Pope apologises to victims for 'grave errors' of church

Sat, Mar 20, 2010, 00:00

Pope Benedict has apologised in a pastoral letter to victims of Catholic clerical child sex abuse for  the "grave errors" committed by Irish church authorities.

In a letter published in Rome today, which is to be read out at Masses across Ireland tonight and tomorrow, the pope also announced a formal Vatican investigation of Irish dioceses, seminaries and religious orders affected by the scandal.

However, the letter - addressed to victims, parents, bishops, priests and all members of the Irish Catholic faithful - does not expressly call for the resignation of Primate of all-Ireland Cardinal Seán Brady or other church leaders, as demanded by victims.

In his message, the pope said he was "deeply disturbed" by the scandal and said he was willing to meet victims to acknowledge their suffering personally.

“Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated," he told victims. “I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured."

Addressing victims, the pope said he felt "shame and remorse" over what they had endured and praised their courage in speaking out about their abuse. He also acknowledged that many of them "find it difficult even to enter the doors of a church after all that has occurred.

“Those of you who were abused in residential institutions must have felt that there was no escape from your sufferings," he said. "It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the church."

In his letter, the 82-year-old pope said those responsible for abuse must be punished. "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. I urge you to examine your conscience, take responsibility for the sins you have committed, and humbly express your sorrow," he said. "Openly acknowledge your guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God's mercy."

He said "grave errors" of leadership were committed by Catholic authorities in Ireland after evidence of abuse by priests emerged. "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," he said, addressing the faithful.

Speaking to Irish bishops, the pope said: "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 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 judgment were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness."

He called on church leaders in Ireland to continue to cooperate fully with the civil authorities and said only "decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and goodwill of the Irish people" towards the church.

“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 pope announced an "apostolic visitation" of "certain" dioceses, seminaries and religious orders in Ireland. This is an inquiry in which inspectors meet bishops, seminary or convent directors and local church officials to review the way matters were handled in the past, to suggest changes and decide possible disciplinary action. The pope said details of the investigation would be announced "in due course".

In an address to parishioners following Mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh this morning, Cardinal Seán Brady said he was “deeply grateful to the Holy Father for his profound kindness and concern".

He said it was evident from the pastoral letter that the pope is "deeply dismayed" by the "sinful and criminal acts" and the way the Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them. "He says the Church in Ireland must acknowledge before the Lord and others the serious sins committed against defenceless children," Dr Brady said.

The cardinal urged people to read the letter with an open heart and in a spirit of faith. “No one imagines that the present painful situation will be resolved quickly,” he said. “Yet with perseverance, prayer and working together in unity, the Holy Father says we can be confident that the Church in Ireland will experience a season of rebirth and spiritual renewal.”

Dr Brady was applauded by the congregation after his address.

Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin also welcomed the pope's statement, describing it not as a final word but as “a further step in the process of renewal and healing in the Catholic Church in Ireland following the crisis of the sexual abuse of children".

Dr Martin said the pope acknowledged the suffering and betrayal experienced by survivors of clerical abuse. “The pope recognises the failures of Church authorities in how they dealt with sinful and criminal acts,” he said.

Today’s letter follows the publication last year of the damning Ryan and Murphy reports.

In May, the Ryan report revealed the Catholic Church and the Government covered up almost four decades of sexual and physical abuse by priests and nuns on thousands of children in care.

The Murphy report, released in November, concluded that the Catholic church in Ireland had "obsessively" concealed child abuse in the Dublin archdiocese, and operated a policy of "don't ask, don't tell".

Four Irish bishops offered their resignation in the wake of the Murphy report. So far, the pope has accepted only the resignation of Bishop of Kildare Leighlin, Dr Jim Moriarty.