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  An estimated 800,000 people braved the rain to attend a Mass offered by Pope John Paul II in Toronto yesterday. (Reuters Photo)

Pope speaks of scandal's 'sadness'

Urges young to see beyond abuse crisis

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 7/29/2002

The pope's homily in Toronto

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TORONTO - Pope John Paul II yesterday expressed ''sadness and shame'' over the clergy sexual abuse crisis, but urged hundreds of thousands of rain-soaked Catholics not to be discouraged by the scandal that is roiling the church.

The ailing 82-year-old pontiff, whose reference to himself as ''old'' prompted chants of ''the pope is young'' from the crowd, chose the start of a three-hour outdoor papal Mass to offer his first remarks on the current crisis while on the American continent. He urged young Catholics, who have come from all over the world to celebrate the 17th World Youth Day, to remain true not only to their Christian faith, but also their Catholic denomination, saying of the church, ''We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures.''

''If you love Jesus, love the church,'' the pope said, sitting on a multitiered, 40,000-square-foot stage with more than 1,000 young adults and 450 bishops, including Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston. ''Do not be discouraged by the sins and failings of some of her members.''

The pope, who is now considering whether to approve a national child protection policy adopted by US bishops last month, acknowledged that Catholics have been hurt by the clergy sex abuse scandal, which exploded in Boston in January. In the ensuing months, dioceses around the United States and in a growing number of other nations have been forced to admit that in the latter half of the 20th century, numerous priests sexually abused minors, while their supervising bishops often failed to remove them from ministry.

''The harm done by some priests and religious to the young and vulnerable fills us all with a deep sense of sadness and shame,'' the pope said.

But the pontiff urged the 800,000 worshipers, gathered on the muddy fields of a former military base called Downsview Park, not to lose heart.

''Think of the vast majority of dedicated and generous priests and religious whose only wish is to serve and do good,'' he added. ''There are many priests, seminarians, and consecrated persons here today; be close to them and support them.''

The pope's remarks were his first to a public audience on the sex abuse crisis this year. He previously discussed the issue behind closed doors at a Vatican meeting with US cardinals on April 23, when he called sexual abuse a crime and said ''there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young.'' The pope had also alluded to the crisis in a Holy Thursday letter to priests in which he decried ''the sins of some of our brothers,'' and at a meeting with President Bush in May at which he referred to ''the difficulties of the moment.''

The pope had touched briefly on the issue of clergy sexual abuse at the last World Youth Day in North America, in Denver in 1993, when he referred to ''the pain of the suffering and scandal caused by the sins of some ministers of the altar.'' But this year's crisis has been far more severe, angering many Catholics and prompting the bishops' new policy.

Yesterday, the pope began his remarks in French, but switched to English when the subject turned to clergy sexual abuse. An intermittent but heavy rain, which had been punctuated by thunderclaps, was broken by a burst of sunshine as the pope began to discuss the issue.

In a remarkable personalization of the crisis, the pope said his own confidence in the church has been strengthened through other crises, alluding to his own suffering as a Polish citizen living under the Nazis and the Communists.

''Although I have lived through much darkness, under harsh totalitarian regimes, I have seen enough evidence to be unshakably convinced that no difficulty, no fear is so great that it can completely suffocate the hope that springs eternal in the hearts of the young,'' he said. ''Do not let that hope die. Stake your lives on it. We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father's love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his son.''

Many in the vast congregation could not comprehend his words, in part because the pope's diction is slurred as a result of Parkinson's disease, and in part because his English is heavily accented.

But the crowd stood raptly as he spoke. Young adults stood in mud or on puddled tarp and strained to catch his words, some using the assistance of transistor radios to amplify his remarks. Even those who couldn't understand much of what he said were delighted that he had chosen to address the subject.

''It's been on everybody's mind, and it's good to hear the pope, as our leader, address it to young people,'' said Maureen Zak, 19, of Omaha. ''We know deep in our heart that we still need to respect priests, because it's not all of them, but he's reaffirming what we know.''

Bostonians were also delighted that the pope addressed the issue that has dominated the archdiocese this year.

''We heard how he was saddened and shamed, and we needed to hear that, as priests, as laypeople, and as young people,'' said the Rev. Christopher O'Connor of St. John's Church in Winthrop. ''He really was addressing the North American pilgrims, and I was overwhelmed. It was great to see. It was a powerful moment.''

Melissa Hilperts, 16, of Sudbury, also welcomed the remarks. ''It's just so sad, not only that people are misusing their position, but that people have strayed from their faith,'' she said. ''It's good that the pope said something. It needed to be said.''

Victim advocates were unhappy with the pope's remarks yesterday, which they said did not go far enough and did not recognize the role of bishops in creating the crisis.

''We are saddened by the pontiff's unwillingness to apologize to the thousands who have been victimized,'' said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. ''He missed a wonderful opportunity to lighten our burden with even a few words of regret.

''We would have felt much better if the pope had urged young Catholics to believe, listen to, and support abuse victims, rather than urging them to maintain their support of the institution of the church.''

Many of those listening were heartened by the pope's remarks.

''I was not surprised that the Holy Father addressed the crisis, because it's part of the real world, but by mentioning it he let people know he was aware of it, and he put it in context, making it clear that most priests and sisters have not violated their vows,'' said Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington. ''I'm glad he did it. I was very pleased.''

The pope appeared weak throughout the Mass, pausing frequently during his homily, and he stooped over the altar as he celebrated the Eucharist.

In his homily yesterday he had written, ''You are young, and the pope is old and a bit tired. But he still fully identifies with your hopes and aspirations.'' But when he began to read those lines, the crowd interrupted him with chants about his youthfulness, so he dropped the line about being tired, and instead retorted ''82 years old is not the same as 22 or 23.''

The pope has been in Toronto since Tuesday and departs today for Guatemala and then Mexico, where he will promote a candidate to sainthood in each country before returning to Rome on Friday.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/29/2002.
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