Landmark Pastoral Letter Sparks Mixed Reactions

Irish Catholics receive Pope Benedict’s letter with gratitude and trepidation.

The response to Pope Benedict XVI’s pastoral letter to Ireland’s Catholics on the subject of child abuse has been somewhat predictable.

The Catholic hierarchy, as represented by Cardinal SeÁn Brady and Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, hailed the letter as an important contribution aiding the renewal of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

The response from victims has been mixed. The group One in Four, which represents some of the people abused by Irish priests, responded to the letter with a “mixture of dismay and disappointment.”

Maeve Lewis, the group’s executive director, said she was deeply disappointed with the letter “for passing up a glorious opportunity to address the core issue in the clerical sexual abuse scandal: the deliberate policy of the Catholic Church at the highest levels to protect sex offenders.”

“While we welcome the pope’s direction that the church leadership cooperate with the civil authorities in relation to sexual abuse…we feel the letter falls far short of addressing the concerns of the victims,” she said.

However, Survivors of Child Abuse (SOCA), an umbrella organization representing many of those who were abused in Church-run industrial schools, welcomed the letter.

In a statement, the group—which is currently engaged in a consultation process with the Irish Bishops’ Conference—said the pastoral letter represented a long-overdue apology from the Pope and the Vatican.

“Victims desperately need closure for what happened to them. We are fed up being victims and don’t want to remain victims,” said SOCA co-ordinator John Kelly.

“This letter is a possible step to closure and we owe it to ourselves to study it and to give it a measured response. We are heartened by the Pontiff’s open acceptance that the abusive behavior of priests and religious were criminal acts,” he said.

Andrew Madden, a victim of child abuse at the hands of Dublin-born priest Fr. Ivan Payne, does not share Kelly’s positive view of the Pope’s letter, saying that the document represents “not an inability to do the right thing, but an unwillingness to do the right thing.”

Madden, an aggressive campaigner to remove Church influence from the 92 percent of Irish schools that are Catholic, recently announced his formal defection from the Catholic Church.

Mass-goers interviewed on Irish television news programs after the letter’s release also had mixed reactions.

“What’s happening hasn’t damaged my faith but it has damaged the Church,” said Ian Evans, a Welsh Baptist who converted to Catholicism 20 years ago. He and his wife Margaret said they were encouraged by the letter.

“I am very impressed by the Pope’s and [Cardinal Brady’s] honesty and determination to put things right,” he added.

Annette O’Hara worried about how her three children have abandoned the Church.

“I have a son turning 21 who is getting married but who said to me last night he is not going to get married in a Catholic church, he is going to get married in a registry office, and all because of this,” she said.

Gale Scanlan, a mother of two children, said she was “disappointed but not surprised by the content” of the Pope’s letter. She said that to blame child abuse on “increased secularization” was “complete evidence of the lack of connection between the Church hierarchy—male-dominated and removed from the day-to-day goings on of life—and the reality.”

In some ways the response to the letter could have been scripted long before the text arrived on the shores of the Emerald Isle. For some, including some victims groups, the Pope was never going to be able to do enough.

Nonetheless, the letter, the first of its kind by a Pontiff to address the issue of child abuse by priests and religious, is an important milestone for a Church facing more accusations of abuse on an almost daily basis.

As Vatican documents go, the letter is extremely accessible, lacking the highly formal tone and the complex theological language that often characterize Roman texts.

The Pope ticks off many of the boxes and addresses the key themes that have marked the clerical abuse crisis in Ireland. Lest there be any confusion, he reminds the Irish bishops of their duty and responsibility to cooperate fully with the civil authorities, urging them to “conceal nothing.”

As well as reminding the bishops of their current responsibilities, the pastoral letter is frank in laying bare the fact that the Church’s moral authority has been seriously compromised as a result of the scandals. The Pope bluntly tells the bishops that they and their predecessors failed in their handling of abuse and as a result they have been seriously undermined.

In what will go a long way to address the expectations of some of the victims’ groups, the Holy Father apologizes not just for the abuse, but also for the fact that many victims were not listened to after coming forward and that once made, allegations were not handled properly by the Church authorities in Ireland.

