Like many travelers, Gary Bergeron and Bernie McDaid visited Rome a few years ago in hopes of getting a private audience with the pope. They stayed a week, but for whatever reason the wish went unfulfilled.

In mid-April of this year, five individuals were selected for an intimate 25-minute gathering with Pope Benedict XVI during his pastoral trip to Washington, D.C. Like Bergeron, they were all from the Boston archdiocese. Like Bergeron, they were all victims of sexual abuse by clergy during their adolescence.

The nightmarish pain of having been molested repeatedly by a once-trusted priest does not go away so easily -- not by apologies, not by counseling, not by penalizing perpetrators or being awarded cash settlements. But a sincere and compassionate gesture in person from the earthly Vicar of Christ was, for many survivors and their families, a welcome development long overdue.

Olan Horne, 48, one of the chosen five (along with McDaid), said he found the experience of meeting Pope Benedict "empowering."

"He said it out loud. ... He named the sin, and it came from the top," said Horne, who like Bergeron was abused by the late Father Joseph Birmingham. "It's what I hope American bishops would do here, loud and clear."

The pope also met one-on-one with each of the survivors. "I told him, 'I want you to forgive me for hating you, for hating your Church,'" Horne told Our Sunday Visitor. "I truly meant that."

Pope Benedict, who spoke very openly about the sex-abuse scandal a number of times during his U.S. pilgrimage, had an impact on Horne even before their meeting at the Vatican Embassy chapel: Ten minutes before the papal audience, he went to confession -- for the first time in 35 years.

Crisis central

The Boston archdiocese is commonly regarded as the tinderbox or epicenter of the sex-abuse crisis that received wide exposure in 2002, but not merely because it has among the most accused priests and victims (208 and 1,474, respectively) of any U.S. diocese. The archdiocese was host to two of the most notorious serial molesters (John Geoghan and Paul Shanley), and its archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, became emblematic of the problems that accompanied and exacerbated the crisis: The Church authorities failed to report accusations to civil authorities and also transferred accused priests to new parishes rather than removing them from active ministry.

As a result, Boston became a wounded archdiocese -- its faithful disillusioned, its priests' morale sagging, its financial picture radically changed by legal costs and diminished contributions ... and all those abuse survivors looking for answers, for justice, for peace.

A Lazarus experience

Barbara Thorp, director of the archdiocesan Office of Pastoral Support and Outreach that deals with claims of sexual abuse, believes the papal meeting with survivors was a "true balm" for the majority of survivors and families, judging from feedback she has received.

Most understood that the five who met with the pope represented all survivors, and many also appreciated that the first names of all 1,474 victims in the archdiocese were listed in a book that was presented to the pope, she told OSV.

"Many of them felt like they were in that room, too," Thorp said. "It was very meaningful that their names were remembered."

The brief meeting was an emotional experience for everyone who was present, she added.

"I felt as if I was standing with Mary and Martha on the hill watching Lazarus being raised from the tomb," Thorp said. "It was that profound: These were our brothers and sisters who were dead, so mortally wounded spiritually by the terrible acts of abuse they had endured, but were being called back to life by the vicar of Christ."

Mixed reactions

Not all of Boston's survivors were moved by Pope Benedict's gesture, however. Horne said he has received many calls from fellow survivors expressing "a myriad of responses" ranging from anger to bewilderment to jealousy. He doesn't take offense, though.

"I understand the bitterness that is associated with [sexual abuse]. I used to be called 'the angry white man,' but I found that it doesn't do anything," he told OSV. "For me, that bitterness isn't as much a part of my life anymore. Visiting with the pope has helped that."

Horne said he will continue to lobby bishops regarding their responsibility in the crisis.

"I'm holding their feet to the fire, but I'm not going to get angry," he said. "I'm more hopeful than I was before."

Thorp shares that hope for healing in the archdiocese and beyond.

"The graces of this visit will continue to unfold for many years," she said. "It's now up to us to take this opportunity to build on the grace of reconciliation and healing that the Holy Father so beautifully began with his words and visit."

Gerald Korson writes from Indiana.