Pope’s letter protects church, not its victims

The Pope’s letter on child sexual abuse holds lessons for civic society.What he writes to Catholics about religion is a matter between him and them. But the Catholic church also operates within civic society, acts as a quasi-State at the United Nations, and sends ambassadors to real States.

And the Pope’s letter includes assertions about secular society that are factually wrong.

Having read the full letter, the following seems clear:

1. The Pope’s main priority is to protect the church, not its victims
2. The Pope wrongly blames secularism for priests raping children
3. The Pope’s apologies are incomplete and his appeals are self-serving
4. The Pope’s “concrete initiatives” are a distraction not a solution
5. The Pope is evading the church’s responsibilities to civic society

1. The Pope’s main priority is to protect the church, not its victims

In a letter of close to five thousand words, the phrase “sexual abuse” appears only three times, and nowhere is it used as an active verb describing an action that Catholic priests have done to children. Instead it is twice described abstractly as “the problem of child sexual abuse”, and once passively as “the victims of child sexual abuse.” By contrast, the word “church” appears more than fifty times. Needless to say, the words “rape” and “cover-up” do not appear anywhere in the letter.

One of the three uses of the phrase “sexual abuse” is: “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.” This assertion is simply untrue. The Catholic church has known for centuries that some priests have been raping children, and they have known for centuries that raping children is gravely wrong, both as a sin in their religion and a crime in civic society.

The Pope does not even acknowledge (never mind apologise for) the Catholic church policy of bishops covering up the repeated rape of children by priests. Instead he refers euphemistically to “mistakes” made by bishops in responding to allegations, and he does not even include the Vatican or himself as making any of these “mistakes”. In using this evasive language, he is actually moving the church backwards from last December, when the Irish bishops admitted that the Murphy report indicated a widespread culture in the church of covering up child sexual abuse by priests.

In a statement issued during their December 2009 meeting in Maynooth, the Irish bishops said: “We are deeply shocked by the scale and depravity of abuse as described in the report. We are shamed by the extent to which child sexual abuse was covered up in the archdiocese of Dublin and recognise that this indicates a culture that was widespread in the church. The avoidance of scandal, the preservation of the reputations of individuals and of the church, took precedence over the safety and welfare of children. This should never have happened and must never be allowed to happen again. We humbly ask for forgiveness.”

Despite this explicit admission last December by the Irish bishops, the Pope’s pastoral letter begins with some subliminal hints of what concerns him most about this issue. In Section 1, the Pope writes: “I have been deeply disturbed by the information which has come to light regarding the abuse of children…” How much stronger that opening sentence would be if it simply read: “I have been deeply disturbed by the abuse of children…” How much stronger it would have been if he had then used the same type of language as the Irish bishops did last December.

Instead, in Section 2, the Pope writes 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 defenceless 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.”

On the face if it, this looks commendable. But read it again for its nuances. The reason that sins against children must be acknowledged is to allow the church (not the victims) to recover from “this grievous wound”. It is only as a follow-up point that this must be accompanied by sorrow for the damage caused to the victims. If you parse the language throughout this letter, these same priorities are repeated again and again. The priority of this letter is to revitalise the Catholic church, not to pursue justice for or make reparation to its victims.

2. The Pope wrongly blames secularism for priests raping children

Section 3 is a brief potted history, from the Pope’s perspective, of Irish Catholicism and the impact of Irish Catholic missionaries on Europe and other continents. As an overview, he suggests that, for centuries, Irish clerics “dedicated their lives to Christ, sharing the gift of faith with others, and putting that faith into action in loving service of God and neighbour.”

In Section 4, the Pope asserts that this has all changed in recent decades, because of “new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularization of Irish society.” He writes that “fast-paced social change” has led to Irish Catholics going to confession less often and praying less often, and Irish priests “assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel.” This included “a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations.”

This, the Pope writes, is the “overall context” in which “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.” Look again at the nuances of this language. The pope is suggesting that secularization of society is the context in which we must understand priests raping children, which in turn weakens faith and respect for the church. This is self-serving nonsense. The reality is almost the exact opposite.

