Advocates for victims of sexual abuse said they were dismayed to learn that Pope Francis met briefly with Cardinal Bernard F. Law, the Boston archbishop who resigned in 2002 under heavy criticism for his handling of the abuse crisis, in one of the pope’s first appearances after his election to the papacy.
Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of the Waltham-based online research center BishopAccountability.org, called the Vatican’s report of a brief but friendly meeting between the two officials on the pope’s first day an affront to those working to end sexual abuse in the church.
“It was a truly unfortunate first step on the pope’s part,” said Doyle in a phone call from Rome, where she has traveled to raise awareness about the abuse crisis. “Intended or not, the pope was sending a dispiriting signal to the victims and Catholics of Boston in particular.”
As Francis, the first non-European pope in modern times, steps into his new role as leader of the Catholic Church, observers worldwide are now looking to each decision he makes in his first days in the papacy for perspective on how he plans to lead.
Some believe the pope’s meeting with Law could be a sign of how Francis will deal with the sexual abuse crisis, an issue with which he has not had much high-profile experience.
Law became the object of immense criticism after failing to remove sexual predator priests from their posts in the archdiocese, allowing for more children to be abused under the church’s watch. He was later given a role as archpriest at St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome.
The basilica was one of Francis’ stops on his first day as pope.
A report by the Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano, translated and re-reported by Britain’s The Daily Mail, contended that the meeting between Francis and Law was fraught with conflict and that the pope banished the cardinal from the church.
“Hearing that the new Pope was offering prayers at the very same church, it seems [Law] couldn’t resist a discreet [peek],” the Daily Mail wrote. “But when Pope Francis recognised him, he immediately ordered that Law be removed, according to Italian media reports. He went on to command: ‘He is not to come to this church any more.’ One of the new Pope’s first acts will be to arrange new ‘cloistered’ accommodation for the disgraced cardinal.”
But the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, quickly dismissed that report as a fabrication and called it “absurd.”
“The Italian media story is completely false and without any foundation,” Rosica wrote in an e-mail Friday. “One only need watch the images of Pope Francis greeting Cardinal Law at this morning’s meeting with the Cardinals at the Vatican.”
For advocates for victims of Catholic sexual abuse, the reports that Francis had rebuked Law were surprising, and seemed unlikely.
“We thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be great if it were true,’ ” Doyle said.
David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, who has been in Rome for the past three weeks in efforts to bring light to the sexual abuse crisis, said he was skeptical when he heard that Law may have been banished from his church.
“The pope is by all accounts a brilliant man, with a sizable and experienced PR staff,” Clohessy said. “If he wanted to rebuke Law, it’s pretty doubtful they would have leaked this to one local newspaper.”
The congeniality of the meeting between the church officials, as described by the Vatican, was “incredibly insensitive to those who are suffering,” Clohessy said.
“There are hundreds of churches and church officials the new pope could have visited on Day One,” Clohessy said. “It’s hard to think of a more hurtful choice.”
A Vatican spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the criticisms made against the pope. A spokeswoman for Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley also declined to comment on the meeting.
Doyle said she hoped for an apology from Francis.
“He needs to take responsibility for the fact that he sent a very bad message,” Doyle said. “The message he sent is that he’s not going to be a reformer.”
Others, however, were more optimistic that the meeting, though perhaps offensive to some, was not a harbinger for a lenient stance on sexual abuse in the priesthood.
Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, said he is hopeful that Francis may yet mete out a tougher punishment for Law — or at least an assignment to live out his days in prayer and penance — and that the Argentinian pope recognizes that members of the Catholic Church, especially within the United States, “are very aware of the symbolic quality of Law and how he’s treated.”
“It’s not just symbolism,” McKiernan said. “There are children in Boston who were sexually abused because Cardinal Law did not do his job.”
“I have a hunch that [Francis] understands that,” McKiernan said.