Pope Benedict apologizes to Irish victims of church abuse

The pontiff specifies no punishment of accused priests even as the crisis spreads across Europe. He calls on wrongdoers to submit 'to the demands of justice,' but activists are left disappointed.

March 21, 2010|By Maria De Cristofaro and Henry Chu

Reporting from Vatican City and Brighton, England — Pope Benedict XVI apologized Saturday to victims of priestly abuse in Ireland, acknowledging that the scandal had brought the church into disrepute but offering no specific action to punish clergy accused of involvement even as the crisis spread across Europe.

"You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured," the pope wrote to Irish victims and their families. "I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel."

Amid charges of coverups, he acknowledged that church leaders had made "grave errors of judgment" in how they dealt with the problem of sexual abuse, and he called on offending priests and religious workers to submit "to the demands of justice."

The apology came in a highly anticipated pastoral letter that was sent to the church in Ireland on Friday and that was to be read out at Mass across the country Sunday.

With allegations of abuse bubbling up in other European countries, however, including Benedict's native Germany, some of the letter's contents were meant for a wider audience.

"When the pope speaks about the suffering of the victims and when he speaks of the perpetrators, these parts of the letter are for everybody," Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said.

In the letter, the pope announced a Vatican-led investigation of certain dioceses, seminaries and religious orders in Ireland, to help the church overcome a scandal that has undermined its mission to a degree that "not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing."

But to the outrage of victims groups and other critics, the pontiff did not address public demands for the resignation of bishops and church leaders accused of mishandling the crisis. Nor did he admit to what many say are shortcomings within the Vatican.

Instead, the pope urged "my brother bishops" to enforce church law on child abuse and "to cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence."

Whether the pope's comments will be enough to assuage growing public anger, even among the faithful, or to set the Roman Catholic Church on "a path of healing, renewal and reparation," as Benedict wrote, remains to be seen.

Ireland has been at the epicenter of the church's sex-abuse scandal in Europe. Last year, a nine-year investigation found that, from the 1930s to the 1990s, thousands of children had been subjected to beatings, molestation, rape and emotional terrorization in reformatories, schools and orphanages run by religious workers who promoted a "culture of silence" to protect themselves.

John Kelly, who was abused as a boy in the 1960s, welcomed the papal apology Saturday but sharply criticized the pontiff for not spelling out how wrongdoers in the church would be either exposed or disciplined.

"I accept that he's acknowledged abuse, and I welcome that he's said [clergy and religious workers] must cooperate with civil authorities," said Kelly, who is coordinator of Irish Survivors of Child Abuse.

"The important thing is what he doesn't say. The pope does not say, 'Hand the files over to the police or hand yourself over to the civil authorities.' . . . That's justice," Kelly said. "He doesn't talk about reform of the church. He doesn't talk about accountability."

Critics have blamed Benedict for perpetuating the culture of silence within the church. As a cardinal, he issued a directive in 2001 demanding secrecy in dealing with abuse allegations.

Some Vatican-watchers say that the pope's views have evolved, that his understanding, as pontiff, of the gravity of the crisis and its damage to the church has deepened and hardened his resolve to root out the problem. In his new letter, the pope certainly spoke more harshly than usual to offending priests.

"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," he said. "You have forfeited the esteem of the people of Ireland and brought shame and dishonor upon your confreres."

Abusers should face "properly constituted tribunals," presumably within the church, but the letter did not elaborate on how those panels would operate.

The pontiff also rebuked bishops for "failures of leadership" that have "seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness." Such mistakes grew out of a culture with a "misplaced concern for the reputation of the church and the avoidance of scandal," the pope wrote.

But he has so far made no move to accept the offer of at least three Irish bishops to step down. Many activists have also called on the head of the church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, to resign.

Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said such disciplinary matters were outside the scope of a missive directed at the flock in Ireland as a whole.

"It is a strong message for the bishops," Lombardi said. But "it is a pastoral letter, and nobody should expect to find disciplinary aspects in it. Accepting the resignations is a different issue, and the pope has not yet publicly said anything. He will decide on this separately."

The pope's letter also announced that the Vatican would launch an investigation, known as an apostolic visitation, of various dioceses, seminaries and religious organizations in Ireland. But it did not name them.

Barbara Dorris, national outreach director for the U.S.-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, called such measures painfully inadequate.

"Apparently not one wrongdoer will even get a papal slap on the hand," Dorris said. "Not one more predator will apparently be ousted. Not one more horrific secret coverup will apparently ever see the light of day. And not one victim will apparently see any tangible help whatsoever."

De Cristofaro is a special correspondent.

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