In a March 20 pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland, Pope Benedict XVI vigorously condemned the physical and sexual abuse of “children and vulnerable young people” in which Irish priests and religious women had engaged for decades, and mandated an Apostolic Visitation of various segments of the Irish Church.
The visitation seems likely to result in major changes in the Church’s leadership in what was once one of the world’s most intensely Catholic countries, and is now one of the centers of aggressive secularism in Europe. “Sinful and criminal acts” against the young “and the way Church authorities dealt with them” are, the Pope suggests, among the reasons that Irish Catholicism has imploded in recent decades. And Benedict does not hesitate to draw the necessary conclusion from that analysis — radical reform is the only path back to a vital and vibrant Catholic Church in the land of St. Patrick.
There is very little euphemism in Benedict’s pastoral letter; its language is both unprecedented and unsparing, as is its candor about the failures of bishops in dealing with abuse. Abusing priests and religious women are told, bluntly, that “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.” Moreover, the Pope writes to the abusers, “you have forfeited the esteem of the people of Ireland and have brought shame and dishonor upon 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 in our actions” — which is to say, you have profaned holy things.
The Irish bishops are also, and deservedly, called to task in no uncertain terms: “Some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously” to address problems of sexual and physical abuse that had in some instances become institutionalized in Catholic facilities, including those that cared for trapped orphans — “grave errors of judgment were made and failures of leadership occurred.” And because of that, the Pope told the Irish hierarchy, your “credibility and effectiveness” has been “seriously undermined.”
In a sound-bite global media environment, these sharp and (from a Vatican that still prefers the subjunctive mood) almost startlingly blunt statements are likely to draw the most attention. Other aspects of the Pope’s letter are worth noting, however, because they indicate that the corporate mind of the Vatican is, at long last, beginning to come to grips with the full implications of the patterns of clerical sexual predation and episcopal malfeasance that first came to light during the American “Long Lent” of 2002.
The letter acknowledges, for example, that two factors in the cover-up of sexual and physical abuse in Ireland were an excessive deference to ecclesiastical authority and a misplaced concern for the Church’s public reputation; the safe care of Christ’s little ones, the Pope insists, must have absolute priority over worries about how revelations of the sinfulness of Church professionals will “look,” and must have absolute priority over the career prospects of men in ecclesiastical office. As for the conditions in Irish Catholicism that created the warped ecclesial ecology in which abuse took place and was then denied or hidden, the Pope forthrightly notes “inadequate procedures for determining the suitability of candidates for the priesthood and religious life” and “insufficient human, moral, intellectual, and spiritual formation in seminaries and novitiates.” That no small part of these two failures was shaped by the doctrinal and moral chaos of the post-Vatican II period, during which there was a tendency in Ireland (and elsewhere) “to adopt ways of thinking and assessing secular realities without reference to the Gospel,” is also noted.
The letter breaks ground for the Vatican by acknowledging, with admirable candor, that parents and entire families have “suffered grievously” because of the “abuse of their loved ones,” and that these families’ “trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated.” In the name of the Church, the Pope openly confesses to families “the shame and remorse we all feel,” while at the same time begging victims and their families “not to lose hope.” For, as he writes, “Jesus Christ, who was himself a victim of injustice and sin…still bears the wounds of his own unjust suffering,” such that the Lord “understands the depths of your pain and its enduring effect upon your lives and your relationships, including your relationship with the Church.” Benedict understands, he writes, that some who have been so badly used by Catholic priests and religious “find it difficult even to enter the doors of a church after all that has occurred.” And yet it is in the Church that the Catholics of Ireland will encounter “the healing power of [Christ’s] self-sacrificing love — even in the darkest and most hopeless situations — to bring liberation and the promise of a new beginning.”
It is also worth noting that, while the Vatican has accepted the Irish government’s Murphy Report on abuse, the Church, by the Pope’s explicit command, intends to go even farther in investigating these patterns of gross misbehavior, in order to identify their causes and root them out. This is appropriate in itself; it may create some barriers against the likelihood that aggressive secularists will seize on this scandal to try to bring the Catholic Church in Ireland under the virtual control of the state — by, for example, having its seminaries supervised by the government (as was proposed in Massachusetts in 2002 by politicians playing to the mob).
While the Irish crisis is unprecedented in its scope and in the depth of corruption it revealed, it is clear from his letter that Benedict XVI is laying down markers for the Catholic Church throughout the world — further confirmation that this pope takes the moral crimes of sexual and physical abuse, and the failures in governance of the Church’s bishops in dealing with those moral crimes, with utter seriousness. The Pope is quite aware of two facts of the global crisis: that it is far worse in other parts of society than it is in the Catholic Church today, and that the Catholic Church must nonetheless hold itself to a higher standard than others. Indeed, as one of the bright spots in this dark picture, Benedict’s letter notes that the Church’s efforts to come to grips with these problems within the household of faith — which have been more far-reaching than in any other institution or sector of society — have led others to look to the Catholic Church for guidance on how to address what is, in fact, a global plague.
The Catholic Church in Ireland was one of the glories of world Catholicism in the last quarter of the second millennium. That a considerable number of African cardinals will help elect Benedict XVI’s successor is due in no small part to the evangelical efforts of tens of thousands of Irish missionaries; and the impact of Irish emigrants, both lay and clergy, on Catholicism in the United States, Canada, and Australia is obvious. That noble history has been sullied in recent decades, not only by terrible sins and crimes but also by the distorted patterns of clericalism and clerical ambition that facilitated these derelictions of duty. As was true during the Long Lent of 2002, a crisis of fidelity can be met only by an intensification of fidelity to the truth of Catholic faith; it cannot be met by Catholicism Lite. Benedict XVI’s striking combination of candor and hope in addressing what is, quite simply, a disastrous situation may be the beginning of the kind of reform that could make Irish Catholicism vital and vibrant once again.
Those who see in these scandals an opportunity to cripple the Catholic Church and its moral teaching have long had the card of “cover-up” to play in the global media. That c
ard has now been taken away by Benedict XVI. Those who care for the Church, on the other hand, must now hope and pray that the follow-up from the Vatican is as vigorous and unsparing as the Pope’s letter.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.