Father Shay on Pope's Pastoral Letter to Irish Catholics

Pope Benedict XVI has signed a letter to address child sex abuse in the Catholic church in Ireland. However, the document comes months after the initial cases were reported.

Pope Benedict, in a Pastoral Letter to the Irish church last 21 March, expressing deep compassion for victims of clerical sexual abuse of children said that he was 'truly sorry', and, expressing shame and remorse, gave a sincere apology to the victims. He castigated clerical child abusers, reprimanded bishops, gave words of comfort to parents, youth and the innocent religious and clergy and revealed a great weakness in the fabric of the institutional church namely a mistaken belief among some authority figures that power and privilege puts them above the law and gives them impunity.

The Holy Father wrote to the victims: "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..."

And none of us can truly understand how much the victims of sexual abuse have suffered.

Their lives have been shattered and they have been accused of lying, threatened so as to stay silent or even worse, made to sign non-disclosure agreements. As the Holy Father said "No one would listen". This widespread abuse, cover up, failure by some religious superiors and bishops to bring the known abusers and their criminal actions to the civil authorities was harshly criticized by the Pope.

He wrote to the bishops:

"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 ... 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. 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. Clearly, religious superiors should do likewise."

What led to such mistakes and grave errors by the bishops so severely rebuked by the Pope? As he said, some acted to preserve the institutional image of the church instead of helping the victims by doing what Jesus would have done, acting at once to help and protect the victim, pursuing justice for them and bringing the criminal priest pedophiles to justice. It is clear when Jesus said of the child abuser that it would be better that a millstone be tied around his neck and he be thrown into the deepest ocean. Matthew 18.6: (Also Mark 9.42), Luke 17.2

Some clerics in high office fell to the idea that they were above the law, and had privileges of impunity so that no one would dare challenge or confront them. That era has passed. Jesus said that he had not come to be served like the rulers of the world, but to serve others (Matt.20.20 ff) He washed the feet of his disciples as a symbol of the humility and simple life of service that church leaders are committed to imitate but seldom do.

Here in the Philippines, where 80% of the people are Catholic, similar complaints of clerical child sexual abuse have been made over the years and NGO social workers say that the response of church authorities has been inadequate. Abusers still go free without any accountability while the victims are ignored.

Church authorities have moved accused clerics to other parishes, or even abroad, usually to the United States. This is wrong. Children are again put at risk and the superior or bishop who allowed it must answer for it to the civil and church authorities as seen in the Pope's Pastoral Letter. Let us hope that this important lesson is learned.

Nobel Prize nominee, Fr Shay is a Columban missionary and campaigner for children's rights working in the Philippines. He set up the Preda Institute in Olongopo  which cares for street children and those rescued from the sex industry. For more information see: www.preda.org

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