It was a letter that was heard around the world. On Saturday March 20, Pope Benedict apologized on behalf of the Catholic Church for the mistreatment, physical and sexual abuse of children in Ireland. It stopped short of what victims and advocates had really hoped for, which was an acknowledgement that church policies and procedures protected pedophiles from prosecution and kept cases secret allowing more children to be victimized. Papal apologies have been few in the long history of the Vatican, but Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have been admitting more errors in the church in recent times.
In July 2008, while in Sydney, Australia for World Youth day, Pope Benedict apologized for the sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in that country. In April 2009, he apologized to the aboriginal peoples who were abused in residential schools run by the Catholic Church in Canada. And more recently, the Pope was again apologizing to Muslims over the contents of a speech he delivered, in which a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, one of Egypt's largest opposition forces said, "It's about the racist views from Vatican circles toward the Muslim world." The Catholic Church has a long and controversial history that has affected many countries and communities around the world, especially children and youth. The child sex abuse scandal spans generations, but the problem has become more widely reported in the last two decades. Hundreds of cases have been reported in the United States, Mexico and Canada, with even more cases in Britain, France, Poland, Germany, Austria and The Netherlands.
Pope Benedict's apology, a seven page letter, was addressed to the people and spoke directly to victims, bishops and priests, but it did not make specific reference to Church's in outside Ireland. "You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry ... I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel," he said in the unprecedented letter on abuse by Irish clergy, adding, "I can only share in the dismay and sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way the Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them."
Back in November, the Irish Government released The Murphy Report, a government inquiry into abuse cases spanning from 1975-2004. The report detailed horrific cases of child abuse by clergy and priests and said church authorities covered up widespread cases of child sexual abuse until the mid 1990s. The Pope has also ordered a formal Vatican investigation of the Irish Dioceses, seminaries, and religious orders involved in the scandal.
In numerous incidents too high to count, the Catholic Church believed that counseling and spiritual help was the solution to sexual abuse of children within their own walls. Yet it is the cover-up that has so many victims up in arms about this latest apology. Because of the extreme shame involved, families were often offered quiet settlements while priests and clergy were simply transferred to another unsuspecting church community. In the career span of just one priest, for example, over 100 hundred children were molested. With child abuse reports coming from several countries around the world, it is abundantly clear that the Catholic church has a widespread systemic problem that requires more action in congruence with their apologetic words.
The "don't ask, don't tell" philosophy has created a safe haven for paedophiles within the Church. The apology was carefully constructed so as to portray a heartfelt acknowledgement of the betrayal and suffering, yet only assumes responsibility for individual criminal acts, instead of admitting the harmful culture of secrecy that put the lives of children in harms way in the first place. Though the apology was the first ever papal document devoted to pedophilia in the church, and the announcement of the internal investigation were positive steps, there still remains a lack of reforms and restructuring of Vatican leadership and policy that would put the best interests of children first. Many victims rejected the Pope's statements because the apology blamed modern secularism as a catalyst. Moreover, no bishops, priests or clergy were rebuked or held responsible.
The healing and justice for the thousands of victims around the world won't be fully realized until the Pope and the Vatican radically change the status quo in dioceses the world over. There is nothing in the apology that suggests there will be new leadership or vision for the future, no fundamental policy changes to ensure the clergy and staff will be held accountable for perpetrating child abuse in all of its forms. Victims groups and advocates have long fought for an end to the secrecy and protection of perpetrators and feel this apology needs to include major reform and increased responsibility.
Rather, the Catholic Church seems more interested in gaining back its lost flock, (church attendance has recently been on the decline). The Church struggles with trying to maintain a powerful religious order and trying to be relevant in modern times. The apology is viewed as the Church's way of trying to improve its reputation without having to address a widespread institutional problem. Many dioceses around the world have also been declaring bankruptcy as a result of class action and victim civil suits.
The fate of Catholic Church and religious faith itself for many will largely depend on the direction the Vatican chooses to take. Families and believers place their faith and trust in the arms of their local community churches. Justice must include meaningful apologies, transparency, and motivation to be pro-active in order to protect our children and youth in the future. Words just aren't enough.