Pope Benedict XVI has told Irish Roman Catholics that he shares their “dismay and sense of betrayal” over the sexual abuse of children and young people by priests.
In a pastoral letter to Irish Catholics today (20 March), he criticised the “misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal”, which encouraged the cover-up of sexual abuse by the Church.
However, the Pope is facing criticism for the lack of specific recommendations or moves towards structural change.
Controversy over the sexual abuse of children and young people by priests and other Church representatives has become a headline issue in Ireland in recent months.
In his letter today, the Pope acknowledges that the problem is complex and cannot be solved quickly. He writes that “measures to deal justly with individual crimes are essential”, but adds that, “on their own they are not enough: a new vision is needed, to inspire present and future generations to treasure the gift of our common faith”.
He lists factors which he says contributed to the extent of abuse and its cover-up, including the deference accorded to priests, inadequate procedures for choosing candidates for priesthood and insufficient moral and spiritual formation in seminaries.
But the Pope is likely to be criticised for implying that the secularisation of society contributed to the problem, as Catholics engaged less frequently in confession and other devotional practices.
“Fast-paced social change has occurred, often adversely affecting people's traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values,” writes the Pope, “It is in this overall context that we must try to understand the disturbing problem of child sexual abuse”.
Nonetheless, the letter seems designed to place the greatest emphasis on the needs of the victims of abuse. Throughout, he carefully mentions the harm they have suffered first, appearing to put the reputation of the Church in second place.
The Pope urges clergy who become aware of abuse to co-operate with the civil authorities. He also mentions the need for the continual review of child protection practices.
However, the letter’s list of “concrete initiatives” is rather short. The Pope calls on Irish Catholics “to devote your Friday penances, for a period of one year, between now and Easter 2011 to... to obtain the grace of healing and renewal for the Church in Ireland”.
In addition, several Irish dioceses seem likely to face formal visits from Vatican officials who may inspect their progress. The Pope also suggests greater use of the practices of confession and eucharistic adoration.
But despite citing the deference accorded to priests as a factor in the cover-up of abuse, none of the recommendations refer to it and the Pope suggests no changes to the Church’s structures.
The letter includes sections addressed to victims of abuse, to perpetrators, to parents, to the young people of Ireland, to priests, to bishops and to Irish Catholics as a whole.
“You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry,” the Pope tells the victims of abuse, “I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen.”
He adds that, “I know some of you find it difficult even to enter the doors of a church after all that has occurred” but encourages them to seek “reconciliation, deep inner healing and peace” by “drawing nearer to Christ and by participating in the life of His Church”.
Addressing those who have perpetrated abuse, the Pope writes, “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. You have forfeited the esteem of the people of Ireland”.
He reminds them that Christ can forgive even the gravest of sins and urges priests who have abused children to “acknowledge your guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God's mercy”.
However, the section addressed to Ireland’s bishops may prove the most controversial.
While insisting that “grave errors of judgement were made and failures of leadership occurred”, the Pope does not refer explicitly to the repeated failure of bishops to refer allegations of abuse to the civil authorities.
He tells the bishops, “I recognise how difficult it was to grasp the extent and complexity of the problem, to obtain reliable information and to make the right decisions in the light of conflicting expert advice”.
In an initial response to the letter, Maeve Lewis of the group One in Four, which campaigns for the victims of sexual abuse, said, “We feel the letter falls far short of addressing the concerns of the victims”.
The letter was read by the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, at mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh. Brady is resisting calls to resign over his failure to report child abuse to the authorities in the 1970s.