In a March 20 pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland, Pope Benedict XVI vigorously condemned the physical and sexual abuse of “children and vulnerable young people” in which Irish priests and religious women had engaged for decades, and mandated an Apostolic Visitation of various segments of the Irish Church.
The visitation seems likely to result in major changes in the Church’s leadership in what was once one of the world’s most intensely Catholic countries, and is now one of the centers of aggressive secularism in Europe. “Sinful and criminal acts” against the young “and the way Church authorities dealt with them” are, the Pope suggests, among the reasons that Irish Catholicism has imploded in recent decades. And Benedict does not hesitate to draw the necessary conclusion from that analysis — radical reform is the only path back to a vital and vibrant Catholic Church in the land of St. Patrick.
There is very little euphemism in Benedict’s pastoral letter; its language is both unprecedented and unsparing, as is its candor about the failures of bishops in dealing with abuse. Abusing priests and religious women are told, bluntly, that “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.” Moreover, the Pope writes to the abusers, “you have forfeited the esteem of the people of Ireland and have brought shame and dishonor 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” — which is to say, you have profaned holy things.
The Irish bishops are also, and deservedly, called to task in no uncertain terms: “Some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously” to address problems of sexual and physical abuse that had in some instances become institutionalized in Catholic facilities, including those that cared for trapped orphans — “grave errors of judgment were made and failures of leadership occurred.” And because of that, the Pope told the Irish hierarchy, your “credibility and effectiveness” has been “seriously undermined.”
In a sound-bite global media environment, these sharp and (from a Vatican that still prefers the subjunctive mood) almost startlingly blunt statements are likely to draw the most attention. Other aspects of the Pope’s letter are worth noting, however, because they indicate that the corporate mind of the Vatican is, at long last, beginning to come to grips with the full implications of the patterns of clerical sexual predation and episcopal malfeasance that first came to light during the American “Long Lent” of 2002.
The letter acknowledges, for example, that two factors in the cover-up of sexual and physical abuse in Ireland were an excessive deference to ecclesiastical authority and a misplaced concern for the Church’s public reputation; the safe care of Christ’s little ones, the Pope insists, must have absolute priority over worries about how revelations of the sinfulness of Church professionals will “look,” and must have absolute priority over the career prospects of men in ecclesiastical office. As for the conditions in Irish Catholicism that created the warped ecclesial ecology in which abuse took place and was then denied or hidden, the Pope forthrightly notes “inadequate procedures for determining the suitability of candidates for the priesthood and religious life” and “insufficient human, moral, intellectual, and spiritual formation in seminaries and novitiates.” That no small part of these two failures was shaped by the doctrinal and moral chaos of the post–Vatican II period, during which there was a tendency in Ireland (and elsewhere) “to adopt ways of thinking and assessing secular realities without reference to the Gospel,” is also noted.