I've taken the time to read it at leisure - I'm not a journalist so I don't have to deal in deadlines and get instant comment out. So I've decided to take a bit more time over my comments.
Here's the first paragraph.
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.A mixed start. On the good side, he is being quite blunt about calling the abuse "sinful and criminal acts" which they undoubtedly are. But the bad part is that he is being extremely unspecific about the failings of the church in dealing with reports and allegations of abuse. He has simply mentioned "the way Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them" without describing it what was wrong with it.
Let us be clear, every profession that involves contact with and the care of children will attract its share of paedophiles. This attraction is a fact of life and must be dealt with. The way organisations responsible for the care of children have to deal with this is by a multi-layered defence against it, making sure that everybody knows what to do in terms of reporting suspicions and passing on reports to the civil authorities. You can't make an organisation immune to the attractions of paedophiles, so you have to ensure that any harm they do is detected early and stopped immediately.
The scandal in the Catholic Church is not that it attracted its share of paedophiles, but rather that its procedures seem to be almost perfectly designed to achieve the precise opposite of what is needed to minimise the harm done. Knowledge of paedophiles was hidden from the civil authorities, all too frequently no attempt was made to prevent paedophiles from remaining in contact with children, a high priority was put on the standing and reputation of the church and its priests (including the minority of paedophiles among them), and protection of the children its its care seemed hardly to figure at all as a priority when making decisions as to what to do with sexual abuse cases that came to its attention.
So, the problem is that the Pope seems to be apologising for the wrong thing. He can't apologise on behalf of the priests who committed the abuse - they were acting without and despite his authority or that of his predecessors. What he should be apologising for is the nature of the church's organisation, policies and procedures that allowed known paedophiles to continue to harm children.
In point 2 of his letter he goes on to say
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 defenceless children. Such an acknowledgement, 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.The problem here is that his only previous mention of the "sins" refers to those who actually committed the abuse, not those who failed to bring an end to it. Paedophiles (even those in the church) aren't suddenly going to put their hands up and apologise publicly for their sins just because the Pope tells them to. This is not least because paedophiles frequently manage to persuade themselves that what they are doing is causing no harm, and therefore shouldn't be regarded as wrong.
The next three paragraphs consist largely of historical background of dubious relevance to the matter at hand, and I see no need to make much comment on it. It is interesting in as much as it sheds light on the way of thinking of the pope, but adds nothing directly to the apology. The next relevant passage is section 6. Here is how it starts.
To the victims of abuse and their familiesAgain, it's missing the point. He's using passive voice: "the wrong that you have endured". It makes it sound as if he is trying to avoid accepting responsibility for the fact that the wrong was done by people, and that those people were priests and others in the church, that others stood by and let it happen, and that others covered up the crimes lest publicity damage the church's reputation.
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.
He goes on to address those who have committed abuse.
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 brought shame and dishonour 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.It sounds very much like the form of words used by Abbot Martin Shipperlee in the case of Father David Pearce. Pile as much blame as possible onto the abusers, in the hope that people will forget about the inaction of those who had an opportunity to put a stop to the abuse.
He goes on:
Together with the immense harm done to victims, great damage has been done to the Church and to the public perception of the priesthood and religious life.Quite frankly, it is an insult to the victims to mention damage to the public perception of the church in the same sentence as harm to victims. Putting them together like that suggests a degree of equivalence between them which most people will find abhorrent.
I urge you to examine your conscience, take responsibility for the sins you have committed, and humbly express your sorrow. Sincere repentance opens the door to God's forgiveness and the grace of true amendment ... Openly acknowledge your guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God's mercy.This is so unrealistic it is breathtaking. Again, he's again taking aim at the wrong target. Paedophiles exist, and they for the most part convince themselves that they are doing nothing wrong. Asking them to openly acknowledge criminal acts is about as realistic as expecting the Pope himself to proclaim the nonexistence of God. It's just not going to happen. If this is the best the Pope can do, then he hasn't even got properly started in grappling with this issue.
He then goes on to address himself to parents.
You have been deeply shocked to learn of the terrible things that took place in what ought to be the safest and most secure environment of all.There's that passive voice again. It is as if he is describing some terrible natural disaster, rather than a systemic failure of his own organisation.
I urge you to play your part in ensuring the best possible care of children, both at home and in society as a whole, while the Church, for her part, continues to implement the measures adopted in recent years to protect young people in parish and school environments. As you carry out your vital responsibilities, be assured that I remain close to you and I offer you the support of my prayers.So there we have it. The measures already being undertaken by the church to fix the problem are sufficient, and parents should get on with caring for their children. Oh, and I'll pray for you.
