In letter, pope apologizes to Irish abuse victims

VATICAN CITY — In a letter to Irish Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI personally apologized to victims of priestly sexual abuse and announced new steps to heal the wounds of the scandal, including a Vatican investigation and a year of penitential reparation.

“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,” he told victims in his letter, released March 20 at the Vatican.

The pope told priest abusers that they would answer to God for their sins. He said bishops had made serious mistakes in responding to allegations of sexual abuse, and encouraged them to implement new church norms against abuse and to cooperate with civil authorities in such cases.

“Only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and good will of the Irish people towards the church,” he said.

The 4,600-word letter was to be distributed at Masses across Ireland March 20-21, and priests there were preparing homilies on the text. The letter came in response to the disclosure last fall that Irish church leaders had often protected abusive priests over the last 35 years. Similar allegations have since come to light in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland.

Pope Benedict, who met with Irish bishops to discuss the problem in February, began his letter by saying he shared in the sense of betrayal Irish Catholics felt when they learned of these “sinful and criminal acts” and the “often inadequate response” by church authorities in Ireland.

He said he was convinced that the church, having adopted strict new measures against sexual abuse, was now on the right path. But the healing process for Irish Catholics will take time and requires a deeper spiritual renewal, he said.

“No one imagines that this painful situation will be resolved swiftly,” he wrote.

The pope pointed out that he had met with sex abuse victims before and said he was ready to do so again. Many in Ireland have called for a papal meeting with those who suffered abuse at the hands of priests.

To the victims of abuse and their families, the pope offered sympathy and understanding.

“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,” he said.

He noted that many victims found that, when they had the courage to denounce the abuse, “no one would listen.” Those abused in Catholic residential institutions must have felt that there was no escape from their sufferings, he said.

“It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel. At the same time, I ask you not to lose hope,” he said.

Addressing priests and religious who have abused children, the pope declared: “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.”

Priest abusers, he said, have “violated the sanctity of the sacrament of Holy Orders in which Christ makes himself present in us and in our actions.” He said those who have abused should openly acknowledge their guilt, try to atone personally for what they have done and “do not despair of God’s mercy.”

The pope urged bishops to fully implement the church’s new policies against abuse and to “continue to cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence.”

“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,” he said.

The pope said he had ordered an apostolic visitation, or internal church investigation, of certain dioceses in Ireland, as well as seminaries and religious congregations. He said details would be announced later.

The step was an apparent effort to find out more precisely how and why mistakes were made in the handling of abuse cases.

The pope identified several contributing factors to clerical sex abuse, among them a “misplaced concern for the reputation of the church” that led to a failure to apply existing penalties against abuse. He also pointed to inadequate selection of priesthood candidates, poor formation programs and a tendency in society to favor the clergy and other authority figures.

At the same time, he said priestly sexual abuse was linked to more general developments, including the secularization of Irish society and of Irish clergy and religious themselves, and misinterpretation of the Second Vatican Council.

In addition to the apostolic visitation, the pope announced two other “concrete initiatives” to help Irish bishops repair the damage in the church:

— A yearlong period, from Easter 2010 to Easter 2011, of penitential and devotional practices with the intention of strengthening holiness and strength in the church in Ireland.

In particular, he said, Eucharistic adoration should be set up in every diocese, so that “through intense prayer before the real presence of the Lord, you can make reparation for the sins of abuse that have done so much harm,” he said.

— A nationwide “mission” to be held for all bishops, priests and religious, to promote a better understanding of their vocations by drawing on the expertise of preachers and retreat-givers, and by studying Vatican II documents and more recent teachings.

The pope cited Ireland’s immense past contributions to the church, and the great sacrifices made by Irish Catholics. That sense of faith needs to be renewed, even in the face of the recent scandals, he said.

Addressing young people in Ireland, he urged them not to give up on the church.

“We are all scandalized by the sins and failures of some of the church’s members,” he said.

“But it is in the church that you will find Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forever,” he said.

The pope told Irish Catholics he was sending his letter “with the care of a father for his children and with the affection of a fellow Christian, scandalized and hurt by what has occurred in our beloved church.”

He closed the letter with a prayer that said: “May our sorrow and tears, our sincere efforts to redress past wrongs, and our firm purpose of amendment bear an abundant harvest of grace.”

Excerpts from the pope’s letter on sexual abuse

VATICAN CITY — In his letter to Irish Catholics, Pope Benedict apologized to victims of sexual abuse, urged abusive priests to admit their crimes and criticized bishops for “inadequate” handling of abuse allegations.

The full text is here on a new Vatican Web “resources page” on sexual abuse, which includes links to past speeches by the pope, other Vatican statements and documents, and a video of the pope announcing his letter to Irish Catholics.

