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Photo: Dan Valenti
The Abuse Scandal and the Mercy Required
By David Came (Apr 22, 2010)
In his recent statements addressing the clergy sexual abuse scandal in Europe, Pope Benedict XVI has been invoking God's mercy and calling for a spirit of penance, conversion, and reconciliation in order to foster God's healing in the Church, especially for those who were abused. He also met with a group of abuse victims on April 18 during his pastoral visit to Malta.
'Unprecedented' Letter to Ireland
On March 20, Pope Benedict published his letter to Catholics in Ireland on the scandal there. The news agency Zenit.org characterized it as an "unprecedented" document, "not only for being the first dedicated by a Pope to the issue but also because of the grief with which it is written."
Setting the tone, the Holy Father opens the letter with these words of "great concern":
Dear Brothers and Sisters of the Church in Ireland, it is with great concern that I write to you as Pastor of the universal Church. Like yourselves, I have been deeply disturbed by the information which has come to light regarding the abuse of children and vulnerable young people by members of the Church in Ireland, particularly by priests and religious. I can only share in the dismay and the sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them.
In pointing the way to recovery from "this grievous wound," Pope Benedict said:
I must also express my conviction that, in order to recover from this grievous wound, the Church in Ireland must first acknowledge before the Lord and before others the serious sins committed against defenseless children. Such an acknowledgment, accompanied by sincere sorrow for the damage caused to these victims and their families, must lead to a concerted effort to ensure the protection of children from similar crimes in the future.
Getting to the Root and Healing for the Victims
The Holy Father also identified some of the key elements "that gave rise to the present crisis" of the Church in Ireland. In his analysis, he acknowledged in forceful language how the scandal has "obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing" in Ireland:
Certainly, among the contributing factors we can include: inadequate procedures for determining the suitability of candidates for the priesthood and the religious life; insufficient human, moral, intellectual and spiritual formation in seminaries and novitiates; a tendency in society to favor the clergy and other authority figures; and a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and avoidance of scandal, resulting in failure to apply existing canonical penalties and to safeguard the dignity of every person. Urgent action is needed to address these factors, which have had tragic consequences in the lives of victims and their families ...
To the victims of abuse and their families, he expressed his deepest sympathy and heartfelt apology, encouraging them "not to lose hope" but to look to Jesus Christ and "the healing power of his self-sacrificing love":
You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. 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. Those of you who were abused in residential institutions must have felt that there was no escape for your sufferings. It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel. At the same time, I ask you not to lose hope. It is in the communion of the Church that we encounter the person of Jesus Christ, who was Himself a victim of injustice and sin. Like you, He still bears the wounds of His own unjust suffering. He understands the depths of your pain and its enduring effect upon your lives and your relationships, including your relationship with the Church. ... I believe deeply in the healing power of His self-sacrificing love — even in the darkest and most hopeless situations — to bring liberation and the promise of a new beginning.
The Pope then "humbly" asked the victims "to consider what I have said," summing up:
I pray that, by drawing nearer to Christ and by participating in the life of the Church — a Church purified by penance and renewed in pastoral charity — you will come to rediscover Christ's infinite love for each one of you. I am confident that in this way you will be able to find reconciliation, deep inner healing and peace.
Stern Words for Abusers, Calling the Shepherds to Task
The Holy Father had particularly stern words for priests and religious in Ireland who have abused children, telling them to "openly acknowledge your guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God's mercy":
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 and have brought shame and dishonor on your confreres. Those of you who are priests violated the sanctity of the sacrament of Holy Orders in which Christ makes Himself present in us and our actions. ... I urge you to examine your conscience, take responsibility for the sins you have committed and humbly express your sorrow. ... Openly acknowledge your guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God's mercy.
To his brother bishops of Ireland, the Bishop of Rome emphasized that "grave errors of judgment were made and failures of leadership occurred." He also called them to their "own self-examination, inner purification and spiritual renewal":
Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations. I recognize 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. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that grave errors of judgment were made and failures of leadership occurred. All of this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness. ... Only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and the good will of the Irish people towards the Church to which we have consecrated our lives. This must arise, first and foremost, from your own self-examination, inner purification and spiritual renewal.
