LOS ANGELES — Most Roman Catholics are rejoicing at the election of Pope Francis, but alleged victims of clergy abuse in the U.S. are demanding swift and bold actions from the new Jesuit pontiff: Defrock all molester priests and the cardinals who covered up for them, formally apologize, and release all confidential church files.
Adding to their distrust are several multimillion dollar settlements the Jesuits paid out in recent years, including $166 million to more than 450 Native Alaskan and Native American abuse victims in 2011 for molestation at Jesuit-run schools across the Pacific Northwest. The settlement bankrupted the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus. The order also paid $14 million to settle nine California cases.
“I would like to see this pope stand up and say to those cardinals, ‘You need to square this away and change everything that was covered up,’ “ said Ken Smolka, a 70-year-old retired actor who claimed in a lawsuit he was abused as a teen by a Jesuit priest. “You need to get them on their knees, and let them spend the rest of their lives on their knees praying for the victims.”
Pope Francis, who has already set the tone for a new era of humility and compassion, is likely to be sensitive to the plight of clergy abuse victims and aware of the need to work with the worldwide church to prevent more abuse, said Christopher Ruddy, an associate professor at Catholic University of America. Meting out punishment to individual cardinals, however, is much less likely, Ruddy said.
“My sense is that if a bishop really wanted to dig in his heels, it would be very difficult to get him to resign. We have this idea that the pope says something, and everybody just leaps. It doesn’t really work that way,” Ruddy said. “The bishops themselves have certain rights under church law and they have authority, so that’s a hard thing to talk about.”