LOS ANGELES » The election of a new pope could help heal the wounds left by a Roman Catholic sex abuse crisis that has savaged the church’s reputation worldwide. For alleged victims, much depends on whether Pope Francis disciplines the priests and the hierarchy that protected them.
Some hope the Jesuit pontiff’s well-known humility and social benevolence will lead to an era of greater transparency and renewed faith. A greater number, however, are calling on the new Roman Catholic leader to defrock U.S. cardinals who covered up for pedophile priests, formally apologize and order the release of all confidential church files from every diocese.
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.
It’s unclear how much direct experience Pope Francis, an Argentine cardinal, has had dealing with sexually abusive clergy in Latin America, where the scope of the abuse scandal has been more muted. When the scandal broke, however, he made it harder for people to become priests and now 60 percent are eliminated, his authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin, told the AP.
In contrast, his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI was in charge of the Vatican office that handled clergy abuse cases before becoming pope and was a guiding force behind several sex abuse policies enacted under Pope John Paul II.
Those policies haven’t been enough for most victims, who say they will scrutinize the new pope and his actions.
Elsie Boudreau, a Yup’ik Eskimo, was abused for nine years by a Jesuit priest in a tiny village in northern Alaska.
She settled her case in 2005 and now works as a social worker helping 300 other sex abuse victims in Alaska. She has since learned that Vatican officials had been aware of her alleged abuser since before she was born, she said.
"If Pope Francis were to defrock him and all the other perpetrator priests and all those who covered up the crimes and send a clear message to everybody else in the church I would be like, ‘Hmm, OK, there could be a change,’" said Boudreau, 45, who now lives in Anchorage. "But I don’t believe that will ever happen. There’s no track record."
Other alleged victims called on Pope Francis to immediately order the release of all confidential records on pedophile priests in order to cleanse the church and make amends.
Confidential files have been made public through litigation in some cases and have been released under court order in others, including in Los Angeles where a judge ordered more than 10,000 pages of priest personnel files be made public in January after a five-year legal battle over privacy rights.
Still missing, however, are the files for about 80 priests who belonged to various religious orders — including the Jesuits — and attorneys are pressing for their release, said Ray Boucher, the lead plaintiff attorney.
In many other dioceses, alleged victims still don’t know everything the church knew about their abusers.
"The pope has an opportunity to bring about true justice, change, and transformation in a church torn from scandal and the rape of children," said Billy Kirchen, who is one of 550 plaintiffs fighting to see files from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. "Real change has to come from the pope."
In Boston, clergy sex abuse victim Bernie McDaid expressed dismay that the new pope wasn’t Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who reached out to abuse victims and set up a secret 2008 meeting with Pope Benedict XVI.
McDaid said the selection of Pope Francis, a cardinal from Latin America where the church is rapidly growing, shows the church is more interested in uniting its hierarchy than confronting its clergy sex scandal.
"They’re putting their problems first again, instead of the real problem that’s causing the disruption, which is the child sex abuse, which they still haven’t worked through," McDaid said.
Other abuse victims said they were disgusted that cardinals who covered up abuse in their own dioceses helped elect the next pope.
Michael Duran, a 40-year-old special education teacher from Los Angeles, said Pope Francis’ elevation is tainted because of their presence. Duran and three others settled with the Los Angeles archdiocese earlier this week for nearly $10 million over childhood abuse by the Rev. Michael Baker.
Recently released confidential files show Baker met privately with Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony in 1986 and confessed to molesting children, but he was put back in the ministry for 14 years, where he abused again. Authorities believe Baker, who was convicted in 2007 and paroled in 2011, may have molested more than 20 children in his 26-year career.
Duran was particularly upset that Mahony, who retired in 2011, took to Twitter and a blog to defend himself while in Rome.
In one post, Mahony wrote about praying for sex abuse victims but also for "those in the media who constantly malign me and my motives, attorneys who never focus on context or history in their legal matters, groups which picket me or otherwise object to me, and all those who despise me or even hate me."
"He was tweeting and blogging over there like an innocent man, and it was really offensive to me. He was acting like he was the martyr, like he was the victim in all this," Duran said.
If Pope Francis did take action against any U.S. cardinals, it would be a departure from the way his predecessors addressed the clergy abuse crisis.
In 2001, Pope John Paul II issued a decree saying all clergy abuse cases needed to be funneled through the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith — then headed by the future Pope Benedict XVI — for review.
In 2002, in his strongest comments about the unfolding scandal, Pope John Paul II denounced U.S. bishops for the American clergy abuse crisis after summoning them to Rome for a special meeting. He said there was "no place in the priesthood … for those who would harm the young."
In 2003 and 2004, he approved changes to canon law to allow the Vatican to quickly defrock abusive priests without cumbersome internal trials.
Given the progressive decline in Pope John Paul’s health, however, it is widely presumed that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — the future Pope Benedict XVI — was the architect of those measures in his role as head of the Vatican department that handled clergy abuse allegations.
Earlier this year, the Vatican’s new sex crimes prosecutor, quoting Benedict, said the church must recognize the "grave errors in judgment that were often committed by the church’s leadership." He added that bishops must report abusive priests to police where the law requires it.
The comments came days after the release of the Los Angeles confidential files.
Now, with a new pope, victims in the U.S. hope more change is coming — but they aren’t optimistic.
"Most cardinals say he’s already won their hearts. Fine, but what about the people in the pews? What about us survivors?" said Esther Miller, who was part of a $660 million settlement in 2007 between more than 500 alleged abuse victims and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. "I think his actions need to speak louder than words."