Catholic priests were raping children, and Catholic bishops and the Vatican were covering up these crimes, long before Irish society became more secular. What secularisation has done is empower the victims of these crimes to speak out about their experiences, and more importantly be heard and believed. And secularisation has helped to reveal the traditional methods used by the Catholic hierarchy to cover up these crimes, such as swearing children to secrecy and moving the criminals to another parish, diocese or country where they could rape more children.

The Pope then lists four specific factors that he says contributed to the problem. Three are within the control of the church: procedures for selecting priests; training in seminaries, and a misplaced concern for the reputation of the church and the avoidance of scandal, resulting in failure to apply existing canonical penalties. Notably, he does not include as a factor the failure by bishops to report serious crimes to the police. And the Pope’s fourth contributory factor is “a tendency in society to favour the clergy and other authority figures”. But how could secularism possibly cause this tendency? In fact, it has done almost the exact opposite.

The Pope’s muddled and manifestly false claim about secularism is part of a pattern of the Catholic church denying responsibility for its own actions. Earlier this month the Vatican’s official exorcist (!) blamed “Satan at work in the Vatican” for priests raping children. And last September, the Vatican’s representative at the UN argued that child sexual abuse was common among Jews; that fewer than 5% of Catholic clergy were sex abusers; and that most of them are actually ephebophiles and not paedophiles, because they are attracted to adolescent males. This evasion has to stop. It is time the Catholic church stopped blaming others for its own crimes.

3. The Pope’s apologies are incomplete and his appeals are self-serving

In Section 5, the Pope writes that he has met with victims of sexual abuse, and is ready to do so again. He says that he has already asked the Irish bishops to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to prevent it from happening again, and to bring justice and healing to the victims of these crimes. He then introduces a series of paragraphs aimed directly at victims, their abusers, parents, children and young people, priests and religious, bishops and all the faithful in Ireland. None of these serves the purpose of bringing justice and healing to the victims of these crimes.

3(a) Victims and priests who abused them

In Section 6, the Pope finally addresses the victims of abuse and their families. He apologises for their suffering, but describes the abuse in the passive tense: “You have suffered… the wrong you have endured… your trust has been betrayed… your dignity has been violated…” He seems unable to bring himself to directly take responsibility for the church actively doing things. This would take the form of “We have caused you to suffer… we have betrayed your trust…” etc. The Pope then moves away from the real world by telling the victims that Jesus understands their pain because he too was a victim of injustice, but that the very wounds of Jesus broke the power of evil and people were reborn. He concludes that the victims can find peace “by drawing nearer to Christ and by participating in the life of his church.” Two points arise here: firstly, the Pope should have apologised to the victims at the start of the letter, not as point number 6. And secondly, the suggestion that they can best find peace, by participating in the church that is still covering up the crimes against them and other children around the world, is deeply offensive.

In Section 7, the Pope addresses priests and religious who have abused children. He says they have betrayed the trust placed in them by children, and “must answer for it before Almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals.” He does not specify what the ambiguous phrase “properly constituted tribunals” means. He tells them they have done great damage to the church and the public perception of the priesthood. He says that Christ can forgive them for the gravest of sins, but that “God’s justice” demands they conceal nothing about their actions. He urges them to “openly acknowledge your guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God’s mercy.” Given that the preceding sentence refers to “God’s justice” it is unclear whether or not the “submitting yourselves to the demands of justice” means handing yourself in to the police and admitting your crimes.

3(b) Other Irish priests and Irish bishops

In Section 10, the Pope addresses the Irish priests and religious. He tells them that: “All of us are suffering as a result of the sins of our confreres who betrayed a sacred trust or failed to deal justly and responsibly with allegations of abuse.” Notably, the Pope does not include himself among those who “failed to deal justly and responsibly with allegations of abuse.” This is perhaps the most significant sentence in the letter, with a crucial point hidden away indirectly in the making of a different point. Because, until the Pope accepts that he bears ultimate responsibility for the cover-up of these crimes, both as Pope and in his former roles as Cardinal and Bishop, he will be unable to address this issue in the way that it needs to be addressed.