Here are some key excerpts from the 4,600-word letter, released today at the Vatican.

The pope began by saying he shares in the “sense of betrayal” felt by Catholics at the acts of abuse and the way bishops dealt with them:

Dear Brothers and Sisters of the Church in Ireland, it is with great concern that I write to you as Pastor of the universal Church.  Like yourselves, I have been deeply disturbed by the information which has come to light regarding the abuse of children and vulnerable young people by members of the Church in Ireland, particularly by priests and religious.  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.

Then the pope said healing of the wounds will require full disclosure of past failings and vigilance in the future:

At the same time, I must also express my conviction that, in order to recover from this grievous wound, the Church in Ireland must first acknowledge before the Lord and before others the serious sins committed against defenseless 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.

He connected the scandal to several factors, including a general weakening of faith in Ireland, a traditionally Catholic country:

Fast-paced social change has occurred, often adversely affecting people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values.  All too often, the sacramental and devotional practices that sustain faith and enable it to grow, such as frequent confession, daily prayer and annual retreats, were neglected.  Significant too was the tendency during this period, also on the part of priests and religious, to adopt ways of thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel.  The program of renewal proposed by the Second Vatican Council was sometimes misinterpreted and indeed, in the light of the profound social changes that were taking place, it was far from easy to know how best to implement it. In particular, there was a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations.  It is in this overall context that we must try to understand the disturbing problem of child sexual abuse, which has contributed in no small measure to the weakening of faith and the loss of respect for the Church and her teachings.

Other factors were poor selection and training of priests, and a “misplaced concern for the reputation of the church,” he said:

Only by examining carefully the many elements that gave rise to the present crisis can a clear-sighted diagnosis of its causes be undertaken and effective remedies be found.  Certainly, among the contributing factors we can include: inadequate procedures for determining the suitability of candidates for the priesthood and the religious life; insufficient human, moral, intellectual and spiritual formation in seminaries and novitiates; a tendency in society to favor the clergy and other authority figures; and 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.

The pope, after saying he would be willing to meet with victims of abuse, apologized to them in his letter:

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.  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 from your sufferings.  It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church.  In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel.  At the same time, I ask you not to lose hope.  It is in the communion of the Church that we encounter the person of Jesus Christ, who was himself a victim of injustice and sin.  Like you, he still bears the wounds of his own unjust suffering.

He had harsh words for priests who abused children:

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 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…. 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 told bishops that some of them had made “grave errors of judgment” in dealing with sex abuse allegations:

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 recognize 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 cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence.

The pope announced an apostolic visitation of some dioceses and institutions in Ireland, as well as a year of penitential reparation and spiritual renewal, saying the church needs not only norms to deal with specific cases of abuse but also broader measures:

In confronting the present crisis, measures to deal justly with individual crimes are essential, yet on their own they are not enough: a new vision is needed, to inspire present and future generations to treasure the gift of our common faith…. In solidarity with all of you, I am praying earnestly that, by God’s grace, the wounds afflicting so many individuals and families may be healed and that the Church in Ireland may experience a season of rebirth and spiritual renewal.

He urged young people in Ireland not to cut themselves off from the church:

We are all scandalized by the sins and failures of some of the Church’s members, particularly those who were chosen especially to guide and serve young people.  But it is in the Church that you will find Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forever.

Finally, he expressed his confidence that the church was on the right track in addressing the problem of abuse:

Since the time when the gravity and extent of the problem of child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions first began to be fully grasped, the Church has done an immense amount of work in many parts of the world in order to address and remedy it.  While no effort should be spared in improving and updating existing procedures, I am encouraged by the fact that the current safeguarding practices adopted by local Churches are being seen, in some parts of the world, as a model for other institutions to follow.

Virtual visit to the Sistine Chapel

Villanova University professor Paul Wilson checks focus and exposure while photographing a 360-degree virtual reality tour of St. Peter’s Basilica. (CNS/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — You have to check this out.

The virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel, a joint project of Villanova University and the Vatican, has been launched here on the Vatican Web site.

We’ve written about the university’s filming team, who have already assembled a virtual tour of the Basilica of St. John Lateran are working on one for St. Peter’s Basilica.

The Sistine Chapel is stunning, in floor-to-ceiling detail. You can crawl up and down Michelangelo’s frescoes with the mouse — just don’t spin it too quickly or you’ll get dizzy.

Barefoot for a cause

On April 8 you may see more people going barefoot than usual. That’s because the shoe company TOMS is promoting “One Day Without Shoes” to spread awareness about the impact a pair of shoes can have on a child’s life. The company, which donates a pair of shoes to a child in need for each pair purchased, hopes to spread awareness of  children worldwide going without shoes. These children not only get cuts and infections, but are also prevented from going to school.

