On the Solemnity of St. Joseph last week, two days after St. Patrick’s Day, Pope Benedict XVI issued a letter to the Catholics of Ireland in response to that nation’s horrible child abuse scandal. Perhaps it was only a coincidence, but the timing as the Church celebrated the feast of the guardian and patron of the universal Church may have revealed something of the pope’s view of the gravity of the issue. In any case, the letter did not come with a bouquet of shamrocks.
The mainstream media covered the letter in predictable fashion. The New York Times headline read “Pope Offers Apology, Not Penalty, for Sex Abuse Scandal,” apparently disappointed that there was no “perp walk” or public indictment of accused individuals. CNN summarized the nine-page letter as “Pope says ‘sorry’ for Irish church abuse,” suggesting the letter was a cursory apology and nothing more.
An exception to the mainstream trend was a thoughtful article in last week’s Economist, a magazine of decidedly secular bent. Writing before the pope’s letter appeared, the author called for the pope to “say plainly and loudly that sexual abuse of children is not just sinful. It is criminal.” The pope did precisely that. The letter calls the acts of abuse “sinful and criminal,” demanding accountability in both the temporal and eternal spheres.
To the victims of abuse and their families, he wrote, “You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry.” To the priests and religious who committed abuse, he warned, “you must answer . . . before Almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals,” and he tells them to “submit to the demands of justice.” To the bishops, he is clear: “you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously.” The bishops’ “grave errors of judgment” and “failures of leadership” have “undermined your credibility and effectiveness.” The letter notes as well that Benedict told the Irish bishops in 2006 to establish the truth, prevent the recurrence of abuse, and bring healing to victims and all those affected by these crimes. Although he mentions the bishops’ efforts to handle the problem, his tone suggests that his opinion of their efforts thus far is low.
The pope directed his letter to the broadest possible Irish audience, in the broadest possible terms. There are words of guidance and comfort for parents of abuse victims, for the children and young people of Ireland, for all the priests and religious who now feel tarred with the same brush as pedophiles (and who were failed by their superiors), and for all the faithful of Ireland. Recounting the history of the Church in Ireland, including its wider impact in Europe and the world and the persecution of Irish Catholics, he emphasizes the particular challenges presented to Ireland in recent decades by a secularized and swiftly changing society, including rapid economic growth that quickly transformed the material state of the nation.
Getting a letter like this right is an exceedingly hard thing to do. The pope had to be simultaneously direct about the gravity of the crimes and the evil of those who committed them, yet compassionate towards the victims (and even, in the proper way, to the perpetrators). It required exposing a sordid episode of the past while providing a path towards a renewed future, and distinguishing between the guilty and the innocent while speaking to all. This letter achieves all of that. But no one letter can restore confidence in an institution as damaged as the Church in Ireland is today.
What many will be waiting to see – and it will be a long wait – is whether the actions the pope called for will be sufficient not just to cope with the immediate consequences of the crisis, but to begin real renewal. He proposed a nationwide Mission for all bishops, priests, and religious in order that they might “come to a more profound appreciation of your respective vocations, so as to rediscover the roots of your faith in Jesus Christ and to drink deeply from the springs of living water that he offers you through his Church.”
Beyond such committed reflection, the pope announced an Apostolic Visitation to certain dioceses as well as seminaries and religious congregations. This is a very serious step. It puts the entire Church in Ireland in the same category as American seminaries, institutes of women religious in the United States, the Legionaries of Christ, and other institutions that in recent decades required extraordinary intervention and possible correction by the Church at the highest level. It makes the entire Church responsible for repairing the damage caused by the national Church.
The pope called for other measures as well, including a return to the sacrament of reconciliation, the devotion of Friday penitential acts towards renewal, and an increase in Eucharistic Adoration. These will be of little interest to secular observers, though they offer the best hope for the Irish Catholics.
This letter can be a good start on the road back for the Church in Ireland. But it will give Pope Benedict XVI no respite. He must now turn to the emerging scandal in his native Germany. And we must all turn to rectifying the disastrous trends of the past few decades that paved the way for today’s sorrows.