In Section 11, the Pope finally addresses his “brother bishops” in Ireland. This should really be Section 2, after the apology to the victims, which should be Section 1. In this Section, the Pope writes that some bishops “failed, at times grievously”, to apply canon law to the (presumably canon law) crime of child abuse. He adds that: “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.” This is complete nonsense. The “problem” was not at all complex. If you are aware that a man is repeatedly raping children, and you have even a minimally functioning moral compass, you know that this is a serious crime that you must report to the police.

The Pope then tells the Irish bishops: “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.” We can note here the order of priority: canon law first, civil authorities second, and civil authorities is qualified by the condescending phrase “in their area of competence.” The priority of canon law appears again the next sentence: bishops are to ensure that child safety laws be applied fully and impartially “in conformity with canon law.’ There is no parallel reference to “in conformity with civic law.” The pope then asks for “decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency,” but the stated purpose of this decisive action is not to bring about justice or reparation, but to restore the reputation of the church.

The Pope does not repeat to the bishops the things that he said to the priests whose crimes the bishops covered up. He does not tell the bishops that they have betrayed the trust placed in them by children, and “must answer for it before Almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals.” He does not tell the bishops that “God’s justice” demands they conceal nothing about their actions. He does not tell the bishops to “openly acknowledge your guilt [and] submit yourselves to the demands of justice.” This is because the Pope sees “the problem of child sexual abuse” as being caused by individual priests, and he clearly does not accept the findings of independent inquiries that the church, on an institutional level, covered up these horrific crimes.

3(c) Parents, children and the faithful

In Sections 8 and 9, the Pope addresses parents and young people. He says that parents are in the first place responsible for bringing up their children, educating them in authentic moral values, and inspiring them with the truth of the Catholic faith. He says that parents should do this while the church “continues to implement the measures adopted in recent years to protect young people in parish and school environments.” And he tells children and young people to seek a personal relationship with Jesus within the church, because Jesus will never betray them. He concludes by asking young people to be faithful disciples in rebuilding and renewing the church.

In Section 12 and 13, the Pope addresses the Catholic faithful in Ireland. He again attacks “our increasingly secularised society, where even we Christians often find it difficult to speak of the transcendent dimension of our existence.” This is simply not true, and the Pope must know this. A secular society does not prevent people from speaking of any transcendent beliefs they may have. It simply prevents such beliefs from being the basis on which civic policy is formulated. The Pope then writes that, while “measures to deal justly with individual crimes are essential, on their own they are not enough.” as they must be augmented by a new vision based on following the commandments of the Gospel. The Pope concludes by saying that he is praying in solidarity with all of his brothers and sisters in Christ.

4. The Pope’s “concrete initiatives” are a distraction not a solution

In Section 14, by far the longest Section, the Pope proposes what he calls “some concrete initiatives to address the situation.” These initiatives turn out to be: asking all Irish Catholics to pray more often and go to confession more often for a period of one year; having an apostolic visitation of certain dioceses and seminaries in Ireland; having a Mission for Irish bishops and priests through the intercession of a 19th century French priest who preached total obedience to the hierarchy and who engaged in bodily mortification; and writing a new prayer for the church in Ireland. That is the sum total of the Pope’s “concrete initiatives”.

4(a) More prayer and more confession

The Pope’s first “concrete initiative” is to ask all Irish Catholics, for a period of one year, between now and Easter 2011, to devote their Friday penances to praying for “an outpouring of God’s mercy and the Holy Spirit’s gifts and strength” upon the church in Ireland. He asks Irish Catholics to fast, pray, read scripture and do works of mercy for this specific purpose; to go to Confession more frequently; and to worship the Holy Eucharist outside of Mass. The Pope says that, by such intense prayer, all Irish Catholics “can make reparation for the sins of abuse that have done so much harm”.