At least two Catholic schools are participating in the barefoot campaign — Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., and Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, Colo.

In the fall, Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS, spoke at the campus of St. Mary’s University in San Antonio as a guest lecturer for the university’s lecture series on “the new economic landscape and what it teaches about social responsibility.”

Today’s Catholic, San Antonio’s archdiocesan newspaper, covered the event and described the guest lecturer as “St. Francis of Assisi and Elvis Presley rolled into one.”  The 33-year-old entrepreneur told the college students that he used to think you could either be in ministry or business. After starting his own company he realized it doesn’t have to be “either/or. It can be a little bit of both.”

Health care debate reaches full steam in the Catholic press

Thanks to the immediacy of our Twitter feed, this morning we saw an incredible storm of discussion just within the Catholic press among our clients in the Catholic press on the health care measure being considered by Congress. In just a couple hours there was:

— A tweet of a blog post from Our Sunday Visitor headlined “Speaking out against the dissenters.” It called yesterday’s announcement by women religious supporting the health care bill discouraging but added that “fortunately the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious have countered that with a statement of their own, affirming their support for the U.S. bishops’ position.”

— An editorial in the National Catholic Reporter endorsing the health care bill. On the newspaper’s Twitter feed the editorial was summarized this way: “Congress, and its Catholics, should say yes to health care reform.”

Another blog post, this time by The Catholic Key in Kansas City, Mo., quoting Bishop Robert W. Finn’s criticism of the Catholic Health Association for endorsing the health care bill. Headlined “Bishop Finn Says CHA Diminishes Catholic Solidarity,” the post excerpts a speech Bishop Finn gave yesterday calling on the CHA to “loudly and publicly” reverse their “permissive stance” on the Senate bill.

One more blog post, this one from the National Catholic Register, titled “Catechism vs. Health Care Reform.” It notes that the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls health care a right but argues that “the health care bill before Congress right now falls afoul of that catechism directive in two fundamental ways.”

Also this morning, the USCCB issued a news release, “U.S. Bishops Provide Resources Explaining Flaws In Senate Health Care Bill.” The release summarizes and links to several USCCB documents outlining the bishops’ objections to the measure, such as the concerns the bishops have about the funding of abortion at community health centers.

Surely this debate will keep on rolling until the final vote, and beyond.

UPDATE: Shortly after this item was posted, John Norton at Our Sunday Visitor questioned whether 59,000 nuns were actually represented in yesterday’s statement of women religious, and then Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh at the USCCB issued a news release saying the figure was “far off the mark.”

What’s so wrong with the Hyde amendment?

There are so many issues in the health care debate, you need a scorecard to keep up with them. One that keeps many people scratching their heads is what’s so wrong with the Hyde amendment? As Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh asks today in an op-ed piece in’s “On Faith” blog, why is the Senate hiding from Hyde?

Sister Walsh is the director of media relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The U.S. bishops have come down firmly on the side of universal health care, but they are equally firm that reform of the current system must not include an expansion of federal funding of abortion itself or of insurance plans that cover abortion.  The Senate bill — the only one under consideration in this 11th hour of the debate — does not include any specific prohibition, such as the Hyde amendment, which forbids federal funds being used for abortions. Congress has refused to put a Hyde-like prohibition in the Senate bill, claiming that it isn’t needed. But as Sister Walsh points out, “The Hyde Amendment has been satisfactory for America for almost 35 years. Why not incorporate it into health care reform legislation now?”

Do we really need Hyde in this legislation? You bet, say the bishops. What would happen if there is no specific prohibition? One needs a crystal ball to say definitively, but hammering out public policy, especially such sweeping public policy, always means trying to anticipate the future and prepare for the “what ifs.”

Part of the bishops’ concern is over the “what if” community health centers, a federally funded program, suddenly found themselves forced to offer elective abortions. They do not do so now, but the bishops maintain that the reform legislation, if enacted into law, ultimately would require them to do so. This is a complex issue. The USCCB has issued a fact sheet explaining the quandry that health centers would find themselves in if the Senate bill is passed without a specific fix.

What’s the fix? As Sister Walsh points out, there is an easy one: Hyde.

Book captures spirit of the Irish

It may be March and it may already be St. Patrick’s Day — but it is just the right time to catch up on a December feature on a book about the Irish, written by John Shaughnessy, assistant editor of  The Criterion, newspaper of the Indianapolis Archdiocese. 

“I wanted to write a book that would be a tribute to Irish immigrants, like my grandparents, who came to America with their most important possessions: their dreams,” Shaughnessy told Criterion editor Mike Krokos. The book was published by Corby Books in Notre Dame, Ind.

“These stories would connect with most people because most of the stories in the books are about fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives — all relationships that touch our lives,” Shaughnessy added.