Pope Benedict XVI used the harshest of language to condemn priestly sexual abuse after a two day summit with Irish bishops this week but his full response is being reserved for a pastoral letter he is preparing to write to Irish Catholics.
The pope summoned the bishops to the Vatican in response to a series of reports on sexual abuse and systematic cover ups in the Irish Catholic Church, most notably revealed in a recent report on the Dublin archdiocese.
He described the clerical abuse of minors as a “heinous crime” and “a grave sin” which offends God and “wounds the dignity of the person created in his image.” He also challenged the 24 bishops present “to address the problems of the past with determination and resolve, and to face the present crisis with honesty and courage.”
The Vatican said in a Feb. 16 statement that "errors of judgment and omissions" were at the heart of the crisis, and that Church leaders recognized the sense of "pain and anger, betrayal, scandal and shame" which those errors have provoked among many Irish Catholics.
But Benedict XVI also looked to a deeper cause, and pointed to the “more general crisis of faith affecting the Church”. He linked that to “the lack of respect for the human person and how the weakening of faith has been a significant contributing factor in the phenomenon of the sexual abuse of minors,” according to the Vatican statement.
The pope also sees that crisis of faith to be in large part due to poor training of priests. He therefore called for an improved “human, spiritual, academic and pastoral preparation both of candidates for the priesthood and religious life and of those already ordained and professed.”
Many Vatican-watchers argue that Benedict XVI is ideally suited to helping guide the Church out of these scandals. When the depth of the crisis was revealed in the early 2000s, most notably in the Catholic Church of the United States, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger took overall charge of dealing with the issue. He has since been uncompromising in his denunciation of clerical abuse and proactive in his outreach, making a point of meeting victims on some of his foreign visits.
His handling is in contrast to John Paul II who was criticized by some for being slow to respond. Benedict, however, has made it a priority of his pontificate to grasp the nettle. Shortly before he was elected pontiff in 2005, he vowed to rid the Church of what he described as “filth” in the priesthood. As chief doctrinal adviser to John Paul he fast-tracked the trial and dismissal of abusive clerics.
But anything the pope or the Vatican were to do was always going to disappoint certain groups this week. For the victims, no amount of contrition for the crimes and resolve to ensure it doesn’t happen again was going to take away the pain. And after this week’s meeting, many were angry there were no further resignations of bishops (so far only one has stepped down), nor was there any overt recognition of the victims or mention of financial compensation.
Some support groups accused the pope of window-dressing and participating in a sham; they were hoping for greater steps towards ending a cozy self-perpetuating and self-protecting cartel in the leadership of the Irish Church.
That anger drowned out a key fruit of this week’s summit: that it will contribute to what will be the first ever pastoral letter from a pope entirely devoted to spelling out the Church’s teaching on the complex and painful question of clerical sexual abuse of minors. Some Vatican officials were disappointed this important development failed to get across as the forthcoming letter is expected to publicly address the crisis in more depth.
Some therefore believed the Holy See should have handled this week’s meeting with greater skill and foresight, perhaps by discussing with the media the true nature of the summit before it took place.
The meeting was never going to produce immediate, tangible results. It was much more about listening and understanding rather than a chance to offer a comprehensive response to the crisis. Had the media known that, then at least would have lowered expectations of any major measures to be taken immediately by the Church.
The hope is that communications will be improved by the time the pope writes his pastoral letter which, although directed towards the Irish crisis, will be relevant to those affected by the same scandal in the United States and other countries.
If the Vatican handles that well, it could mark the beginning of the end of this tragic episode for the Church. Its contents may also remind the world of an important truth: that this is a problem not only confined to a relatively small number of priests and religious but affects many other ordinary people, often on a greater scale.
As Cardinal Sean Brady, president of the Irish bishops, stressed at a press conference following the this week’s summit: “We now know and recognize that this is not only an Irish problem, it’s not an Anglophone problem, and it’s not just a problem of the Catholic Church. But it is a great problem and at the center of it all must be the welfare of the victims.”
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