Pope Francis Sex Abuse Comments “Shocked” Philly Sex Abuse Victim

"It is so completely out of touch with reality," says Main Line businessman and victims' advocate John Salveson.

John Salveson speaks in the Capitol Rotunda in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on September 21st.

John Salveson speaks in the Capitol Rotunda in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on September 21, 2015.

On Wednesday, Pope Francis addressed the United States bishops at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C., and the subject of the clergy sex abuse scandal came up, though he steered clear of using the words “sexual abuse.”

Pope Francis praised the bishops for their “courage” and “great sacrifice,” and seemed to recognize the bishops themselves and the church as additional victims, saying, “I realize how much the pain of recent years has weighed upon you and I have supported your generous commitment to bring healing to victims – in the knowledge that in healing we, too, are healed – and to work to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated.”

None of this sat very well with Bryn Mawr’s John Salveson, who was sexually abused by a Catholic priest when he was a teenager. These days, Salveson is the co-founder of Radnor executive-search firm Salveson Stetson Group and president of the Foundation to Abolish Child Sexual Abuse. We got him on the phone for his reaction to Pope Francis’ comments.

Were you surprised that Pope Francis addressed clergy sex abuse with the U.S. bishops in the way that he did?

I was very surprised by his comments. Really shocked. Now, I’m a bit of an outlier on this, but I’m not one of those people holding their breath for the pope to do something to make everything better. The object is not to get the Catholic church to be good to people again, to take care of victims, or to do the right thing.

So what is the object?

A lot of the behavior is criminal behavior, but the statute of limitations is so small, so they rarely get dragged off to jail. Monsignor Lynn was the first person arrested and convicted in the entire hierarchy, which is just unbelievable.

You expected him to speak specifically to the criminal behavior?

There is nothing I was expecting or hoping that the pope would say necessarily. I assumed that he would address it in a supportive but neutral way. What surprised me was how ridiculous what he said was. It’s so completely out of touch with reality to characterize the American bishops’ response as generous and courageous. It’s just — I don’t even know how to describe it — it’s so far from the truth and so far from anybody’s experience.

So how would you characterize their response?

They are vindictive risk managers. Everybody looks at the church and how they behave and asks, How could they do this? They think the church sees it as a moral issue, but they don’t They see it strictly as a risk management issue. They treat survivors like adversaries, they lie to them, they tie them up in court. They are stingy and cowardly. He was off by 180 degrees.

What has your organization been doing to change things?

We do a lot of legal advocacy. We were in Harrisburg on Monday for some new legislation that we’re supporting. There are four different bills that are designed to reform the statute of limitations as it relates to civil cases. Probably the most important thing would be to open a window, a two-year time period, where victims could file civil suits no matter when they were abused. That window is the strongest tool available.

This happened in California and in Delaware. It’s a state-by-state issue. If you open that window, people from the past can come forward, and that exposes their predators who have enjoyed anonymity, because you can’t sue them and therefore you can’t cite them in the media. Hundreds of predators have been exposed in California as a result.

What they’re really afraid of is the discovery. If there is discovery in a case, that information becomes public information. And they have all of it in their files. They don’t want it out in the public.

Let me give you one very small example. The Bishop of Syracuse gave a deposition four years ago in a civil suit. That deposition just came out. Four years later. And what did he say in that deposition? He said that victims of abuse are sometimes culpable for their own abuse, that they sometimes cause it. If you have idiots making stupid statements like that, it’s understandable that you don’t want that out in the general population.

Where does the Pennsylvania legislation stand?

It is where it always is: It’s stuck. There’s huge opposition from the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, and what they do is intimidate and scare and lobby and spend a lot of money in Harrisburg. We can’t even get it out of committee. Everybody’s afraid that they’ll have to vote on it.

But Pope Francis seems to have people more hopeful about the church. Don’t you think he could be the pope to change things?

I agree. People are very hopeful. So, he’s done two things. One is, he created a commission to deal with this issue in the Vatican, and it includes two survivors. That is very good. The second thing is, he’s created a tribunal to investigate bishops who moved pedophiles around. Both of these are just beginning their work.

I looked at those as positive developments. But after yesterday’s comment, well, I don’t see those going together. It sort of makes me rethink it. Either you don’t really know the truth, or you do know the truth but you also know that you better not really tell the truth. Either he is completely out of touch with what is going on in America — because no sane person would use his words — or he’s just trying to put lipstick on a pig.

Where is Philadelphia Archbishop Chaput on these issues?

He leads the charge nationally on blocking reform of the statute of limitations. It’s probably why he’s in Philly. He did it very successfully in Colorado, and he’s also doing it here. He’s terrible.

But what about the sentiment that this is all water under the bridge, that the church has dealt with it, and that it’s time to move on?

That’s the narrative that the church leaders would like you to believe, that they’ve taken care of it. But they won’t release the identity of the priests that abused kids, and they don’t get the civil authorities involved.

Are they better at handling it? I’m not sure they are. But let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that they are better. If it’s a 100-step process to get to where they should be, maybe they are at step five or ten. Maybe. But they are still hiding predators, punishing victims, and fighting legislative reform. That’s how it is.

But the United Nations Committee on the Protection of Children cited the Vatican last year — not in 2002, not in 1990, not in 1950 — for all the damage they’ve done to kids and their failure to correct that.

And now the leader of that entity, as you and I are speaking, is walking down the aisle to address a joint session of Congress in the United States. How do you invite the sovereign leader of that group to a joint session with a report like that out there? And I defy you to find any reporter who has asked that question.

Are you surprised that this subject hasn’t been raised more in advance of the pope’s visit?

Their original strategy was that people like me would be too broken to go public, and that was true for years. But that’s not true anymore. Victims like me will now talk about it.

So their backup strategy has been, We’ll tell the people in the pews it’s taken care of. They don’t wanna hear about this stuff. And we’ll put out some reports and tell the media about them. Nobody will question us.

And that’s worked out pretty well. That’s why it hasn’t been on the front page of the paper. No one wants to read about child sex abuse when they can read about Donald Trump.