Pope-victims gap is tip of iceberg of incomprehension in Catholic Church

March 21, 2010
benedict blesses

Pope Benedict in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, 17 March 2010/Alessandro Bianchi

The wide gap between Pope Benedict’s letter to the Irish and the reaction it received from victims — the subject of my analysis today on the Reuters wire — is the tip of an iceberg of incomprehension. The frank letter went further than any previous papal condemnation of clerical sex abuse of children, an aspect that Benedict’s defenders promptly highlighted, and went so far as to say some bishops had committed “grave errors of judgment” and undermined their own credibility. This is strong stuff indeed, especially from a man like Joseph Ratzinger who has a far loftier image of the Church and its servants (more on that later).

But what was bold for Benedict was still cowardly for his critics, who saw these “grave errors of judgment” as only the starting point and wanted to hear what the pope would do about them. “The smallest steps that are obvious for any reasonable person are made painfully slowly, which ruins the Church’s reputation radically,” the German group Initiative Kirche von Unten (Church from Below Initiative). This and other victims’ groups, backed up in several countries by the media, some politicians and apparently quite a few Catholics in the pews, appreciate the apologies but want to go beyond them.  They want to go up the chain of command and hold those bishops responsible who hushed up abuse cases, moved predator priests around and extracted secrecy deals from frightened victims.

mary major

Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome, 16 April 2005/Tom Heneghan

Something not to be forgotten in this context is that the Vatican, when a cardinal actually had to step down under the pressure of sexual abuse scandals, provided him with a gold-plated exile in Rome that many prelates with spotless records could only dream of. Boston Cardinal Bernard Law fled to Rome in 2002 and was made archpriest of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, one of the most beautiful Catholic churches in the world, and retained his membership in eight Vatican dicasteries that effectively made him one of the most influential cardinals in the Church.

The pope and several European bishops who greeted his letter carefully avoided any escalation up the chain of command.  Sharp and clear in its condemnation of clerical sexual abuse, the pope’s letter flags when it comes to recommendations for the future. It talks about a Vatican-sponsored inquiry into selected Irish dioceses, which will almost surely fall short of the frankness and detail of the damning Ryan Report into abuse in the Dublin archdiocese. And then it offers mostly spiritual advice, telling priests to look inwards — to more frequent confession and eucharistic adoration, and reflection on the model of the 19th century Curé of Ars, the French priest Fr. Jean-Marie Vianney. In the letter, Benedict reminded his clergy of Vianney’s words: “The priest holds the key to the treasures of heaven: it is he who opens the door: he is the steward of the good Lord; the administrator of his goods.”

croagh patrick

A bare-footed pilgrim climbs Croagh Patrick mountain near Westport in County Mayo, 30 July 2000/Ferran Paredes.

Is a 19th-century rural French priest, even one as legendary as Vianney, a model for 21st century clerics struggling with the fallout of the sexual abuse crisis? Critical reactions to the letter doubted this. “We’re not going to make any progress with an image of the priest like that,” said Christian Weisner, spokesman of the German lay movement Wir Sind Kirche (We Are Church). In his letter, Benedict himself says that part of the problem in Ireland was “a tendency in society to favour the clergy and other authority figures.” But the image of a priest that he offers his Irish colleagues is as clerical as the traditional one Ireland has been shaking off with so much pain and sorrow.

Speaking of rural — Ireland’s RTÉ television had an interesting interview with Fr. Kevin Hegarty, a priest in County Mayo along the Atlantic coast, who reported on the reaction in parishes he tends to. “They have been absolutely shocked by the level of the cover up,” said Hegarty, who had been of the first priests in Ireland to openly challenge the bishops’ handling of the abuse.  “I’ve met seven congregations since yesterday morning and from talking to them my sense is that they are saying it is a good thing the pope has spoken at last, they see good things in what he has said, but they see it as a very small step,” said Hegarty.  “It will take a long time to build up any level of trust in the Catholic Church in Ireland.”

Another gap opens up behind Benedict’s comment that the Irish abuse scandals can also be partly blamed on the fact that “the programme of renewal proposed by the Second Vatican Council was sometimes misinterpreted … there was a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations.” He also cited “the rapid transformation and secularisation of Irish society.”

irish church

Mullaghdun parish church (RC), 31 Jan 2010/Brian Shaw

These factors certainly played a part, but they can’t  explain the abuse cases that date back to what now seems like the Church’s golden era of the 1950s. As Germany’s ARD television correspondent Stafan Troendle commented from Rome: “If everyone had believed and prayed more, this wouldn’t have happened. That may be the sincere view of a pious Christian, but it’s not very realistic … Especially in Ireland, many abuse cases date back to a time when there was not yet any talk of secularisation and the all-powerful Church could pretty much do as it wished.”

The Süddeutsche Zeitung, the main daily in the pope’s old archdiocese of Munich, gave him mixed marks for his address to the Irish. “The pope’s letter is strong in its emotion, clear in its recognition of the intellectual and spiritual crisis that has engulfed the Catholic Church — but weak about the reasons for the crisis that will change this Church more deeply than many a papal letter.”

What do you think? Did the pope’s letter answer the concerns of victims and other Catholics concerned about the treatment of children in the care of the Catholic Church? Or do you think the victims are right to say that nothing will be changed until bishops who presided over cover ups are called on the carpet?

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May have answered some things for some catholics – certainly went nowhere towards answering anything for victims. No request for catholics to support victims (most are ostracized, vilified and discriminated against by ‘their fellow parishioners’ as they appear unable to direct their anger at the clergy so they instead direct this towards the victims. This is the most harmful area of this whole situation and is a major cause of suicide in victims – none of these things has been raised yet.

