He openly acknowledges the often inadequate response on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities of Ireland to the grave offences of child abuse. He is disturbed and dismayed and shares the sense of betrayal of those who have suffered. The damage inflicted upon individuals and upon the Church will not be repaired quickly. This letter does not set out the solutions to the problem but points to a way forward on the path of renewal.
I think he implies that a lot has gone wrong in the Church since the years of the Second Vatican Council. Even though the faith of many in Ireland is still strong, there was a tendency, even among priests and religious, to adopt ways and thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel. Clifford Longley, in this morning's Sunday programme, said that the Pope is almost telling the Church in Ireland, particularly the hierarchy, that they need to re-learn their Catholic faith and study the Scriptures once again. Irregular situations of the clergy were not attended to in accordance with the penal processes set out in the Code of Canon Law.
The Pope is truly sorry for the abuse suffered by victims and their families. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen. The Holy Father openly (expresses) the shame and remorse that we all (in the Church) feel.
The Pope speaks clearly to those who perpetrated 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. 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.
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.
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.
He says that some of the bishops have clearly 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 recognise 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 co-operate with the civil authorities in their area of competence. Clearly, religious superiors should do likewise. They too have taken part in recent discussions here in Rome with a view to establishing a clear and consistent approach to these matters. It is imperative that the child safety norms of the Church in Ireland be continually revised and updated and that they be applied fully and impartially in conformity with canon law.The Pope is not without a sense of sympathy for the bishops who perhaps were like rabbtis caught in the glare of a car's headlamps. But there is no excuse from now on. Canonical and civil law must be followed, with due regard to the safeguarding of the good name of any who might be falsely accused and subsequently found to be innocent.
The Pope's initiatives to address the situation are surprising in their apparent lack of action, but on reflection one can see what the Holy Father is trying to achieve: the renewal of the Church in Ireland with a call to penance and a new discovery of the Sacrament of Confession. He is calling the faithful to prayer through Eucharistic Adoration.
Certain dioceses, as well as seminaries and religious congregations, will be the subject of an Apostolic Visitation. Bishops, priests and religious (not the lay faithful) will have to be on the receiving end of a nationwide Mission. It is the clergy and religious that need to be renewed, to go on retreat, to listen to solid preaching, to study anew the documents of the Second Vatican Council (according to the hermeneutic of continuity???) and the rites of ordination and religious profession to be reminded of what it was they were consecrated to and for.
So, no, the Holy Father has not called for resignations, punishments, etc. He has called for a renewal and a renewed fidelity to Canon Law and the authentic spirit of the Second Vatican Council. The Bishops have lost a good deal of credibility. They must now seek to regain it.
As a son of Irish parents who has visited Ireland on numerous occasions, the faith of the laity in Ireland has impressed me. But the standard of liturgy and the resort to New Age teachings has disturbed me. The way I have seen (some, by no means all) priests celebrate Mass in a hurried manner, with carelessness, indicated a kind of superiority complex that implied: I'm in charge and it doesn't matter about the people. I was disturbed to read in the Catholic Herald recently that an early morning 15 minute Mass was being welcomed. What sort of manner is this to effect renewal? How can the Most Holy Sacrifice be reduced to less time than it takes to say the Rosary?
Bishops and priests are servants. May we grow in humility in our attitude before God and before His Holy People.
There is nothing to rejoice over in this letter, nothing to gloat over, nothing to take comfort in - except that we must turn to the Lord and humbly acknowledge our sins and beg for the grace to be faithful in the future.
The Church in Ireland is not finished. Satan can operate even within the Chruch, but he will not prevail against it.
NB: The fact that this letter is available in a number of different languages (French, Italian, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish) indicates that its significance goes far beyond the Irish Church.