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To some, pope's plea for forgiveness falls short

Benedict XVI's remarks at a gathering of priests at the Vatican are praised by clerics, but victims groups are less impressed.

June 12, 2010|By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Vatican City — When Pope Benedict XVI announced the "Year of the Priest" that concluded Friday, he probably didn't have in mind the sort of year he got.

He acknowledged as much in a closing Mass, telling more than 10,000 assembled priests in St. Peter's Square that "in the very year of joy for the sacrament of the priesthood, the sins of priests came to light."

Benedict had been widely expected to use the occasion to issue his most sweeping and detailed mea culpa to date for the clergy sexual abuse scandal, and perhaps to announce new measures to cope with it. The scandal has rocked the Roman Catholic Church in Europe this year, nearly a decade after it shook the American church to its roots.

But the pope did neither, blaming the problem on "the enemy," Satan, even as he begged forgiveness from God and from the victims of priest abuse, as he has several times recently. The latest comments failed to satisfy at least some in his audience, who called for greater accountability and more concrete measures to combat abuse.

"How many times can you apologize before you take action?" asked Joelle Casteix of Newport Beach, a leader of the U.S. victims group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, who attended the outdoor Mass.

Benedict celebrated the Mass in sweltering heat after presiding the night before over a vigil in which he strongly defended the church's requirement that priests take a vow of celibacy.

Although he has a reputation as an occasionally austere figure, the pope won praise from priests for speaking plainly and showing a keen understanding of their difficulties, as well as for inspiring them with reminders of the importance of their work and depth of their faith.

"It's a challenge being a priest today, no?" Andres Ulloa, 24, an Ecuadorean seminarian from Guayaquil, said after the Mass. "But he talked about the joys of being a priest.... He knows how to get to the center and the essence of problems."

The pope's homily was delivered to a sea of men who wore white robes over black streetwear, looking decidedly uncomfortable on a hot, muggy day. Together with the previous night's crowd, the gathering of Catholic priests was believed to be the largest in history. The men fanned themselves and covered their heads with all manner of sun protection: fishing hats, straw hats, baseball caps (some worn backwards), handkerchiefs — even paperback hymnals propped up like tents.

At one point, sounding much like the academic he once was, Benedict spoke of the development of monotheism, and seemed to criticize non-Christian faiths as well as the Enlightenment, the historical movement that brought revolutionary developments in science and philosophy.

He said that early in its development, monotheism embraced a "distant" God unlike the one worshipped by Christians. "This one God was good, yet aloof," the pope said. "Consequently, one didn't need to worry about him."

Benedict spoke about "the audacity of God" in trusting men to be priests.

"That God thinks that we are capable of this, that in this way he calls men to his service and thus from within binds himself to them — this is what we wanted to reflect upon and appreciate anew over the course of the past year," he said.

Although he didn't announce any new measures to combat sexual abuse, he said the church must use "the shepherd's rod, the rod with which he protects the faith against those who falsify it."

His abuse remarks drew applause at one point, and praise by priests afterward. However, the comments of some clerics served as reminders that the scandal is not entirely global. Benjamin Ogechi Agbara, a diocesan priest from Port Harcourt, Nigeria, said he was satisfied with the pope's comments but that sexual abuse was secondary in his country.

"The problem of the church," he said, "is poverty in Africa."

The pope's comments did not appease organized groups of abuse victims who have called for more substantive action.

Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, issued a statement calling Benedict's remarks "a great disappointment and a squandered opportunity."

Casteix and several other representatives of SNAP were also critical.

Casteix, SNAP's Southwest director, said she would not be satisfied until the church instituted a zero-tolerance policy under which abusive priests and those who covered up their crimes were turned over to civil authorities and expelled from the church. (Benedict has called for all sexual abusers to be turned over to police.)

Priests might have been inspired by the gathering at the Vatican, Casteix said, but the pope didn't give them any tools with which to deal with the problem.

"They leave here and what do they really have?" she asked. "Nothing. Inspiration doesn't really save a child."

mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

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