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Abuse Survivors Wanted Pope's Summit To Issue Zero Tolerance Rules


At mass yesterday, Pope Francis promised a, quote, "all-out battle against the abuse of minors." He was wrapping up a summit on clergy sex abuse at the Vatican. The archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Blase Cupich, seemed to acknowledge that the church had let people down.


BLASE CUPICH: The fateful at large are wondering if we, the leaders of the church, fully understand this sacred bond - this reality.

GREENE: The archbishop also presented a proposal for greater clergy accountability, but is it enough? Was this summit enough for survivors of abuse, some of whom were there for the summit over the past few days? And Peter Isely was among them. He was abused as a child by a priest in Wisconsin. He is co-founder of the organization Ending Clergy Abuse, and he joins us on the line via Skype from Rome. Thanks so much for taking the time for us this morning.

PETER ISELY: You bet. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: So such strong words from Pope Francis, I mean, saying that priests who had abused children are instruments of Satan, ravenous wolves. I just wonder how you reacted to words like that from him.

ISELY: Well, we were here this week as survivors from around the globe. We had survivors from five continents and 29 countries. And what we needed to hear - what the world needed to hear is that Pope Francis was going to enact into universal church law, because that's what counts in the Catholic Church, zero tolerance for priests that have assaulted children - that any priest that sexually assaults or has sexually assaulted a child is going to be removed from ministry and taken out of the priesthood. And these bishops are flying back to their countries, and they don't have to do that today. And secondly, that any bishop or cardinal that has covered up sex crimes - he's also going to be removed from the priesthood. And those are the two things that count. That's something he could've done. He's the only one that can do it. He's the only one that has the responsibility and power to do it. And he hasn't done it. And we're leaving the summit without that action, and those two actions are the beginning of any change.

GREENE: Did you have any conversations with church leaders who were there to talk about why that was not something that the pope said and whether the church plans to enact something like zero tolerance at some point in the future?

ISELY: Well, we did. And on Wednesday, including with Cardinal Cupich, we met with a planning committee. And we assumed that Pope Francis was going to be there. And we were surprised when he wasn't there and was wondering where he was. The survivors in that meeting are a group of survivors they've never had to really deal with before because these are not just survivors telling their stories. We didn't tell them our stories. They know our stories. We were there to get to business. And these are survivors that represent organizations around the world. They've worked with thousands of survivors. But we did meet with that planning commission and, you know, laid out to them - talked to them about what needs to be done. There's a lot of things that need to be done. But...

GREENE: What did they tell you? Did they...

ISELY: ...They don't make the law...

GREENE: Were they responsive...

ISELY: Sure.

GREENE: ...To your ideas?

ISELY: Well, we had an interesting discussion. It got heated at times. Cardinal Cupich for instance - I'll speak about him, and I've met him in the past. He's a nice man. But, you know, he was kind of talking the way you just had him talking. And, you know, I simply had to kind of interrupt. And I said, forgive me, Cardinal, but you're under investigation - you and your dioceses in Illinois right now because you haven't been transparent; and you appear to have been covering up child sex crimes. The Illinois attorney general in a scathing report, like, a month ago - a preliminary report looking at their files was alarmed and astonished that there are 500 credibly accused priests in that state, including in the Archdiocese of Chicago, that were not reported.

GREENE: You confronted him about what's been alleged about his...

ISELY: And they were saying, we've reported everything; we've done it.

GREENE: ...Church. How did he respond when you confronted him with this?

ISELY: Well, what I also said was, I don't trust you; and I trust the Illinois attorney general; and when the Illinois attorney general tells us that you can be trusted, then we'll trust you. And he didn't say anything. He didn't respond at all. He took a lot of notes. Cardinal Gracias from India was in the room. He's been now implicated in covering up child sex crimes, and he didn't say a word. He just took a lot of notes.


ISELY: And we were saying, we need information from you.

GREENE: So you're leaving this summit feeling - I mean, is there any level of optimism that - the fact that this summit was held and that there was tough language, are you optimistic at all that the church is going to begin to address this in a way that it hasn't in the past?

ISELY: I'm optimistic when - you know, because this is coming out around the world. Survivors are contacting us around the world. Justice officials more and more around the world are doing the job they should've done. I mean, Pope Francis - he said a lot of things in his remarks. And he's going to have an - OK, he's going to have an all-out war on abuse. And he had 130-plus bishops from around the world. That's the generals. They're coming on in. And Cardinal Marx from Germany, one of the big commanders - he gets up, and he says, we've destroyed documents. I mean, he makes this admission to the world, oh, yeah, we've - by the way, that's criminal evidence. That's what that is - we've destroyed criminal evidence of child sex crimes. And Pope Francis doesn't get up and say, what did you just say; you know, who destroyed criminal evidence; which bishops have done it; you know, how many of the rest of you in this room have done it? I mean, that's the kind of action that we wanted to see. He also said out there - Pope Francis - I was there when he said it. He says, you know, that this has to come from self-accusation; you know, you've got to accuse yourself before we do anything about it.

GREENE: Peter Isely is an abuse survivor, a co-founder of Ending Clergy Abuse. Thank you so much.

ISELY: You bet. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: February 24, 2019 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier version of this story misspelled Peter Isely's last name as Isley.