He criticizes the bishops for not applying canon law to the issue of sexual abuse, echoing the judgment of Judge Yvonne Murphy who, in her report on the handling of clerical sexual abuse in the Dublin archdiocese, makes it clear that canon law was largely ignored by Church authorities in Ireland for decades.

In addition to the call to Irish priests, religious, and laity to avail themselves of Eucharistic adoration and the sacrament of confession, another initiative contained in the papal letter may prove the most dramatic in terms of renewing the Church in Ireland, but could also be among the most controversial.

The letter announces an apostolic visitation of Irish seminaries (St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth; the Irish College, Rome; and St. Joseph’s Seminary in Belfast) as well as of some (as yet unspecified) Irish dioceses and religious congregations.

An apostolic visitation can be described as a kind of ecclesiastical inquiry involving senior prelates from the Vatican and other countries who assess whether particular Church institutions are “fit for mission.”

Since they often subject cozy cartels to close scrutiny, apostolic visitations can arouse suspicion and sometimes outright hostility. The Vatican is currently engaged in such an inquiry into religious communities of women in the United States due to concerns that the sisters have drifted from their core ministries. Some of the religious congregations in question have refused to respond to a Vatican questionnaire. Unperturbed, the Vatican is continuing and teams of Roman-appointed “visitors” are set to embark on individual inspections of convents in April.

Such a visitation may well encounter resistance in Ireland, too. The current model for training priests in Ireland emerged out of the Council of Trent in the 16th century. Traditionally young men entered seminary in their teens and were formed, ordained, and dispatched to parishes in their early 20s. This is now the exception to the rule, as most men entering seminary today are significantly older and usually have left behind careers and mortgages. Their characters are largely formed before they enter the seminary and a boarding-school model of formation is judged by many to be inadequate. A refreshed vision of priestly training in Ireland may well prove to be the most lasting impact of the Pope’s pastoral letter.

Referring to the visitation, Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said: “I don’t think the visitation is about management of child sex abuse; it’s about a renewal of the Church.”

Statistically, at least, the outlook for the Church in Ireland is good. A recent survey found that 47 percent of Irish people attend Mass weekly. When the figure is extended to at least once per month the number rises above 60 percent. While the numbers are considerably smaller for younger people, a similar survey of young adults found that 25 percent attended Mass regularly.

In the wake of the reports on the Church’s mishandling of abuse, a group of former Catholics set up the Web site www.countmeout.ie in a bid to convince Irish Catholics to defect from the Church. After a year just over 8,000 Catholics have so defected.

The Conference of Religious of Ireland (CORI), which represents many of the religious congregations who managed the industrial schools in which abuse of children took place, also welcomed the contents of the letter.

“For all of us, this pastoral letter is an important part of the ongoing process of confronting the mistakes of the past, encouraging healing and reconciliation, and ensuring that the safeguarding of children is an absolute priority at all times,” CORI director general Sister Marianne O’Connor said.

Meanwhile, in Pope Benedict’s homeland of Germany, the president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, has said that the Pontiff’s letter has applications for the larger Church as well as for Ireland.

“What the Pope says has relevance for the entire Church and is clearly a message to us in Germany,” said Archbishop Zollitsch. “We know that mistakes were made here in Germany, we German bishops have recognized these mistakes…and cannot allow these mistakes to be repeated.”

Zollitsch’s comments came after revelations of sex-abuse allegations in several German dioceses dating back decades. Receiving the most media attention among these is the report that, when Pope Benedict was archbishop of Munich in the early 1980s, a priest accused of sexual misconduct in another diocese and receiving therapy in the Archdiocese of Munich was assigned to parish work, reportedly at the behest of the vicar general and without then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s knowledge or approval.

Some 250 clerical abuse claims have been registered to date in Germany, many dating back decades, forcing bishops there to announce an overhaul of guidelines for reporting child abuse.

“I understand the Pope’s admonition of the bishops in Ireland as an admonition of us,” Zollitsch said. “The scandal of sexual abuse is no mere Irish problem. It is a problem of the Church in many places and it is a scandal of the Church in Germany.”

About Michael Kelly 29 Articles
Michael Kelly is editor of the Irish Catholic, Ireland's best-selling religious newspaper.