When Alejandra Pereyra wrote a letter to Pope Francis earlier this month, she wanted to convey the pain that resulted from her rape and abuse at the hands of Argentinian law enforcement. After her family was repeatedly harassed by the police, an officer raped her at gunpoint. “With all the pain I carry in my heart dear Holy Father, I ask you for your help,” Pereyra wrote.
She didn’t expect the kind of response that she received.
On Sunday, Pereyra’s phone rang — and Pope Francis was on the other end of the line. “I started crying… He told me to be calm and that he was calling because he had read my letter and my story struck him,” Pereyra recounted later on Argentinian television. “He restored faith and peace in me and gave me strength to carry on fighting.”
Pereyra emailed her letter to the Vatican in mid-August. The pope receives hundreds of letters each day, but hers struck a chord with him and he decided to reach out. The crimes committed against Pereyra continue to go unpunished, because the judge who is in charge of the case is worried he’ll face personal repercussions for going after law enforcement.
Pope Francis’ move is a signal of solidarity with victims of sexual assault at a time when the Catholic Church has been wracked by an ongoing sex abuse scandal. Church leaders have been accused of sweeping sexual crimes under the rug, attempting to cover up the abuse perpetrated by Catholic clergy. While the pope’s decision to reach out to a rape victim certainly doesn’t begin to absolve those failures, it does represent a small step toward combating a persistent victim-blaming rape culture: Believing survivors and listening to their stories.
Rape culture is propagated upon the idea that victims aren’t always to be believed, and people in authority don’t always have to take their accusations seriously. In the United States, college administrators, celebrities, judges, teachers, media outlets, and coaches have all used their positions of power to dismiss survivors of sexual assault.
During his time at the head of the Catholic Church, Francis has created an image for himself as somewhat of a populist pope. This weekend wasn’t the first time he’s surprised someone with a phone call. He has also taken small steps to indicate he may welcome gay priests, invited homeless people to eat with him at the Vatican, washed the feet of women and Muslims, and celebrated mass at a juvenile detention center. Since June, the pope has been taking Communion with wafers that were made by a female prisoner in Argentina.
Last month, Francis also issued official rules strengthening the penalties for child sex abuse within Vatican City.