By GILLIAN FLACCUS
LOS ANGELES — 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.
In many other dioceses, however, alleged victims still don’t know everything the church knew about their abusers.
“The pope has an opportunity to bring about true justice, change, and transformation in a church torn from scandal and the rape of children,” said Billy Kirchen, who is one of 550 plaintiffs fighting to see files from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. “Real change has to come from the pope.”
Other abuse victims said they were disgusted that cardinals who covered up abuse helped elect the next pope.
Michael Duran, a 40-year-old special education teacher from Los Angeles, said Pope Francis’ elevation is tainted because of their presence. Duran and three others settled with the Los Angeles archdiocese earlier this week for nearly $10 million over childhood abuse by the Rev. Michael Baker.
Recently released confidential files show Baker met privately with Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony in 1986 and confessed to molesting children, but he was put back in the ministry for 14 years, where he abused again. Authorities believe Baker, who was convicted in 2007 and paroled in 2011, may have molested more than 20 children in his 26-year career.
If Pope Francis did take action against any U.S. cardinals, it would be a departure from the way his predecessors addressed the clergy abuse crisis.
In 2001, Pope John Paul II issued a decree saying all clergy abuse cases needed to be funneled through the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith — then headed by the future Pope Benedict XVI.
In 2002, in his strongest comments about the unfolding scandal, Pope John Paul II denounced U.S. bishops for the American clergy abuse crisis after summoning them to Rome for a special meeting. He said there was “no place in the priesthood … for those who would harm the young.”
In 2003 and 2004, he approved changes to canon law to allow the Vatican to quickly defrock abusive priests without cumbersome internal trials.
Given the progressive decline in his health, however, it is widely presumed that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — the future Pope Benedict XVI — was the architect of those measures in his role as head of the Vatican department that handled petitions to defrock abusive clergy.
Earlier this year, the Vatican’s new sex crimes prosecutor, quoting Benedict, said the church must recognize the “grave errors in judgment that were often committed by the church’s leadership.” He added that bishops must report abusive priests to police where the law requires it. The comments came days after the release of the Los Angeles confidential files.
Now, with a new pope, victims in the U.S. hope more change is coming.
“If it’s not this pope who will do it, maybe it will be another one,” said Molly Harding, of Spokane, Wash., who waited 40 years to come forward about her abuse at a San Gabriel, Calif., school.
Associated Press writers contributing to this report include Nicole Winfield in Rome; Mike Warren in Buenos Aires; Donna Blankinship in Seattle; Matt Volz in Helena, Mont.; Jay Lindsay in Boston; Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee, Wis.; and AP photographer Damian Dovarganes in Los Angeles.