In a TV interview on the abuse crisis last night, Adrianus Cardinal Simonis used the well-known but very painful statement “Wir haben es nicht gewußt” – We did not know of it – to refer to the bishops at the time. Cardinal Simonis has been a bishop for 39 years, first in Rotterdam and then in Utrecht. His consecration in 1971 coincided with the tail end of the era which spawned most of the abuse reports that are only now coming to light.

The cardinal followed his statement by saying that “it is a loaded term. But it is true.”

I’m not going to ponder the question of whether or not the bishops knew anything about what crimes some priests and religious committed. That’s not a very interesting question to me right now, and one that may be answered by the bishops and people close to them alone, really.

In stating the lack of knowledge of the bishops in these words – used as an excuse for the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust -  Cardinal Simonis puts himself and his brother bishops in a very vulnerable position. Certainly politically it is not a wise thing to say. It will rightly lead to questions of why the bishops did not know and if they should have known. But from a Christian standpoint it may have been the best thing to say.

In his letter to the Irish Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI emphasis the vital importance of honesty, openness and clarity. That is what the cardinal is doing here. Instead of finding excuses and explanations for why they did not know – reasons which of course did come to the fore in the course of the interview – he starts with this simple statement: we did not know. No excuses, just the sad and painful fact which is then virtually impossible to deny or go back on. And it shouldn’t be denied, of course.

But why the choice for such a loaded expression which is unavoidably connected to atrocities and often used in the past by people who did know? In my opinion, it may simply be shock value. Not in a negative way, but the cardinal must have consciously decided to use the German phrase, knowing full well that no one would forget or ignore it. That places the bishops’ lack of knowledge in the forefront of the discussion, at least for a little while. Perhaps that refers back to the honesty that the pope emphasises: “Only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and 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” (Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, 11).

Complete honesty, effectively impressed upon the common conscience of the people, is only the first step on repairing the damage done. Painful, certainly. Inappropriate, perhaps. Laudable in its honesty, absolutely.

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