The Pope is planning to make the first general apology for the abuse of children and minors by Roman Catholic priests when he meets thousands of clergymen from around the world in June at the climax of the International Year for Priests, Vatican sources say.
In the past there have been papal or church apologies for individual cases of paedophilia or for abuse in specific countries, for example during the German pontiff's recent visit to Malta. What is being prepared now would be the first time a pope seeks to atone publicly for the extent to which paedophilia has been a major stain on the modern history of the church touching a constellation of countries, say the sources at the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy. It could be considered comparable to the historic step that the previous pope, John Paul II, took in apologising to the Jews for historic church anti-Semitism and for misdeeds during the Crusades, they say.
Vatican officials hope such an unprecedented act of penance by Benedict, together with thousands of clergymen in St Peter's Square, 9-11 June, will do much to lay to rest the scandal and defuse protests that might disrupt his trip to Britain in September. The encounter will form the climax of the special year of events designed in part to encourage vocations to the cloth but which instead has been marred by the mushrooming paedophile scandal.
The Pope has indicated repeatedly that he is considering ways to steer the church toward turning the page and finding an exit strategy from the maelstrom. "The shipwrecks of life can form God's project for us, and can also be useful for new beginnings in our lives," he told journalists on his aeroplane as he flew to Malta last weekend. He made the point while travelling to celebrate the 1,950th anniversary of St Paul's shipwreck on the small island while on his way to Rome as a prisoner to stand trial, in the year 60 AD.
One veteran Vatican watcher said that using the image of the shipwreck to allude to the abuse scandal "suggests it can be read as not only causing the shipwreck of the church in countries across the globe today, from Ireland to the United States and Australia, from Austria, the Netherlands and Italy to Germany, Malta and others too, but also part of God's plan to purify, reform and revitalise the church".
In speeches during his Maltese sojourn, Benedict underlined how great good can arise from a shipwreck, as happened when St Paul's stay led to the Maltese becoming one of the first Christian peoples and retaining their faith intact for nearly 2,000 years.
Vatican sources said the Pope considers the jamboree with the priests in June an appropriate occasion for him to lead the whole church in a "Day of Request for Pardon" of the victims and their families for the wrong done by a small percentage of priests in abusing children and minors in many countries, and the wrong done by bishops in covering up that abuse or protecting the predators.
The meeting would be appropriate for a day of fasting as well as penance, they say. On the papal flight last week-end Benedict made a second allusion to the abuse scandal, and its devastating effect on the moral authority of the church and its pastors, describing the church as the body of Jesus Christ "wounded by our sins".
The respected Vatican watcher added: "It is clear that Benedict has been reflecting and seeking to understand the abuse scandal with the eyes of faith. He seems to be developing a theological and spiritual frame for reading and dealing with this shameful and humbling reality in the life of the church in the 21st century and discerning an exit strategy from it."