Pope Benedict’s Pastoral Letter, The Anchor, March 26, 2010

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
March 26, 2010

Pope Benedict’s March 19 pastoral letter to the Church of Ireland was an unprecedentedly candid and direct condemnation of the double-evil of the clerical sexual abuse of minors and of the misfeasance of Church supervisors, a remarkable display of papal compassion to all involved, and a forceful, evangelical call to the conversion and holiness that alone will bind the many open wounds and restore the Irish Church and individual Irish Catholics. Insofar as the issues the pope addresses are not unique to Ireland, the pastoral letter provides the deepest response yet to the clergy sexual abuse crisis that has already shaken the faith our country and has metastasized not only to Ireland but to many other countries in the world.

Benedict begins by describing, in the starkest terms, the evil of what occurred. He said that he is “deeply disturbed” and “can only share in the dismay and sense of betrayal” when considering “these sinful and criminal acts and the way Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them.” He wrote with a righteous indignation consistent “with the care of a father for his children and with the affection of a fellow Christian, scandalized and hurt by what has occurred.” He spoke not like the CEO of a multinational corporation in the midst of a terrible public-relations crisis, but with the horror and repentance that any father, and any fellow disciple, should have when considering that those called to be instruments of God’s holiness in the world abused rather than loved those entrusted to their care and that those whom the faithful trusted to protect Christ’s lambs were worried more about protecting the Church’s assets and reputation.

Parts of the letter he dedicated to those who have been affected by this two-fold crisis in different ways. The most moving section was the one he wrote to the victims of abuse and their families. It’s hard to imagine any of his 264 predecessors ever writing with this much poignancy. “You have suffered grievously,” he wrote, “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.” He didn’t stop there, however, but sought to help them to see that Christ can relate to their pain and seeks to help them heal. “At the same time,” he wrote, “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 understands the depths of your pain and its enduring effect upon your lives and your relationships, including your relationship with the Church. I know some of you find it difficult even to enter the doors of a church after all that has occurred. Yet Christ’s own wounds, transformed by his redemptive sufferings, are the very means by which the power of evil is broken and we are reborn to life and hope. I believe deeply in the healing power of his self-sacrificing love – even in the darkest and most hopeless situations – to bring liberation and the promise of a new beginning.”

He wrote a forceful call to conversion to the priests and religious who abused, both those whose sins have come into the light as well as those who still bear the horrible secret of past spiritual and physical masochism. He dramatically emphasized that, in justice, they need to come before both civil and ecclesiastical tribunals so as to be ready to stand before God almighty. “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. 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.” He called them to a full repentance, which involves seeking to repair the damage done by their sins. “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 wrote movingly as well to parents, children and young people, priests and religious, and all the faithful. He also dedicated a special section to his brother bishops, calling them to admit their failures, take full responsibility for them, and work urgently to restore the trust that episcopal failures have shattered. “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 judgment were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness. … Only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and good will of the Irish people towards the Church to which we have consecrated our lives. This must arise, first and foremost, from your own self-examination, inner purification and spiritual renewal. The Irish people rightly expect you to be men of God, to be holy, to live simply, to pursue personal conversion daily.”

Pope Benedict proposed an aggressive pastoral program not just to address the individual crimes and sins of the past, but to atone for them and to rebuild the Church in Ireland to the greatness it once had with so many saints, schools, missionaries, priests and religious. He asked them to devote their Friday penances for a year “to obtain the grace of healing and renewal for the Church in Ireland. He called the whole Church to ask for God’s forgiveness for their sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He asked them to organize periods of Eucharistic adoration to “make reparation for the sins of abuse” and implore “the grace of renewed strength and a deeper sense of mission” throughout the Church. He called for a nationwide mission for bishops, priests and religious to recenter themselves on Christ. And he announced an apostolic visitation of certain dioceses, seminaries and religious houses to sweep out the old leaven and ensure that they form true leaven to help the Church rise again.

He finished with a prayer to the Triune God, begging that “our sorrow and our tears, our sincere effort to redress past wrongs and our first purpose of amendment” may lead to a “new springtime of holiness and apostolic zeal for the Church in Ireland.”

We join that prayer, and not just for the Church in Ireland, but for the Church in our country and throughout the world.