THE FIRST MALE survivor of Irish clerical child sexual abuse to meet with Pope Francis was myself, Mark Vincent Healy. I followed Marie Kane, also from Ireland, as the fourth survivor to meet with Pope Francis. There were six of us presented to Pope Francis from the United Kingdom, Ireland and Germany.
It was such an important and historic moment for Irish survivors where the Pope was left in no doubt about the human and spiritual cost that clerical child sexual abuse causes. Those costs over decades were in the form of self-harming to suicide to spiritual isolation and what is called ‘soul murder’.
In my letter I personally presented to Pope Francis I wrote:
The world will indeed be curious about our meeting and wondering what will come of it. There are opposing opinions about such a meeting ranging from high hope on the one hand, to scepticism, if not derision, that nothing positive can possible come of such a meeting. For my part I can only hold out hope.I contacted other survivors and their families to let them know I had been accorded this opportunity. Many do not trust the Catholic Church and for good reason considering the enormous betrayal of trust which was later followed by the enormous distress in seeking remedy and redress.However, I feel any opportunity to dialogue and lay out the realities of Clerical Child Sexual Abuse is not to be squandered. I am not sure I have what it takes to give the sort of presentation this subject requires but I will be happy to have made the effort than to have lost the opportunity in not even trying.
A copy of my prepared letter had been sent to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin two days before meeting Pope Francis.
There had been and still is huge speculation about the survivors who met with Pope Francis. Indeed some of the comments have been very hurtful, portraying none of the difficulties and braveries exhibited in taking such a momentous step in agreeing to meet with the Patriarch of a Church of one billion followers, a church which has contributed to so much pain and suffering on children, its own children, the children of the living God, the very survivors who met with Pope Francis for the first time.
I was invited to meet with the pontiff following the announcement by Pope Francis on his return flight from Israel in May that he would be meeting with survivors of clerical child sexual abuse in early June. I said I would without hesitation. The schedule was premature and adjusted to early July.
I kept the matter secret, save for letting family and survivors know. The media were not to know or it might affect proceedings or indeed bring far too much pressure to bear on those survivors invited by their respective Archbishops.
Prior to going to the Vatican I was asked if I had any problem with having my photograph taken with Pope Francis or in having it published. I didn’t and hoped it would be published.
As I subsequently wrote to Fr Robert Oliver, the Vatican promoter of justice for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) who replaced Msgr Charles Scicluna in January 2013 as ‘Chief Prosecutor’, asking him to let Fr Federico Lombardi, the director of the Holy See Press Office know:
“I think it is important to be seen with His Holiness and not anonymously spoken of as nameless and faceless. It is part of justice to be seen. It is part of healing to be seen. It is part of witness to be seen. Let not the darkness which was in the sin (crime) be the place resigned for survivors. It is important to be in the light in order to instil hope.”
Prior to going to Rome I was also asked if I wished to address the world media assembled presenting my own comment about my meeting with Pope Francis. It would only be a few minutes at most. I indicated I would also wish to do so as I felt it was so important for survivors to be heard.
Last minute announcement
On the evening before meeting with Pope Francis it was announced from a day-long meeting held by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors that the photograph with the pontiff would not be published and that the opportunity of speaking directly to the press was also being withdrawn.
Pope Francis, dining in another part of the dining hall in the Domus Santa Martha, came to our table to shake hands with everyone present. Asked afterwards what I thought of Pope Francis and meeting him, I said ‘He was quite cordial and charming’. I said, ‘it was quite a charm offensive which would perhaps make it more difficult to discuss the very serious matters I had prepared and wanted to address the following day about clerical child sexual abuse.’
The withdrawal of publishing the photograph of meeting with Pope Francis and direct access to the world media assembled was becoming more and more uncomfortable inside me. I called it being ‘bagged’ and ‘gagged’. There really should have been no condition placed on survivors if they wished to be seen and heard after meeting with Pope Francis with the world media assembled.
In a written explanation I received from Msgr Robert Oliver, “As regards the photographs, at no point was there an intention to publish them, as was done in all past meetings of survivors with popes. Out of respect for each survivor present, they were taken solely for your use as you may wish.”
If any survivor wished to make a comment on their experience of meeting His Holiness Pope Francis, they could convey their comment to Fr Federico Lombardi who would incorporate it into the Vatican statement – which I thought an absolute nonsense. These announcements were presented as a fait accompli and I had to contain my emotion about these changing circumstances.
In a written explanation I received from Msgr Robert Oliver, “The meeting with Pope Francis was handled the same as all the past encounters of survivors with Pope Benedict, something quite clearly understood by the media.”
My response was, “It cannot be proper to state that Pope Francis is constrained by whatever protocols were in place with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in the handling of survivor access to the world media following an audience with His Holiness Pope Francis when publication of a photograph was immediate. The protocol is not set in stone but as has been mentioned it does not explain the reasoning behind such a decision, who was involved besides the members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and why access was withdrawn to survivors on the eve of meeting with Pope Francis which can only look like the Vatican didn’t wish for survivors to speak publicly. The point of this audience was to remove the shame of being hidden and silenced.”
The night before the private audience with Pope Francis I wanted to withdraw and called my best friend and my therapist. It was important to get the message I brought out there and I felt I could not squander the opportunity knowing it could only further silence the many survivors whom I felt needed to be heard concerning their awful lifelong suffering which they endure, if indeed they can.
My campaign is all about ‘rescue services’ and ‘safe space provisioning’ for survivors of clerical child sexual abuse. The last minute withdrawal of access to the world media assembled did not serve the interests of survivors nor help to remove the shame of clerical child sexual abuse.
I was to have 45 minutes with Pope Francis in a meeting, for which I have Archbishop Diarmuid Martin to thank. It was a minute for each year since I was first abused at the age of 9. Then, I was ordered into a room where I was abused by a priest; now, I was invited into a room to tell another priest all about it, that priest being the Pope himself.
I don’t want to believe the meeting with survivors was any PR exercise. I believe there is a dichotomy at work where the Catholic Church acts as a ‘corporation’ or ‘church’ and responds accordingly. In ‘corporation’ terms any media event is part of a PR exercise. However where the Catholic Church acts as a ‘church’, a ‘family’, ‘the body of Christ’ then this event was and is not a PR exercise but one which recognises the deep suffering caused survivors, their families, their communities, including the human family on a profound human and spiritual level.
I left Pope Francis with a clear translation by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of the following words: “The scandal of clerical child sexual abuse (CCSA) is an existential crisis in God’s house, played out for the world to see. It is about the children of the living God and how they have been treated by the ministers of the living God.”
Mark Vincent Healy is a campaigning abuse survivor. Read his full report and response to the NSBCCCI audit into the Holy Ghost Fathers here.