about [the abuse]. I thought, as many people do, that I was the only one to whom this had happened. In the weeks, months and years that followed the creation of this charity, I have found out that millions around the word have suffered from some kind of abuse, including sexual abuse.

We’re not just there for sex abuse victims. We’re there for those who have been physically abused, emotionally abused… all forms of abuse tend to mingle into one another. Sexual abuse is physical violence, and we recover from our bodies being hurt, but the mind doesn’t recover as the mind does. One of the things we’re doing back in the UK is trying to have a meeting with the health minister to ask him to include better treatment for people with mental disorders. We never ask the depressed why they’re depressed, we just give them a pill.

NAPAC was built as a place for people to talk. We don’t provide psychiatric treatment. We’ve done some support groups, but we no longer have the money to do that, so we have an open free line with phones ringing all day. We should be huge, but what we want to do is to train people within the health system, so that, eventually, NAPAC is no longer needed. That’s, ultimately my hope.

That’s a high hope…

Saunders: It is, but you never know. Nineteen years ago I dreamed of meeting the pope, and I did, I’ve stayed at his house. You never know.

Related:

Pope Francis meets sex abuse victims, vows zero tolerance

On sex abuse, pope’s problems both simple and complex

Perils of a ‘let it all hang out’ pope

Inés San Martín is the Globe’s Rome correspondent. She may be reached at ines.sanmartin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @inesanma.

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