Let’s examine each aspect of this proposal. All Irish Catholics are asked to pray more often and intensely, not for the children who were raped by Catholic priests, but for a rebirth of the Catholic church in Ireland. They are asked to offer up works of mercy, not for the purpose of being merciful, but again for a rebirth of the Irish church. The Pope says that this, plus more Confession and more worship of the Eucharist, can “make reparation for the sins of abuse”. But why should all Irish Catholics be responsible for making reparation for priests raping children and bishops covering up those rapes?

This is not a concrete initiative at all, but an abstract appeal to all Irish Catholics to share the blame for the crimes of priests and the cover-ups of bishops. Scientific studies have shown that prayer does not impact on the natural world. The Pope’s proposed prayers have an arbitrary timetable of “a period of one year”, which coincidentally matches his arbitrary one-year offer of free plenary indulgences to Catholics who visited Lourdes during 2009. And the focus on worshiping the Holy Eucharist outside Mass highlights the most superstitious aspect of Catholic teaching.

4(b) An apostolic visitation and a mission

The Pope’s second “concrete initiative” is that Vatican officials will visit certain dioceses and seminaries and religious institutions in Ireland. The stated purpose is not to make reparation to children raped by priests, but “to assist the local church on her path to renewal.” The Pope’s third “concrete initiative” is that all Irish bishops, priests and religious should attend a nationwide Mission at which they could re-learn about their vocations and recent pontifical teachings. Here the Pope commends to Irish bishops and priests the example of Saint John Vianney, and says that the proposed Mission should operate through Vianney’s intercession.

So who is this model saint whose example the Pope commends to Irish bishops and priests? A Vatican encyclical by Pope John XXIII says that Vianney was “outstanding in the virtue of obedience… we are offering clerics this total obedience as a model… the effectiveness of any apostolate has constant and faithful obedience to the hierarchy as its solid foundation”. The same encyclical says that Vianney was “outstanding in a unique way in voluntary affliction of his body… this led him to abstain almost completely from food and from sleep [and] to carry out the harshest kinds of penances… he brought his body into subjection through voluntary mortification”. Is this type of fundamentalism really the foundation on which to revitalise the Irish Catholic church today?

The Pope concludes his letter with a prayer for the church in Ireland. He wants Irish Catholics to make use of this prayer in their families, parishes and communities. The prayer asks God to renew Irish Catholics in faith hope and charity. It asks Jesus to help the Catholic church in Ireland to educate young people in the way truth and goodness. It asks the Holy Spirit to inspire a new springtime of holiness and apostolic zeal in Ireland. It asks that the sorrow and tears of Irish catholics as they attempt to address past wrongs, should cause grace that will deepen the Catholic faith in Ireland. And it ends by entrusting to the Triune God “ourselves, our children, and the needs of the church in Ireland.” Nowhere in this prayer do the words victim, sexual abuse, rape, crime, cover-up or apology appear. Unsurprisingly, in tune with the overall tone of the letter, the prayer concludes by focusing on “the needs of the church”.

5. The Pope is evading the church’s responsibilities to civic society

Having read the full pastoral letter, the following seems clear:

1. The Pope’s main priority is to protect the church, not its victims
2. The Pope wrongly blames secularism for priests raping children
3. The Pope’s apologies are incomplete and his appeals are self-serving
4. The Pope’s “concrete initiatives” are a distraction not a solution
5. The Pope is evading the church’s responsibilities to civic society

All of the Pope’s proposed initiatives are a distraction from the types of initiatives that could really make a difference. These could include voluntarily acknowledging that the church is subject to the same democratic civic laws as the rest of us; openly accepting the findings of the various Irish enquiries; voluntarily acknowledging that the Catholic church at an institutional level has covered up crimes by priests against children; voluntarily making public all church files that victims wish to have public about these crimes and about the cover-up of these crimes; voluntarily selling church property to voluntarily compensate victims; voluntarily reporting to the police all priests who have committed crimes and all bishops who have covered up these crimes, and voluntarily pleading guilty to whatever crimes were committed.