Section 10 is words of encouragement to priests in Ireland, and asking them to pray more.
Section 11 is addressed to the bishops in Ireland.
It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse. 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 judgement were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness. I appreciate the efforts you have made to remedy past mistakes and to guarantee that they do not happen again. Besides fully implementing the norms of canon law in addressing cases of child abuse, continue to cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence.From what we have learned in the Ryan Report and elsewhere, it is "the norms of canon law" which have greatly contributed to this mess. It is the elevation of canon law above the criminal law which has led to cases not being reported to the police. And this airy passing comment that the bishops should "cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence" is really inadequate. The problem has arisen in part because the church has denied the competence of the civil authorities in the matter of actions which broke the criminal law.
Sections 12 and 13 are general encouragement to "the faithful of Ireland". He starts section 14 by saying.
I now wish to propose to you some concrete initiatives to address the situation.I thought "Ah, now we will finally see what reforms he's going to make to prevent this sort of thing happening in future". Imagine my disappointment when the first measure proposed is as follows.
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.This reminds me of an episode from Father Ted, where Father Dougal Maguire is stuck on a milk float with a bomb in it, and Father Ted calls on his fellow priests to help him come up with a course of action that will save Father Dougal. Their best answer is to say a mass for him. At the time I thought it a hilarious over-exaggeration for comic effect. I now know better. This is how Father Ted and his fellow priests would address the problem.
"The whole institutional response of the church to sexual abuse has been shown to be corrupt and ineffective. What shall we do?"
"I know! Let's say Mass."
Is the Pope's response very much different? There's not much difference I can discern.
Leaving aside its ludicrous inappropriateness as the first substantive response to the scandal, notice also the aim of this action, "to obtain the grace of healing and renewal for the Church in Ireland". Nothing about providing justice for or comfort to the victims. Renewal of the Church is the aim.
The next item seems a bit more promising.
I intend to hold an Apostolic Visitation of certain dioceses in Ireland, as well as seminaries and religious congregations. Arrangements for the Visitation, which is intended to assist the local Church on her path of renewal, will be made in cooperation with the competent offices of the Roman Curia and the Irish Episcopal Conference.If this is the equivalent of sending in the inspectors to examine the books and all the procedures to make sure that all is being handled correctly, then this might do some good. Everything though depends on what specific aims the Visitation will have, and that is not vouchsafed to us.
I also propose that a nationwide Mission be held for all bishops, priests and religious. It is my hope that, by drawing on the expertise of experienced preachers and retreat-givers from Ireland and from elsewhere, and by exploring anew the conciliar documents, the liturgical rites of ordination and profession, and recent pontifical teaching, you will come to a more profound appreciation of your respective vocations, so as to rediscover the roots of your faith in Jesus Christ and to drink deeply from the springs of living water that he offers you through his Church.This sounds like a pontifical equivalent of "I'm going to set up a nationwide scheme for additional training of all personnel". That might help, depending on what the training is intended to achieve.
The rest of the letter is further general encouragement and promises of more prayers.
So, let's consider the positive aspects of the letter.
- There is the fact that it was written at all. That is no small thing. I can't remember anything comparable coming from a Pope before.
- He was quite blunt about the fact that the abuse was a sin and a crime.
- He did offer criticism of his bishops. Even though it was entirely unspecific, the fact that there was any criticism there at all is (as far as I know) unprecedented in modern times.
- He's going to do these "Apostolic Visitations", which might cause the dioceses concerned to pull their socks up.
- There's going to be this National Mission, which (depending on what it actually consists of) might also help to concentrate minds.
- He seems not yet to have understood (or not been able to admit publicly) the real problem that is at the centre of people's horror and disgust about all this, i.e. the cover-up and the failure to act to prevent known paedophiles from continuing to do harm.
- He's not proposed any changes to canon law that are intended to help clean up the mess.
- He's not acknowledged the primacy of criminal law in this area.
- He's not called for or mentioned the resignation of any senior figures implicated.
- He's been very vague about organisational measures that will be taken.
- The victims don't figure very much in his description of the aims of the changes to be made.
An apology, if it is to be truly meaningful and effective, has to contain certain key elements.
- It must be sincere.
- It must be specific as to what is being apologised for.
- The thing being apologised for must be the responsibility of the person doing the apologising, either directly or by virtue of his position at the head of an organisation which has done harm.
- The apology must be accompanied by a sincere determination to stop doing what has made the apology necessary, and practical steps to achieve it.