BY SIMON MARTELLI
POPE JOHN Paul II has made a rare comment on the scandal of paedophilia in the Church, describing it as a grievous form of evil and a challenge to priests to commit themselves "more fully to the search for holiness".
At the end of his annual letter to Catholic priests worldwide, issued on Holy Thursday, the Holy Father strongly condemned child sexual abuse by the clergy, and spoke of the Church's deep sorrow and concern for the victims.
"As priests we are profoundly afflicted by the sins of some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of Ordination," he said. "The Church shows her concern ... and strives to respond in truth and justice to each of these painful situations."
The Pontiff's words were seen by many as a response to reports on the problem of paedophile priests recently uncovered in America which have damaged the Church's reputation there.
Critics have called for Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston, to resign for not having removed some priests accused of paedophilia. One former priest in the diocese is accused of molesting more than 130 children.
Cardinal Edward Egan, the Archbishop of New York, has also come under fire from local newspapers for mishandling the problem in his former diocese in Connecticut, where some of the worst incidents of abuse are thought to have taken place. There is growing concern in America that senior figures in the Church moved abusive priests from parish to parish in an attempt to cover up the controversy rather than discipline the offenders.
But Cardinal Egan, who is accused of ignoring the issue and of failing to refer complaints to the police, insists that priests suspected of abuse were given psychiatric treatment.
The prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, presenting the papal letter, referred to a speech by the Pope following similar scandals in Australia last year.
On that occasion, he said that "John Paul II deplored the seriousness of this kind of behaviour" and apologised unreservedly to the victims for the pain and disillusionment caused to them.
The Pope had made the
comments in his Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Oceania. The exhortation followed a synod of the bishops of Oceania, which unequivocally condemned abuse. "The Synod Fathers condemn all sexual abuse and all forms of abuse of power, both within the Church and in society as a whole," the bishops' statement said.
"Sexual abuse within the Church is a profound contradiction of the teaching and witness of Jesus Christ."
In January of this year, the Vatican published guidelines advising its senior clergy on what to do in cases of clerical child abuse, stating that "even a hint" of paedophilia should be reported directly to Rome.
In Britain, reports on the Pope's letter widely suggested that the Vatican had maintained an obstinate silence over allegations of sex abuse in the Church.
Some of the articles contained accusations that the Church dismissed previous accounts of paedophilia in the priesthood as attempts to discredit the Church or as part of an orchestrated campaign against celibacy.
In Britain, the Church has responded more rapidly than elsewhere to the problem of child abuse.
The independent Nolan report, commissioned by Cardinal Cormac MurphyO'Connor, which recommended police checks on each candidate for the priesthood and child protection officials for every parish, was approved by the bishops last autumn.
Archbishop John Ward retired as Archbishop of Cardiff after being repeatedly accused of ignoring warnings about the conduct of two priests in the diocese who were eventually jailed. His successor, Archbishop Peter Smith participated in the Nolan review.
Speaking on Radio Four's Today programme last week, Archbishop Smith said: "People ask me if I am saddened by these reports [of child abuse]. Of course I am. Particularly for the victims, some of whom have had deeply traumatic experiences.
"All of us in the Church are quite determined to make it a safe p ace for children."