Pope Offers Apology, Not Penalty, for Sex Abuse Scandal

Mar 20th, 2010 | By | Category: Signs of the Times (click on article name)

Pope Offers Apology, Not Penalty, for Sex Abuse Scandal

By RACHEL DONADIO and ALAN COWELL
Published: March 20, 2010 NYTimes

Pope Benedict XVI has said he was 'shocked' to hear of the Munich sex abuse case. Other church officials have taken responsibility for letting the abuser strike again. Photograph: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

VATICAN CITY — Confronting a sex abuse scandal spreading across Europe, including his native Germany, Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday apologized directly and personally to victims and their families in Ireland, expressing “shame and remorse” and saying “your trust had been betrayed and your dignity has been violated.”

His message, in a long-awaited, eight-page pastoral letter to Irish Catholics, seemed couched in strong and passionate language. But it did not refer directly to immediate disciplinary action beyond sending a special apostolic delegation to investigate unspecified dioceses and religious congregations in Ireland. Moreover, it was, as the Vatican said it would be, focused particularly on the situation in Ireland, even as the crisis has widened among Catholics in Ireland, Austria, the Netherlands and Germany.

“You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated,” the pope told Irish 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. Those of you who were abused in residential institutions must have felt that there was no escape for your sufferings,” he continued.

“It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church,” Benedict continued. “In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel.”

Nowhere in the letter did Benedict address the responsibility of the Vatican itself. Many victims’ groups have criticized the Vatican for not recognizing the depth and scope of the abuse crisis sooner. Nor did he use the term punishment, or spell out any consequences for clergy or bishops who had not upheld canon or civil law. Indeed, he laid blame firmly with Irish Catholic leaders.

“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 a section of his letter to abusers, the pope said they must “answer for it before Almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals” urging them to pray for forgiveness, “submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God’s mercy.” He did not specify the nature of the tribunals.

He said those who had committed abuse had “betrayed the trust” of “innocent young people and their parents” and “forfeited the esteem of the people of Ireland and brought shame and dishonor among your confreres.”

Speaking on Saturday just before the publication of the letter, Maeve Lewis, an executive director of One In Four, a support group in Dublin for victims of sexual abuse, said that the Vatican had tried to suggest that clerical abuse was an Irish problem. “The events of the last three weeks in Germany and Netherlands suggest otherwise,” she said.

Since last year, the Irish church has been shaken to the core by two damning reports by the Irish government. One revealed decades of systematic abuse of children in religious institutions, another showed an apparent cover-up in the diocese of Dublin of priests who had abused children being allowed to continue in pastoral care.

In neither case did the church routinely inform civil authorities about priests who had committed felonies. Four Irish bishops offered their resignation in the wake of the publication of the so-called Murphy report in November, but the pope has accepted only one.

For many Catholics, the letter offered a critical test of whether the pope can stem a widening crisis that has shaken the credibility and authority of the Roman Catholic church in other parts of the world and challenged the Vatican to end a culture of secrecy and cover-up permeating its cloistered hierarchy.

In his letter, Benedict spoke of “a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situation,” adding that “it is in this overall context that we must try to understand the disturbing problem of child sexual abuse.”

The pope attributed the problem in part to “a misplaced concern for the reputation of the church and the avoidance of scandal, resulting in failure to apply existing canonical penalties and to safeguard the dignity of every person.”

He also cited “inadequate procedures” for determining the suitability of candidates for the priesthood and the religious life and “insufficient human, moral, intellectual and spiritual formation” in seminaries.

Benedict also directly addressed the bishops on whose watch the systematic abuse took place.

“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,” Benedict wrote. “Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations.”

“I recognize how difficult it was to grasp the extent and the complexity of the problem, to obtain reliable information and to make the right decisions in the light of conflicting expert advice,” he said, adding that besides “fully implementing the norms of canon law in addressing cases of child abuse,” bishops should also “continue to cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence.”

The pope also proposed a “nationwide mission” for all bishops, priests and religious to strengthen their vocations. And he urged Irish dioceses to devote chapels for intense prayer “to make reparation for the sins of abuse that have done so much harm.”

Earlier this week, Cardinal Sean Brady, the primate of Ireland, said in extraordinary comments to a mass on St. Patrick’s Day that he was “ashamed” of the situation and of his own actions in compelling two youths to sign secrecy agreements not to report abuse in the 1970s.

“I want to say to anyone who has been hurt by any failure on my part that I apologize to you with all my heart,” Cardinal Brady said. ”I also apologize to all those who feel I have let them down. Looking back, I am ashamed that I have not always upheld the values that I profess and believe in.”

In Germany the scandal has raised questions about the pope’s own past. This week the German church suspended a priest who had been permitted to work with children for decades after a court convicted him of molesting boys.

In 1980, Benedict, then Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, allowed the priest to move to Munich for therapy after allegations of abuse. The priest returned to pastoral work, but last week another church official took responsibility for allowing that move.

As reports of abuse cases spread many questions have been raised about the collision of Vatican secrecy and civil judicial process.

