Pope's letter addressing abuse gets mixed reaction in Twin Cities

Archbishop Bernard Hebda
Archbishop Bernard Hebda speaks during a news conference at St. Paul Cathedral after being appointed as archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, March 24, 2016.
Leila Navidi | Star Tribune via AP 2016

Pope Francis' letter Monday condemning clergy sexual abuse drew a mixed reaction in the Twin Cities. Archbishop Bernard Hebda praised the pope's words, but abuse victims said they want decisive actions, not more talk of healing.

The letter from Pope Francis was a direct response to new reports of clerical sexual abuse and cover-ups in Pennsylvania, where a grand jury found there were at least 1,000 victims over decades.

The pope's letter seemed to acknowledge similar reports of credible abuse claims in recent years elsewhere around the world, including in Minnesota. Francis asked Catholics to support victims and pray and fast in penance for such "atrocities." He called for a commitment to a culture of care that says "never again" to all abuse and any cover-ups.

Some abuse survivors said they were hoping for a firmer response.

Bob Schwiderski, an Orono abuse survivor and long-time leader or an organization supporting Minnesota victims, said, "It's time for action, not words," and that the pope has been slow and weak in addressing sexual predators within the church. "The issue is: is this church going to finally do something to protect the children of today?"

Abuse survivor Joe McLean, of Minneapolis, said he's heard enough about prayers and contrition. He says the Catholic Church should turn over all records of abuse, no matter where the abuse occurred, to law enforcement. And McLean said the church should stop fighting efforts to give victims more time to bring lawsuits against the people who harmed them.

"I expect the Catholic Church in the U.S. to end lobbying efforts against efforts to roll back statute of limitations in cases that involve allegations of child sexual assault by members of the Catholic clergy," he said.

Minnesota extended the window for abuse victims to file lawsuits. That led to hundreds of claims against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. McLean and other victims are voting on a bankruptcy reorganization plan that will give them $210 million in compensation.

Hebda, the archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said he was glad to see the pope acknowledge the pain of abuse victims and past failures of church leaders to protect children.

"Those wounds, he reminds us, never go away. It is only by acknowledging our sins and failures that we can begin to start down the road to forgiveness, reconciliation, healing and peace," Hebda said in an emailed statement.

The archbishop said he wants to honor abuse survivors' plea that no child is ever again abused by a clergy member.

Abuse survivor Jim Keenan said the church can't be trusted to police itself.

"If they're really going to rectify this problem, they have to turn themselves inside out. You can't trust an entity that tried to police itself for 70 plus years around pedophiles. They need to partner with community law enforcement, first and foremost," Keenan, of Savage, said.

Jamie Heutmaker, a victim of abuse by a priest in the late 1960s, and who now lives in Prior Lake, is skeptical but hopeful.

"I do hope that we see some concrete evidence of the Vatican and the pope actually acting on the words he provided that letter," Heutmaker said.

Many actions designed to prevent sexual abuse of children in the future were part of a legal settlement with Ramsey County. Hebda said the archdiocese has worked hard to develop a system that will hold priests accountable and maintain safe environments for children.

Even victims' attorneys say that the archdiocese has done much since Catholic leadership was hit with lawsuits to improve safeguards for children, employing internal and external investigators and other measures.

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