I had read the reaction to Pope Benedict XVI’s much anticipated letter to Irish Catholics before I had read the letter itself. The media coverage seemed to conclude that the pope had missed the mark: The letter may have been well intended, but was inadequate. After reading the letter for myself, I was once again reminded that relying on the secular media for coverage of Catholic issues is what is really inadequate. The pope’s letter, dated on the feast of St. Joseph, March 19, was a direct, sincere and powerful reflection on the abuse situation.
First and foremost, the pope asked for an honest admission of fault: “In order to recover from this grievous wound, the Church in Ireland must first acknowledge before the Lord and before others the serious sins committed against defenseless children,” he wrote. He criticized the “often inadequate response” to the crimes, and was blunt in addressing both priest abusers and their bishops.
To the priest abusers, he wrote: “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.” While he did remind them of the ultimate mercy of God, he made it clear that they must openly admit their guilt and accept their punishment.
With regard to the bishops, he was even stronger: “Some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse.” The pope referred to “grave errors of judgment” and “failure of leadership.”
The pope clearly feels there is a spiritual lapse as well as an administrative lapse behind the scandals. Echoing remarks to the U.S. bishops in Washington two years ago, Pope Benedict urged the Irish bishops to renew themselves and their own spiritual lives so as to be proper examples to their priests.
I realize, and I think the pope realizes, that for the victims and their families, there are no words that will remove the pain and the sense of betrayal. But as someone who has read many papal documents and letters for many years, I found his language clear and forceful. Even the occasional qualifiers — that sexual abuse is a problem that extends beyond the Church, and that some of the safeguards now in place in local Churches (that is, the United States) are becoming models for secular institutions — were not used as excuses to shield the Church from the shame and guilt that it must necessarily feel.
One striking section of the letter looked at the causes of the crisis. The pope listed several reasons, including poor screening of candidates for the priesthood, “insufficient human, moral, intellectual and spiritual formation” of seminarians, “a tendency in society to favor the clergy and other authority figures,” and “a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal.”
But the pope also referred to what I think was the tendency of Church leaders to rely too heavily on the psychological approach that was the tendency of society as a whole, adopting “ways of thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel.”
The pope’s apology for the crimes is, finally, direct and without equivocation. To the victims, he wrote, “you have suffered grievously, and I am truly sorry.” I know that some people would like to see those bishops who failed in their leadership to be more directly punished. Rome’s way of holding bishops accountable may not be perceived as such by others.
But the pope is sending a clear signal in this letter. With the leadership of courageous bishops such as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland will recover, but it will be a slow and humiliating process likely to take many more years.
Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.