Some Irish church officials have said the problem has been deepened by confusion over the interpretation of a 2001 directive by Benedict, then a cardinal, reiterating a strict requirement for secrecy in handling abuse cases. The directive also gave the authority in handling such cases to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Benedict was prefect of the congregation from 1982 until becoming pope in 2005.

In the past decade, the congregation has handled 3,000 such cases, 80 percent from the United States, a Vatican official acknowledged last week.

As the crisis deepened, the Vatican condemned what it called an aggressive campaign against the pope in Germany.

A week ago, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said it was “evident that in recent days there are those who have tried, with a certain aggressive tenacity, in Regensburg and in Munich, to find elements to involve the Holy Father personally in issues of abuse.” He added, ”It is clear that those efforts have failed.”

Pope being set up over Munich sex abuse case, says Vatican

The Observer, Sunday 14 March 2010

The pope’s spokesman has launched a vigorous counter-attack against a report linking Benedict XVI to a sex abuse cover-up while he was archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1981.

Father Federico Lombardi appeared to suggest in an interview on Vatican Radio that the pope, who also has strong links to the city of Regensburg, was the victim of a plot.

“It’s rather clear that in recent days there have been people who have searched – with notable tenacity – in Regensburg and Munich for elements to personally involve the holy father in the question of the abuses,” Lombardi said. “To any objective observer it’s clear that these attempts have failed.”

The Vatican has been appalled in recent days by a flood of allegations of priestly sex abuse in Germany, Holland, Austria and even Italy.

Today, the pope’s former diocese rushed out a statement to pre-empt a story in tomorrow’s edition of the Munich-based daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. It said that when Joseph Ratzinger was the city’s archbishop he had agreed that a priest from another diocese should undergo therapy at a rectory. The records suggested that “it was known then that this therapy should probably be carried out due to sexual relations with children”. But instead of sending him for therapy, the statement said, the diocese’s then vicar-general, Gerhard Gruber, assigned him to a parish where at least one child was subsequently abused.

“Gruber takes full responsibility for the wrong decisions,” the diocese said.

The church’s attempt to bury the affair was immediately challenged by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which tomorrow is holding “sidewalk vigils” in more than 30 US cities in support of European victims. David Clohessy, the network’s national director, said: “As a high-ranking church official for decades, if Ratzinger knew of one reassigned paedophile priest, the odds are he knows of others, possibly dozens. German secular authorities should do in Munich what Irish secular authorities did in Dublin: launch a thorough secular probe of clergy sex crimes and cover-ups.”

The latest front was opened in Austria where two newspapers reported cases of abuse among choirboys in Fügen and Vienna. Today a newspaper in the predominantly German-speaking Italian province of Bolzano-Bozen recounted the story of a then 15-year-old boy who said that in the 1960s he was coerced into providing sexual services to local friars.

The growing scandal has also put Catholic leaders under siege elsewhere in Europe. Bishops in the Netherlands are looking into more than 200 suspected cases, and in Germany at least 170 former pupils at Catholic schools have made accusations. Another case concerns an all-boys choir in Regensburg, the Domspatzen, once conducted by the pope’s brother, Georg Ratzinger. The reported sex abuse dates from before his 30-year tenure as director.

The scandals have set off an unprecedented public debate among church leaders on one of Roman Catholicism‘s strongest taboos – whether the paedophilia in its ranks is a consequence of priestly celibacy. On Friday, Benedict himself vigorously defended an unmarried priesthood, telling an audience of priests that it was not something to be given up for “passing cultural fashions”. But one of his own prelates, Hans-Jochen Jaschke, said in a radio interview: “The celibate lifestyle can attract people who have an abnormal sexuality and cannot integrate sexuality into their lives.”

Priestly celibacy is a discipline, rather than a doctrine, and most of the Eastern rites of the Catholic church follow the practice of the Orthodox in allowing for married priests; the pope could do away with celibacy at any time. The Italian daily La Repubblica reported that a Vatican working group had been set up secretly to consider reform, but said no change was likely for at least 50 years.

The Vatican’s own newspaper, meanwhile, added to the debate. In an article in L’Osservatore Romano, Catholic academic Lucetta Scaraffia linked the scandals to the lack of women in pastoral and decision-making roles in the church. She said a more significant female presence “could have ripped away the veil of male omertà” that had covered up abuse.

On Friday, the head of the German bishops’ conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, briefed the pope on measures being taken by his archdiocese to deal with clerical sex abuse. But, as a German lay group noted, the pope did not take the opportunity to express sympathy with victims, and doubts remained as to how many of his pastors understand the gravity of the situation. The day before, one of the bishops closest to Benedict, Gerhard Müller, declared that the scandal was over “cases from 40, 50 years ago” that had been blown out of proportion by “a big media clamour”.

He lashed out at Germany’s justice minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, who had talked of a Catholic wall of secrecy. Müller said she belonged to a humanist association which he claimed was a kind of “masonry” that “considers paedophilia normal and wants to decriminalise it”. Müller, who founded the institute that is publishing Benedict’s complete works, is also the prelate charged with probing abuses in the Domspatzen choir.

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