LOS ANGELES (AP) — Most Roman Catholics are rejoicing at the election of Pope Francis, but alleged victims of clergy abuse in the U.S. are demanding swift and bold actions from the new Jesuit pontiff: Defrock all molester priests and the cardinals who covered up for them, formally apologize, and release all confidential church files.
Adding to their distrust are several multimillion dollar settlements the Jesuits paid out in recent years, including $166 million to more than 450 Native Alaskan and Native American abuse victims in 2011 for molestation at Jesuit-run schools across the Pacific Northwest. The settlement bankrupted the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus. The order also paid $14 million to settle nine California cases.
"I would like to see this pope stand up and say to those cardinals, 'You need to square this away and change everything that was covered up,' " said Ken Smolka, a 70-year-old retired actor who claimed in a lawsuit he was abused as a teen by a Jesuit priest. "You need to get them on their knees, and let them spend the rest of their lives on their knees praying for the victims."
Pope Francis, who has already set the tone for a new era of humility and compassion, is likely to be sensitive to the plight of clergy abuse victims and aware of the need to work with the worldwide church to prevent more abuse, said Christopher Ruddy, an associate professor at Catholic University of America. Meting out punishment to individual cardinals, however, is much less likely, Ruddy said.
"My sense is that if a bishop really wanted to dig in his heels, it would be very difficult to get him to resign. We have this idea that the pope says something, and everybody just leaps. It doesn't really work that way," Ruddy said. "The bishops themselves have certain rights under church law and they have authority, so that's a hard thing to talk about."
The new pontiff, who comes from Latin America where the clergy abuse scandal has been more muted, will likely lean on the American cardinals for advice when it comes to handling the crisis — particularly Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, who was instrumental in setting up a meeting between alleged victims and Pope Benedict XVI in 2008.
O'Malley himself voiced confidence in Pope Francis' willingness to address the clergy abuse crisis at a news conference in Rome.
"This is a man who has a great sense of mission, and he values transparency," O'Malley said Thursday. "He will further the process of healing."
Alleged victims said that while that is their hope, they will nonetheless scrutinize the new pontiff and his actions.
Elsie Boudreau, a Yup'ik Eskimo, was abused for nine years by a Jesuit priest in a tiny village in northern Alaska.
She settled her case in 2005 and now works as a social worker helping 300 other sex abuse victims in Alaska. She has since learned that Vatican officials had been aware of her alleged abuser since before she was born, she said.
"If Pope Francis were to defrock him and all the other perpetrator priests and all those who covered up the crimes and send a clear message to everybody else in the church I would be like, 'Hmm, OK, there could be a change,'" said Boudreau, 45, who now lives in Anchorage. "But I don't believe that will ever happen. There's no track record."
Other alleged victims called on Pope Francis to order the release of all confidential records on pedophile priests to cleanse the church and make amends.
Some of those files have been made public through litigation and released under court order, including in Los Angeles where a judge ordered more than 10,000 pages of priest personnel files be made public in January after a five-year legal battle over privacy rights.
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