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An afternoon’s work results in the pope’s letter translated into Dutch. Translating a text into another language allows for a rather thorough reading, and this letter really deserve such a reading. In the media I’m already seeing reports that the it is insufficient because it doesn’t say much about measures taken against offenders and means of recompense of the victims, but that was never the purpose of a pastoral letter like this. And, in fact, the pope paradoxically goes out of his way to indeed identify specific steps he has ordered.
Pope Benedict gets really personal, in a good way. He specifically addresses certain people, and sometimes in no uncertain terms.
“With this Letter, I wish to exhort all of you, as God’s people in Ireland, to reflect on the wounds inflicted on Christ’s body, the sometimes painful remedies needed to bind and heal them, and the need for unity, charity and mutual support in the long-term process of restoration and ecclesial renewal. I now turn to you with words that come from my heart, and I wish to speak to each of you individually and to all of you as brothers and sisters in the Lord” (Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, 5).
To the victims he expresses feelings of regret and sorrow, and, very pastorally, the hope that they will find the healing they so need in Christ and His Church.
Sections 7 (to the offenders) and 11 (to the bishops) of the letter, to my eyes, are expression of the pope’s suppressed anger at the crimes committed against children. I can only imagine how those first meetings with the Irish bishops have been, but if this is any indication…
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. 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 (Ibid., 7).
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. [...] All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness (Ibid., 11).
But, in both passages, the pope again expresses, even urges, the addressed parties never to lose hope.
Sincere repentance opens the door to God’s forgiveness and the grace of true amendment. By offering prayers and penances for those you have wronged, you should seek to atone personally for your actions. Christ’s redeeming sacrifice has the power to forgive even the gravest of sins, and to bring forth good from even the most terrible evil. At the same time, God’s justice summons us to give an account of our actions and to conceal nothing. Openly acknowledge your guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God’s mercy (Ibid. 7).
The letter, as the title suggests, is addressed to all the faithful in Ireland, and the pope also makes sure to speak to parents and children. All this leads up to the concrete steps he formulates in section 14. Grounding these steps in prayer and the Eucharist, as it should be, he drops this unexpected bombshell:
I intend to hold an Apostolic Visitation of certain dioceses in Ireland, as well as seminaries and religious congregations (Ibid., 14).
An Apostolic Visitation is just about the most serious investigative step the Church can take. It implies a top-to-bottom investigation of all the workings of the institutions in question. The superiors and ordinaries must be able to explain any offenses and other errors that come to light. In recent history, there have been Apostolic Visitations to the women religious in the United States to find out why numbers there have so drastically decreased, and to the Legionaries of Christ following the news of shocking details about the order’s founder’s sexual life. These never happen without very just cause.
Another measure ordered by the pope is a so-called Mission for all the clergy and religious in Ireland. That basically amounts to them going back to school.
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 (Ibid., 14).
It is a sign of the great pastoral wisdom of the Holy Father that he has succeeded in responding to serious sins like the sexual abuse of minors in a way that combines suitable counter measures with a very pastoral attitude. He recognises that penance is the very opposite of exclusion. Through honest confession and penance, anyone is able to rejoin the communion of the Church. It is encouraging to see that the emphasis of the letter is on that, without losing sight of the very serious nature of the crimes.
The much anticipated pastoral letter of Pope Benedict to the faithful of Ireland, regarding the abuse crisis, has been released. There is also a summary available. While specifically directed towards the Church in Ireland, this letter is important for Catholics everywhere, especially in those countries hit by an abuse crisis themselves.
Note, though, that this is a pastoral letter. It is written by the pope as pastor, and is therefore not a text that holds any legal power. As the pope has said earlier, it should be read for what it is, as a pastoral letter, an attempt by the pope as visible head of the Church to reach out to the victims, the offenders, the clergy and all the faithful.
I have heard the current abuse crisis described as the most serious since the Reformation, and while I doubt it is, there is no question that it is a very serious issue. Abuse is never to be tolerated, least of all in the Church. But we must also not lose sight of the context: in the latter half of the 20th century, western society as a whole became heavily sexualised, and abuses happened in many layers of society. As Archbishop Nichols of Westminster said last night in an interview for the BBC, the major part of sexual abuses were not committed by celibate clergy or religious, but happened within families.
But still, as Bishop de Korte wrote earlier this week: “The dirt in someone else’s street does not make our own street less dirty”. It is vitally important that the Church looks at herself now and takes serious steps to combat abuse within her ranks and also to make sure justice is done to the victims and the accused alike.
I will be making the pope’s letter available in Dutch as soon as possible.