Initiatives Include: 'Pray for an Outpouring of God's Mercy'
In conclusion, the Pope laid out "some concrete initiatives to address the situation." In the first initiative, he called Irish Catholics "to pray for an outpouring of God's mercy and the Holy Spirit's gifts of holiness and strength" by devoting their Friday penances for a year to this intention. As part of this initiative, he also called for works of mercy:
At the conclusion of my meeting with the Irish bishops, I asked that Lent this year be set aside as a time to pray for an outpouring of God's mercy and the Holy Spirit's gifts of holiness and strength upon the Church in your country. I now invite all of you to devote your Friday penances, for a period of one year, between now and Easter 2011, to this intention. I ask you to offer up your fasting, your prayer, your reading of Scripture and your works of mercy in order to obtain the grace of healing and renewal for the Church in Ireland.
The other initiatives the Holy Father called for were an "Apostolic Visitation of certain dioceses in Ireland, as well as seminaries and religious congregations" and "a nationwide Mission" for "all bishops, priests and religious" that would draw on "the expertise of experienced preachers and retreat-givers from Ireland and from elsewhere."
Doing Penance Is 'the Work of Divine Mercy'
Along with his letter to the Catholics of Ireland, Pope Benedict spoke of the scandal on April 15 in his homily at Mass for the Pontifical Biblical Commission. He made the connection with the current crisis while commenting on the day's reading from the Acts of the Apostles. In alluding to the scandal in his commentary on the scriptural theme of conversion (in Greek, metanoia), the Holy Father encouraged Christians not to shirk doing penance for their sins but to embrace such penance as "a gift of grace" and "the work of Divine Mercy" in their lives:
Penance, to be able to do penance, is a gift of grace. And I must say that we Christians, even in recent times, we have often avoided the word penance. It seemed too harsh to us. Now, under the attacks of the world that speak to us of our sins, we see that being able to do penance is a grace. And we see that it is necessary to do penance, that is, recognize what is wrong in our life, to open up to purification, to transformation. This pain is grace, because it is renewal, it is the work of Divine Mercy.
Meeting with Abuse Victims in Malta
In addition to making these statements on the scandal, the Holy Father acted when he met with a group of abuse victims on April 18 during his pastoral visit to Malta. The Pope met privately with eight of the 10 men who say they were sexually abused by Catholic priests while growing up in a Church-run orphanage on the island in the 1980s and 1990s.
"He was deeply moved by their stories and expressed his shame and sorrow over what the victims and their families have suffered," the Vatican said. "He prayed with them and assured them that the Church is doing, and will continue to do, all in its power to investigate allegations, to bring to justice those responsible for abuse and to implement effective measures designed to safeguard young people in the future."
According to The Guardian newspaper, the group's spokesman, Laurence Grech, said the Pope cried during the 20-minute meeting. "I saw the Pope cry with emotion, and I felt freed of a great weight," he said, adding that Benedict had blessed each of them. "I hadn't been to Mass in a long time, and I'd lost my faith. But now I feel a confirmed Catholic."
It was Benedict's fourth such meeting. He also met with abuse victims in visits to the United States and Australia in 2008, and then in Rome last year.
So, both in word and action, we see Benedict XVI leading the Church in this crisis as our Mercy Pope. He weeps with the abuse victims on the island of Malta. In his letter to Ireland, he pleads with those who were abused "not to lose hope." Even in his stern words to the abusers in Ireland, he encourages them: "... do not despair of God's mercy."
How can we best respond ourselves as our Mercy Pope and the Church deal with this scandal?
Here are some simple suggestions. (Please feel free to post your own suggestions at the end of this story):
• Pray the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy daily for the healing of every victim of sexual abuse and for the sincere repentance of every perpetrator of abuse.
• Also, pray daily for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in guiding Pope Benedict and all of the bishops in union with him in responding to this scandal.
• In solidarity with the Church in Ireland, consider taking Fridays as a day of penance, from now until next Easter. "Pray for an outpouring of God's mercy and the Holy Spirit's gifts of holiness and strength upon the Church" in Ireland. And don't forget Benedict's recommendation to offer up "your works of mercy in order to obtain the grace of healing and renewal for the Church in Ireland."
Note: Addressing the specific allegations made recently by the secular media against then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is beyond the scope of this article. For reporting on those allegations, check out international and national Catholic news sources such as Zenit.org, Inside the Vatican, the National Catholic Register, and Our Sunday Visitor.
David Came is executive editor of Marian Helper magazine, the flagship publication of the Association of Marian Helpers, which is headquartered in Stockbridge, Mass. His book is Pope Benedict's Divine Mercy Mandate.