■ Pontiff announces year of penitential reparation in unprecedented pastoral letter
BY JOHN THAVIS IN ROME AND SIMON CALDWELL IN LONDON
IN A LETTER to Irish Catholics Pope Benedict XVI has personally apologised to victims of priestly sexual abuse and announced new steps to heal the wounds of the scandal, including a Vatican investigation and a year of penitential reparation.
He told victims: “You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated.” The Pope told priest abusers that they would answer to God for their sins. He said bishops had made serious mistakes in responding to allegations of sexual abuse and he encouraged them to implement new Church norms against abuse and cooperate with civil authorities in such cases.
“Only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and good will of the Irish people toward the Church,” he said.
On Wednesday, four days after the letter was issued, the Pontiff accepted the resignation of Bishop John Magee of Cloyne, personal secretary to three popes, who stepped down in the wake of criticism of his handling of abuse cases.
The 4,600-word letter, distributed at Masses across Ireland last weekend, came in response to the disclosure last autumn that Irish Church leaders had often protected abusive priests over the last 35 years. Similar allegations have since come to light in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland.
Pope Benedict, who met Irish bishops to discuss the problem in February, began his letter by saying he shared the sense of betrayal Irish Catholics felt when they learned of these “sinful and criminal acts” and the “often inadequate response” by Church authorities in Ireland.
He said he was convinced that the Church, having adopted strict new measures against sexual abuse, was now on the right path. But the healing process for Irish Catholics will take time and requires a deeper spiritual renewal, he said. “No one imagines that this painful situation will be resolved swiftly,” he wrote.
To the victims of abuse and their families the Pope offered sympathy and understanding. He noted that many victims found that, when they had the courage to denounce the abuse, “no one would listen”.
Those abused in Catholic residential institutions must have felt that there was no escape from their sufferings, he said. “It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel. At the same time, I ask you not to lose hope,” the Pope said.
Addressing priests and religious who have abused, he said: “You betrayed the trust that was placed in you by innocent young people and their parents, and you must answer for it before almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals.” Priest abusers, he said, have “violated the sanctity of the sacrament of Holy Orders in which Christ makes himself present in us and in our actions”. He said those who have abused should openly acknowledge their guilt, try to atone personally for what they have done and “do not despair of God’s mercy”.
The Pope urged bishops to fully implement the Church’s new policies against abuse and to “continue to cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence”.
“It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the longestablished norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse. Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations,” he said.
The Pope said he had ordered an Apostolic Visitation, or internal Church inquiry, into certain dioceses in Ireland, as well as seminaries and religious congregations. He said details would be announced later.
He identified several contributing factors to clerical sex abuse, among them a “misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church” that led to a failure to apply existing penalties against abuse. He also pointed to inadequate selection of priesthood candidates, poor formation programmes and a tendency in society to favour the clergy and other authority figures.
At the same time, he said, priestly sexual abuse was linked to more general developments, including the secularisation of Irish society and of Irish clergy and religious themselves, and a misinterpretation of the Second Vatican Council.
He announced “concrete initiatives” to help Irish bishops repair the damage in the Church including a year of penitential and devotional practices such as acts of prayerful reparation before the Eucharist.
He also announced a nationwide “mission” to be held for all bishops, priests and religious to promote a better understanding of their vocations by drawing on the expertise of preachers and retreat-givers.
Addressing young people, he urged them not to give up on the Church. “We are all scandalised by the sins and failures of some of the Church’s members,” he said. Continued from Page 1: “But it is in the Church that you will find Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forever,” he said.
Victims expressed dissatisfaction with the letter, however. Colm O’Gorman, who was abused as a teenager in Ferns, said the Pope’s apology was “fulsome” but the recommendations were “laughable”.
“He wants us all to go back to church and pray,” he told the Sunday Telegraph. “I’m not disputing the power of prayer but he doesn’t seem to get the reality of this – the countless suicides and the devastation of the faith, and not just among the victims.” Marie Collins, who was 13 years old when she was sexually abused by a hospital chaplain in Dublin, said she felt let down by the letter. “The Pope blames it all on the secularisation of Irish society and the misinterpretation of canon law,” said Mrs Collins, a campaigner with the One in Four support group. “He takes no responsibility for the Vatican’s role in the cover-up of abuse. There’s no acknowledgement that it’s a worldwide problem for the Church or that the victims weren’t just ignored, they were bullied into silence.” Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster said the Irish bishops should copy their English and Welsh counterparts by implementing rigorous child protection procedures such as those which followed the Nolan Review of 2001. “Robust procedures are necessary to ensure all allegations are dealt with swiftly and appropriately in full co-operation with the relevant authorities,” he said. “The work undertaken in England and Wales to build a robust system to safeguard children and all vulnerable people has been difficult and demanding, but it is a road that has to be travelled.”