The Pope may conclude his letter with a prayer, but his church continues to switch between being a religion when it suits them to being a State it suits them. The mechanism for this is its quasi-State in the Vatican City, which has none of the attributes of a State such as citizenry, territory and economy, but nevertheless sends ambassadors to real States and is treated almost like a real State by the United Nations. What the Catholic church does as a religion is its own business. But it is clearly still in deep denial about the impact of its behaviour on wider society, so the rest of us should recognise that in our interactions with this church.

The Irish DPP and police should take steps now to ensure that bishops who covered up serious crimes against children are brought before the law. The Irish Government should take steps to remove the influence of the Catholic church on our health and education system. In particular, the human rights of nonreligious parents to have a secular education system should be vindicated in every area of the country. The Government should review its relations with the Catholic church’s quasi-State in the Vatican City. The Government should seek to have the United Nations treat the Catholic church like any other religion, by listening to it as a nongovernmental organisation, and not by treating it as a quasi-State.

If the Catholic church will not voluntarily face up to its responsibilities within civic society, then the institutions of State must ensure that it does so. And we the people should lobby our politicians to make this happen sooner rather than later.

Photo: Pope Benedict by Roblisameehan (cc)

Pope’s letter protects church, not its victims

13 thoughts on “Pope’s letter protects church, not its victims

  1. This analysis is very good, very enlightening. It's long, but I will translate at least part of it to Portuguese and publish it on my own blog. We have had news here in Brazil as well about sexual abuse of children done by priests, and I am sure there will be more.

  2. Correct me if I am wrong, but in practice, "Apostolic Visitation" in the USA has turned out to be a systematic and sustained witch-hunt against any form of doctirinal radicalism in church institutions and amongst individuals. What would happen in practice is that technically dogmatic but silent priests and other religious who failed the raped and tortured victims of catholic clergy would be rewarded for their loyalty to the faith while anybody slightly radical who fought long and hrd to stop it would be punished by the church.

  3. Isn't it part of a bishop's vow to preserve the church from scandal? It's terribly difficult to get it through to delusional people that the parameters of their delusion may not be quite healthy, & when at least some of them think that life eternal, as well as a seat at the UN & billions in assets, are at risk if they do conform to wider social standards of morality; it becomes nigh-on impossible.

    The extent of the cognitive dissonance under which the catholic hierarchy labours makes the newfound interest in self-mortification really quite easy to understand. Simply a defence against pathological dissociation & the disintegration of identity. Though there are a few new places I'd like to stick a cilice or two…

  4. Mick – spot on with your analysis. While it’s a readable and cleverly-constructed letter that might ordinarily have been accepted as a good response from the Pope to an awful situation in Ireland, it doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny. It’s good to hear the word ‘sorry’ but when the apology is constructed to deflect any criticism away from the Vatican and the concrete actions are mere vapourware, you just know the Pope is going to get crucified (apologies for the phrase) for his limited response.

  5. Excellent analysis. The letter is damage control aimed at the faithful in Ireland, as such it is not intended to impress or convince the secular or non-Catholics. The not-so-subtle double-whammy of laying the onus on the Irish Catholic laity (pray & fast for a year) and the partial blame on secular, modern Irish (without them the abuse could never have happened) should whip the doubting church-going Catholics back into line. Who cares that the rest of the world sees it as cynical and self-serving? We are, after all, not the cash-cow of the Vatican.

  6. Hi Michael,

    Really nice in-depth article.

    I especailly like the below:

    “The Pope may conclude his letter with a prayer, but his church continues to switch between being a religion when it suits them to being a State it suits them. The mechanism for this is its quasi-State in the Vatican City, which has none of the attributes of a State such as citizenry, territory and economy, but nevertheless sends ambassadors to real States and is treated almost like a real State by the United Nations. ”

    Pretty much sums up the issue with them nicely. They do the same here as they do with claims of the truth of their religion. Flitting from wishy-washy generalisations and vagaries to claiming to know facts about the mind of god as it suits them.

  7. An impressive share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a colleague who was doing a little research on this. And he in fact ordered me dinner due to the fact that I found it for him… lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending time to discuss this matter here on your site.

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