Nothing will be changed until bishops, nuns and priests who presided over these abuses as well catholics who blindly believed the SPIN put out by catholic press and supporters who took and still take their anger out on victims simply for disclosing the faults and crimes of the church and its clergy. Nothing more will change until catholics are able to differentiate clearly between church and state matters – this is staggeringly simply for many victims and non catholics – this is immensely difficult and appears to only engender outrage towards the messenger by those who have been deceived by their religion. It is simple enough to try yourself out in this regard http://www.irishfireandice.com/separatio n

There will not be any genuine change until the discussion gets through these and a number of other issues yet to come.

Posted by JohnBS1 | Report as abusive

Sadly, it seems that the actual culture of a church has to change (any church, not solely the Catholic Church) before real healing can begin. Experts who have studied the topic of sexual abuse, including the ones at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, are now arguing that while abusers clearly have psychological problems, only a small number of them are true pedophiles.

What made their behavior possible? An institutional culture that was secretive, hierchical, avoidant.

Obviously that’s not solely true of the Catholic Church. But as with any institution, the degree to which those in charge can break down some of this culture of avoidance and make apologies in ways that are concrete is probably going to affect how the rank and file think. Seems to me that in this case the stakes are pretty high.

Posted by EEEvans | Report as abusive

There’s really one question that matters more than any other: Has anything the Pope done in the last few weeks made one child safer today? Sadly, the answer is no.

David Clohessy, National Director, SNAP-Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, 7234 Arsenal Street, St. Louis MO 63143 (314 566 9790), SNAPnetwork.org, SNAPclohessy@aol.

Posted by SNAPnetwork | Report as abusive

Just an advise to all my brothers and sisters who were victimized by these sex abuse of clergies. Do not punish the Church of Christ. Punish the Criminal clergy instead. How? FILE A CASE! Go the the PROPER FORUM which is the COURT who has jurisdiction over the case. HE WHO SEEKS JUSTICE MUST DO JUSTICE. God Bless

Posted by drosaupan | Report as abusive

Words are meaningless if one’s actions contradict them. The Pope should be calling for the resignation of those bishops who turned a blind eye – they are guilty by their inactivity.

http://vickysimister.com/2010/03/22/pope -apologises-for-inconvenience/

Posted by vickysimister | Report as abusive

India is crisscrossed by schools and other institutions run by Jesuits.

Yet thanks to India’s dodgy editorial class very few in India know that the Vatican has paid out close to a hundred million dollars to compensate for victims of child sexual abuse by albeit “a small minority” of priests.

The Indian media has barely reported that story.

Was the media’s heinous silence an act of concern for Indian children or a hideously wrongheaded act of leaving well enough alone ?

Abuse of power often happens in plain sight, since to the “busy,busy, busy” lay person, the powerful appear glamorous and formidable and their prey appear to be in many ways, asking for it.

Since the past two decades, the Government of India, the Government of my own state, Andhra Pradesh, the Andhra Pradesh High Court , the Chief Information Commissioner and State Information Commissioner have combined to impress on me that what works in India is what I have called the “patronage paradigm” ? the paradigm of shoddiness, irresponsibility, cronyism and corruption” – and that ideas of the rule of law and democratic processes are merely spectacles to lull the gullible.

I have been denied the recognition that were commended to me by one former Chief Minister of my state, one former minister of home affairs, one speaker of the Lok Sabha, several prominent ministers of the central cabinet, eminent intellectuals and freedom fighters.

I have been unable to earn a decent living.

The office of the Governor of Andhra Pradesh incited my neighbours to cut off my water supply.

The Indian editorial class published government spin and ostentatiously made me a “non person”.

The information commissions in the state and at the centre denied me my right to information on spurious, brazenly illegal grounds and punished me for daring to object.

The high court denied me my right to competent counsel and punished me for complaining.

Even as we speak, Dr Manmohan Singh”s office, “Daredevil” Pratibha Patil’s Rashtrapati Bhavan, Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah, State Information Commissioner CD Arha are all locked in a most perverse and ignominious conspiracy of silence to deny me justice.

Even as the Prime Minister’s Office maintains a guilty silence in my case, it appears to have jumped through hoops to heap honour on a businessman alleged to be a serial swindler.

What about “civil society” in India ?

Since close to a year now, I have written to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Campaign for Judicial Accountability And Reform, Forum For Judicial Accountability, MKSS (Aruna Roy)

and Anna Hazare regarding this cascading delinquency of constitutional bodies in India.

There has not been one constructive response.

They all appear to be in helpless denial of the awful truth that an innocent citizen has been hounded and humiliated since two decades, not for any bad behaviour or wrongdoing, but for resisting the dilution of the values of the Indian constitution and standing up for the correct administration of the Right To Information Act 2005.

Please visit and participate at:

Andhra Pradesh High Court’s Pernicious Rebellion Against The Law .05/29/09

RTI Act 2005 Abuse In Andhra Pradesh- SIC Cheats! Chief Secretary Lies!05/07/09

Prejudiced CIC Laps Up PMO Lies 05/05/09

Compelling Criminality. Divakar S Natarajan and Varun Gandhi Cannot Both Be Wrong ! 01/28/09

And India’s editorial class will not report the story!


News and views from Divakar S Natarajan’s, “no excuses”, ultra peaceful, non partisan, individual sathyagraha against corruption and for the idea of the rule of law in India.

Now in its 18th year.

Any struggle against a predatory authority is humanity’s struggle to honour the gift of life.

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