Edward Pentin’s Vatican Notebook
Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to launch an apostolic visitation, or Church investigation, into the Church in Ireland was probably the most newsworthy aspect of his letter to the country’s bishops on the abuse crisis.
The move is aimed at addressing what many see as serious as the crimes themselves: the systematic cover-ups of sexual abuse by prelates and clergy which, the Holy Father said, derived from an excessive deference to ecclesiastical authority and a misplaced concern for the Church’s public reputation.
For papal biographer George Weigel, the visitation should, if it is conducted well, take the wind out of the sails of the Church’s vehement critics. “Those who see in these scandals an opportunity to cripple the Catholic Church and its moral teaching have long had the card of ‘coverup’ to play in the global media,” he wrote. “That card has now been taken away by Benedict XVI.” But he added an important caveat: that those who care for the Church “must now hope and pray that the follow-up from the Vatican is as vigorous and unsparing as the Pope’s letter”.
Critics of the letter say that, for all its tough words, it’s not clear how much of a follow-up there will be. The pastoral document, for example, calls on no bishop to resign, although the Pope did not hold back in stressing that justice will be done, saying guilty priests must answer to their crimes before God and “before properly constituted tribunals”. The flipside of any determined response, however, is that innocent priests and religious can end up bearing much of the fallout, especially if the Church bends over backwards to accommodate unreasonable secular demands. Before the letter was published one Vatican official told me how sad he was that “not the slightest compassion” has been shown by the Church to any priest caught up in the crisis, also to the guilty. “Almost no one talks about the priests themselves,” he said, adding that often they’re “treated like dogs”. The way they have been dealt with, he said, has been a “complete and utter disgrace”. This problem, he added, had “slipped through the cracks”.
The Pope did answer some of these concerns. He remembered innocent clergy in the letter, noting their personal discouragement, the pain of being tainted by association, and their anger at the way their superiors had handled these cases. He also reminded repentant guilty priests that God’s mercy is always available.
But as one priest here pointed out, the Church won’t be able to deal with this issue effectively until it roots out a “spirit of bureaucratism” that has grown within it. “You cannot replace trust and morality with a tickbox mentality,” he said. “This approach has wrecked society.” Regarding the media hysteria and vicious attacks on the Church over this issue, some claim it is really an attack on paternity and authority, as well as that it offers some the chance to earn plenty of money from the situation. It’s also suggested that this crisis is being overblown as a diversionary tactic from tackling similar and more widespread abuses taking place in secular society.