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Pope Francis’ US visit spawns anxiety in clergy abuse victims

Pope Francis, who visited Havana Cathedral on Sunday, will make his way to the United States this week.Orlando Barria/EPA

The news earlier this year that Pope Francis was coming to America hit Robert Costello “like a punch in the gut,” and as a survivor of clergy sexual abuse in the 1960s and ’70s, he is dreading the coming tsunami of media coverage of the papal visit.

It has started already. At his job at Target, the pope’s face looks out from publications stacked in the magazine rack. “I have to stare at them at work,” he said in a Globe interview. “It’s unsettling.”

For many survivors, the hype around Francis’ visit feels misplaced, for they believe the pope has not done enough to bring transparency to the church and accountability to abusers and those who sheltered them.


David O’Regan, 65, the New England director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said many abuse survivors, including himself, are feeling stressed ahead of the pope’s visit.

“As a survivor, I’m nervous about him coming here,” he said. “I’m worried about my own self-care; how it’s going to affect me. It brings things to your mind, to the surface, especially with all the fanfare that he gets.”

He has already seen an increase in phone calls “from survivors who need to talk,” as the date of the pope’s arrival gets closer.

“At our [support] meetings, there’s a lot of anxiety,” he said. “There are discussions: What are we going to do? How are we going to react?

“I’m just holding on tight. The media is going to bombard us. We can’t avoid it. But I’m not going to be looking for stories about the pope. I need to protect myself.”

Francis, who became pope in 2013, has taken action to address the issue, such as appointing a commission on clergy sexual abuse, led by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston. In June, Francis announced the creation of a new Vatican tribunal to hear cases of bishops alleged to have failed to protect children from molestation by priests.


What many survivors want, however, are dramatic steps.

“We really don’t need another committee to study this,” said Ann Hagan Webb, 63, a psychologist and the Rhode Island SNAP coordinator, who says she was abused by a priest from kindergarten through seventh grade.

“He can fire some bishops, but that’s not going to happen,” she said.

“At a gut level I hate the fact there is going to be so much fanfare and that he’s practically been made a saint by the public and the press already,” she said of the pope. “He says lots of nice things but his actions, especially around the abuse crisis, have not matched his words.”

She wants Francis to instruct US bishops to “stop spending millions of dollars fighting” sex abuse lawsuits, to be more forthcoming with church documents related to abuse allegations, and to support efforts to change laws to permit prosecution of older sex crimes that are now barred from prosecution by statute of limitations laws.

Costello said he went to New York to protest when Pope Benedict XVI came in 2008, but is unlikely to travel this time to demonstrate during Francis’ visit this week to Washington, New York, and Philadelphia.

“I feel as if I should be doing something, but I know now it’s probably not going to be the healthiest thing for me,” he said. “Survivors and their supporters are going to get drowned out by all the good press. I’m thinking to myself, why put myself through that?”


Instead, he intends to limit his exposure to media coverage of the visit.

Phil Saviano, 63, who came forward as a clergy abuse survivor in a 1993 Globe article, said he finds Francis a “refreshing change” who “has a sense of humor and seems approachable.” That said, Saviano is “personally not excited about him coming to the States.”

Pope Francis “has talked about a lot of things but so far nothing has really happened,” he said. “[A Vatican tribunal to hold bishops accountable] sounds great but we really don’t know how it’s going to work. Is the message that from this point on bishops that don’t handle this properly will be brought before the tribunal? Is this retroactive? And how far is it going back? Five years? Ten Years? Twenty years?

“Seems like months and now years going by and nothing has been done,” he said. “It leaves me with more than a little bit of skepticism.”

Saviano said Francis could make a big impact in the United States by using the occasion of his planned United Nations speech to acknowledge the criticism UN committees levied on the church last year over its abuse policies, and promise to do better. Or he could choose one of the Masses he will say during his trip and “offer it up for the intention of the thousands of clergy abuse victims in this country.


“Such a gesture would be very well received by survivors, I believe,” he said.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.