Two years ago Pope Benedict XVI—once known as “God’s Rottweiler”—displayed his gentler side on a pilgrimage to America. Television pundits spoke of his soft white hair, his smile, “his great warmth and his sense of humor,” says Thomas Noble, head of the history department at Notre Dame. On the trip Benedict confronted head-on the American church’s sexual-abuse crisis, a catastrophe that first came to light in Boston in the 1990s and unfolded over the years, involving more than 10,000 children and 4,400 priests. The pope even met firsthand with a small group of abuse victims in Washington.
But those victims aren’t sure he heard what they were saying. One of them was Bernie McDaid, 11 years old when his parish priest started fondling him during car rides in his Boston neighborhood. McDaid, now 54, says that during the meeting, Benedict read a 10-minute speech offering an apology on behalf of the church. Then each victim had a private five-minute audience with the pontiff, who stood, unmoving, before an altar. McDaid says he told the pope what happened to him in detail and warned the Holy Father that sex abuse was “a cancer” in the church. Benedict just listened and nodded. “He would only speak to me when I pushed him for words,” says McDaid.