In a dense crowd gathered in central Philadelphia waiting for the arrival of Pope Francis on Saturday, lapsed Catholic Becky Ianni stood somberly with an oversized photo of herself at age nine, when she says a priest began sexually abusing her.
The US Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, which catapulted into public view in 2002, has continued to be an open wound for victims, who say the Church has not made the changes needed to protect children and punish offenders.
“Victims this week are really hurting and they need to know that we’re out here and they’re not alone,” said Ianni, 58, the Washington and Virginia chapter director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
The pontiff’s arrival in Philadelphia came amid suggestions from a high-ranking Church official that Francis could meet with abuse victims while in the city.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said at a news conference that if Francis met with victims, it would be a private encounter to protect victim privacy.
He has met victims at the Vatican but not on a foreign tour.
Philadelphia has been the most publicly scarred in the US Church abuse scandal out of any of the cities visited by Francis on his six-day US tour.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has been the subject of multiple damaging grand jury reports relating to the abuse scandal, which by the Church’s own estimate has had 6,400 credibly accused clergy between 1950 and 2013 nationwide.
Monsignor William Lynn, who was the secretary for clergy in the archdiocese during much of the decades covered by a 2011 grand jury report, was the first US Church official to be convicted for covering up abuse.
Francis has said he would work to rid the church of the sexual abuse of minors and in June announced the creation of a special Vatican tribunal to judge bishops accused of covering up or failing to prevent abuse.
In the first full day of his US visit, Francis touched on the issue of sexual abuse, which he referred to as “difficult moments,” during a speech to US bishops at Saint Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington.
The message, which included a direction “to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated” was criticized by activists who said they wanted to see more action come out of the Vatican to hold accused bishops accountable.
“What we see in Francis is a lot of talk,” said SNAP activist Barbara Dorris, who held a photo of herself as a smiling 6-year-old, when she said the priest at her local Catholic parish began years of abuse.
The scandal, which saw priests moved from parish to parish instead of being defrocked or jailed, has resulted in settlement payments and other costs of about $3 billion.
Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org, a US-based documentation center on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, said Francis would need to act fast to make a show of support to the nation’s abuse victims.
“Francis speaks with such compassion for the marginalized,” Doyle said. “Right now, the most marginalized people in his whole Church are feeling quite excluded and insulted,” she said.