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