Pope Benedict XVI during general audition, 5/2/07Pope Benedict XVI has finally spoken to Ireland’s Catholics about the scandal that has plagued their country for decades, the vast scope of which was revealed was in the Ryan Report, which was released a whopping 10 months ago, and subsequently in the Murphy Report, released 4 months ago. That’s right … after almost a year, the Pope finally figured out that it was time to say something to a country rocked by the reprehensible conduct of some of its Roman Catholic clergy and covered up by its Catholic hierarchy.

As the old adage goes, “better late than never,” eh?

At any rate, Time magazine reports on the Pope’s letter, which will be read to Catholic congregations in Ireland over the weekend (WebCite cached article):

Pope Benedict XVI rebuked Irish bishops Saturday for “grave errors of judgment” in handling clerical sex abuse and ordered an investigation into the Irish church but did not mention any Vatican responsibility.

In a letter to the Irish faithful read across Europe amid a growing, multination abuse scandal, the pope doled out no specific punishments to bishops blamed by victims, and Irish government-ordered investigations, for having covered up abuse of thousands of Irish children from the 1930s to the 1990s.

The Pope’s letter directly addressed perpetrators as well as victims, and in surprisingly (for a letter of this type) stark terms:

Benedict used his harshest words for the abusers themselves, saying they had betrayed the trust of the faithful, brought shame on the church and now must answer before God and civil authorities.

He also used critical — but a bit less stern — language about the Irish hierarchy’s management of the problem:

Benedict faulted their [the perpetrators’] superiors, the Irish bishops, for having failed “sometimes grievously” to apply the church’s own law which calls for harsh punishments for child abusers, including defrocking priests.

Time notes that the Pope conveniently failed to apologize for what he may have done to make the problem worse and encourage the hierarchy’s cover-up:

While a cardinal at the Vatican, Joseph Ratzinger penned a letter instructing bishops around the world to report all cases of abuse to his office and keep them secret under threat of excommunication. Irish bishops have said the letter was widely understood to mean they shouldn’t report the cases to police.

Although it is true that this directive has been used by bishops around the world to justify hushing up the abuse cases — and in some instances using it to justify resisting subpoenas by secular authorities — we need to be honest about the situation: The letter by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was issued in 2001; but Roman Catholic cover-ups and the silencing of victims had been going on, in many countries, long before that — including at least one such instance in 1975 which Sean Brady, current Primate of Ireland, took part in while he was a priest. While this CDF letter certainly didn’t do much to help the situation, one can hardly say it was the start of the hierarchy’s secrecy policy, because quite obviously, it wasn’t. It did, however, set the previously-presumed secrecy policy in concrete, and thus created an impediment to hierarchical reforms, such as when the U.S. Catholic bishops met a few years ago, in the wake of the John Jay Report, to deal with the matter and establish new procedures. Thus, the Pope has a lot to answer for where his 2001 CDF letter is concerned … but no one should be fooled into thinking it was the source of the Church’s secrecy policy.

At any rate, I’m not sure that the Church’s critics will be satisfied with the letter the Pope released this weekend, but it’s evident that he knows there’s a great deal of anger about this scandal. This is only the start of the Vatican’s response to it; we’ll see how much more is done about it in the months and years to come. Yes, it will take the Vatican years to deal with this. It is as slow-moving an organization as any on the planet. Anyone who’s expecting swift, decisive action will be bitterly disappointed … because the Holy See is never swift or decisive — about anything.

Photo credit: Tadeusz Górny / Wikimedia Commons.

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