Abuse victims at center of next pope’s challenge

One of the issues as Roman Catholic cardinals cast ballots for the next pope will be the ongoing controversy over clerical sex abuse. Some victims of that abuse say the church has tried to avoid responsibility, and they’re skeptical that the next pope will make major changes.

“This is a picture of me, right before my abuse. I was around 8 or 9 when the abuse started,” says Becky Ianni, who remembers herself as a normal, happy child.

Continuing to refer to the photo she said, “and then this is me, during my abuse. And you can see I cut my hair. He used to touch my hair. He basically – he would rape me with his hands. He at one point in the vestry of the church stood behind me and rubbed his hands up and down my school uniform. And I remember after that point I would start wearing a sweater all the time, and that was my protection.”

Ms. Ianni says she didn’t think about it as sex.

“I just knew it felt wrong, and that it made me feel dirty,” she said. “And I never once blamed him. I blamed myself 100 percent because I thought God was punishing me because I must be a bad dirty little girl. My perpetrator was a newly ordained priest and this was his first parish, St. Mary’s.”

The man Ms. Ianni says abused her, the Rev. William T. Reinecke, served at a church in Alexandria, Virginia.

He killed himself in 1992 after he was confronted by another victim, an altar boy.

Ms. Ianni is now a spokeswoman for a victims’ group, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, that wants Pope Benedict to be prosecuted for not protecting children.

But Benedict did go further than his predecessor, John Paul II, in reining in pedophile priests, says papal biographer Marco Politi.

“Ratzinger as pope has certainly wanted to open a new page, and he has made rules, which are tougher,” he said. “He has introduced a zero-tolerance policy. At the same time, there are still so many unknown victims in the archives which have not been opened.”

Most of the known cases have been in the United States, where more than 15,000 people were allegedly violated since 1950. There have also been allegations in Europe and Australia.

It’s hard to know just how widespread the abuse has been in Third World countries, because in many places there are taboos against discussing it. But in the United States, a recent survey found that one in three Catholics think it’s the most important problem facing the church.

Before the conclave, the Archbishop of Chicago, Francis George, said the next pope must not tolerate abuse.

“But there are still the victims, and the wound therefore is deep in their hearts and minds very often, and as long as its with them it’s with all of us, and that will last for a long time,” he said.

Ms. Ianni says she received a settlement but only after the church dragged its feet.

“I think their first instinct is to protect themselves, to protect their reputation,” she said.

She hopes it’s different under the new pope but says that until now the church has only responded when it was forced to.

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