By far the most moving moment for me from Benedict's trip to our country has been his surprise visit with sexual abuse victims. The responses in the press have been various, especially from other abuse victims. Some have called it a mere publicity stunt (in one CNN story, someone suggested it was a ploy to get more money for the Church), others lament that it is a distraction from real action to redress just grievances, and some have been moved to tears. John Allen perhaps described it best when he explained that, when an institution has an unbroken 2000 year history, it is rare that we can use the term "unprecedented" to describe an event. But this encounter was truly an unprecedented event. The closest modern parallel I can think of is when Pope John Paul II met with his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, in his prison cell. Of course the circumstances were very different, but each meeting was a profound encounter seeking reconciliation, and in each case a pope had to let go of pride and power to offer a healing presence in a ruptured relationship.
Some have asked how the six victims who met the pope were chosen? Were they handpicked because officials knew they would not cause controversy or challenge the pope to act? And why was the meeting private, when a public forum could have brought together many more victims?
I think these are very reasonable questions for people to ask, especially for those who have been terribly injured by the Church. But I think the venue Benedict chose was very fitting for his mission. Unlike at John Paul's meeting with Agca, here there was no press, no photo-ops. Rather, there was an intimate and free encounter in which Benedict first and foremost exercised his role as spiritual father. Those victims who were present and whom I saw interviewed were most impressed by his fatherly presence, calling him a grandfather who, as he listened, they knew understood and cared.
Those who met the pope had met before with other bishops, and they have learned to judge whether someone with authority cares about them and takes them seriously. I'm sure some bishops they have met have not been convinced of their stories, or have taken a coldly doctrinal or legalistic perspective. Benedict's second purpose, I believe, was to set an example to American bishops, who deal with this crisis on a daily basis. A leader is meant to listen and to be a father more than an administrator.
Benedict also set an example for all of us. Imagining the pope hearing such horrible stories that must shake even his faith reminds me of times I have spoken with people, whether young or old, who have been scarred. I think especially of my time as a volunteer hospice chaplain. These encounters often produce anger and frustration in the one who listens, which facilitates solidarity with one who suffers. The pope came to America not only to speak with us, but to learn from us and experience the pain our nation's Church has been through. The encounter the pope had with abuse victims is transformative not only for victims, but also for the pope. How he will be impacted and impelled to new action remains to be seen, but his visit was an important beginning and established, in imitation of Christ, a strong solidarity with and presence to victims. Action and reform ("doing") is always second to presence ("being").
I take the pope's initiative as a call for each of us to openness and dialogue, even the most difficult conversations. We must be ready to experience someone else's perspective, to listen attentively, and to be changed by what we hear. Thus this private moment of his visit is an embodiment of his commitment to dialogue, peace, and pluralism, which he has touched on throughout his talks and which resonate so well with our American heritage.