DUBLIN, Ireland ― Pope Benedict XVI’s response to the clerical child abuse scandal in Ireland has been widely criticized as flawed for placing much of the blame for the abuse and cover-ups on secularism rather than church structures.
In a pastoral letter to Irish Catholics, read out to the faithful at masses on Sunday, the 82-year-old pope apologized to victims, saying “You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry.” He noted that in recent decades the Catholic Church in Ireland had to confront “new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularisation of Irish society.” It was 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.”
Following the statement, the Irish branch of the mainstream Catholic organization Voice of the Faithful criticized the pope’s failure to acknowledge that it was secular agencies such as the media, the police, the civil courts and the state that uncovered a problem kept hidden by the church’s own systems of governance. And in an editorial Monday, The Irish Times argued that those in charge of the Irish church during the worst periods of abuse and cover-up were scarcely the liberals criticized regularly by the Pope: “His secularization of the Church — meaning the introduction of social legislation such as contraception, separation and divorce for women — comes from an old-fashioned, authoritarian, misogynistic church concerned above all with its reputation.”
In his letter, the pope announced a Vatican investigation of some dioceses and church institutions in Ireland, and advised clerics to “submit yourselves to the demands of justice.” It did not comment on calls for the resignation of the leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, who is under pressure to step down because of his handling of abuse claims by two young people against notorious serial abuser Father Brendan Smyth. As a priest, Brady swore them to secrecy and passed their complaints to his bishop rather than the police, and Smyth continued to rape children for more than a decade.
Four Irish bishops have offered their resignations following revelations of cover-up in the recent Murphy report on the Dublin archdiocese but three have not been accepted by the Vatican.
The extent of skepticism in Ireland about the papal message was evident at a conference of Ireland’s main opposition party Fine Gael in Killarney at the weekend. There the traditionally conservative delegates gave a standing ovation to abuse survivor Andrew Madden when he called on the pope and Brady to resign. Madden said the pastoral letter failed to accept the cover-up of clerical abuse in Ireland and the part the Irish bishops and the Vatican played in it.
Voice of the Faithful, founded in Boston following revelations of Cardinal Bernard Law's negligence, agreed there was no recognition “that the concentration of powers exercised by bishops led to a conflict of responsibilities, to a culture of secrecy and in too many cases to an unjust and intimidatory response to victims which compounded their sufferings.” The pope said he felt shame and remorse for what the victims had endured and found it understandable that those abused in residential institutions found it hard to be reconciled with the church. He acknowledged grave errors of leadership by Catholic authorities in Ireland and the sometimes grievous failure “to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse.”
The Catholic archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, indicated that the state’s inquiry into clerical child sex abuse in Ireland should be extended. “Without accountability for the past there will no healing and no trust for the future,” said Martin, who has been at the fore in exposing the scandal of abuse in Ireland. He told the congregation at the Pro Cathedral in Dublin city center that the church “tragically failed many of its children: it failed through abuse, it failed through not preventing abuse, it failed through covering up abuse.”