By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
PANAMA CITY, Panama – Pope Francis told an American pilgrim taking part in World Youth Day that clerical sex abuse is a “horrible crime” and that “even if it is just one person, the Church should not tolerate it.”
The pope’s words came in response to a question from 29-year-old Brenda Berenice Noriega from California who was one of ten young people selected to have lunch with Francis on Saturday.
The meal took place behind closed doors without any press or cameras, but in an interview with Crux following the lunch, Noriega stressed that the pope emphasized solidarity with victims and caring for their pain.
The pope’s remarks to Noriega marked the first time he addressed the issue of clerical sexual abuse. Earlier on Saturday, during a Mass with priests and religious women and men, the pope encouraged them to remain strong in the faith despite the Church being “wounded by sin.”
Noriega told Crux that she found out she had been selected by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in late October to be one of the lunch guests and knew that she must raise the issue of the clerical sex abuse crisis back at home.
Ahead of the meeting, she sought advice from her bishop who told her just to be herself.
While Noriega said she was nervous, she said that she approached the topic by asking how young people who are losing faith in the Church can respond to the situation.
She said the pope first addressed the issue of sex abuse by putting it into context, noting that while even though statistically only three or four percent of priests are abusers, Francis said that even one would be too many.
According to Noriega, she said the pope opened up the issue for discussion, gesturing to the Australian representative at the lunch and noting that the Australian Church has also been recovering from a similar crisis.
The pope told Noriega that he had specifically requested the U.S. bishops to go on a retreat and pray about the situation before responding.
She then said she thanked the pope for sending Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household, to conduct the retreat, which took place January 2-8 at Mudelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
“I sent them my spiritual father,” the pope told Noriega.
In addition to the sex abuse crisis, Noriega said that along with the other nine young people, they discussed the political and religious situation in their respective countries, which also included India, Palestine, Spain, Burkina Faso, and Panama.
Noriega said that she was also able to present the pope with the conclusions from the Laudato si’ conference which took place in Panama ahead of the start of World Youth Day to focus on the need for greater action to combat environmental degradation.
Before leaving, she asked the pope to pray that she finds a husband, and she told Crux he jokingly told her to pray to Saint Anthony – the patron saint of lost things – before offering her some sincere advice and encouragement.
Throughout the meal, the pope relied on Noriega, who is bi-lingual, to translate for the non-Spanish speakers in the room.
She said that among the other nine young people, all of whom met each other for the first time on Saturday morning, there was an immediate bond that centered on their shared devotion to Mary.
Ahead of the meeting, Noriega said the group all prayed a Hail Mary together – one of many she’s already prayed today as she said she woke up every hour last night after having difficulty sleeping ahead of the event and would pray a Hail Mary to calm herself.
At a press conference following the lunch, Noriega said that as a Mexican immigrant to the United States, she represented the future face of the U.S. Church.
She later told Crux that she believed her selection by the USCCB is a testament to the fact that they recognize that reality.
Following the press conference, Noriega joined the more than 100 pilgrims that she is helping to lead from her diocese of San Bernardino, where she works as a youth minister.
She said she’s still trying to process the day’s events and that she feels as if she’s living a dream.
“It’s crazy,” she told Crux. “The pope is exactly the same person we see in the news. He is a pastor who meets people where they are.”
“I’m still waiting to wake up from it all,” she said.