The Pope is ‘sorry’ but this is not an apology
Benedict’s message is clear, says Malachi O’Doherty. Rome is not to blame for the child abuse cases, it was simply Irish bishops who ‘misread canon law’
The Pope is patronising us. The BBC reported his letter as an apology but it was nothing of the kind, for he takes no responsibility at all for abuse or cover-up.
He is sorry in the way he might be sorry for the Haitian earthquake, sorry it happened.
The most distinctive feature of his pastoral letter is confidence in his superior wisdom and in Rome's detachment from the problem of child abuse in Ireland.
His contribution to putting things right is to urge the church to pray, and to rebuke bishops for having failed to understand canon law when they protected abusers from the police.
He speaks of ‘information that has come to light', as if it was news to him that some priests had been raping children here for decades, and that his own bishops had been swearing traumatised children to secrecy.
He refers repeatedly to the Irish bishops coming to him and |reporting the problem. He has listened to what they had to |say, like a parent who has summoned children to explain how a window had come to be broken.
He has provided Irish Catholics with a prayer to say and he has urged a special Mission to reflect on the sins of the past; he even promises us an ‘Apostolic Visitation'. By this he means, I presume, that he'll be checking up on how well the local church is responding to his advice and guidance.
Expect a lot of breast beating |by bishops and clergy as they |indulge their remorse and come to feel better about themselves.
The letter addresses all the faithful of Ireland and sets out hopes for the future — which are simply that the people will pray more ardently and recover their respect for their clergy and their bishops, and that the tsunami of horror raised by the scandals will not reach Rome.
The Pope's entire approach is as a wise teacher who has had nothing to do with the creation or perpetuation of the problem of child abuse by priests in Ireland, or the cover up, and who can put it right if we follow his advice; which is to pray.
Cardinal Sean Brady — who got into trouble by being a company man at the start — is loyal still and has welcomed the letter, expressed his gratitude for it, as if the Pope had gone to some great trouble for us all by writing it.
I wonder who did write it. Clearly somebody with a knowledge of Irish history and an expectation that Catholics today will mellow in the face of appeals to |remember the history of the Irish Catholic martyrs, ‘the rock from which [they] were hewn'.
The letter reflects on the history of Catholic persecution and the rapid expansion of the church in Ireland after Catholic emancipation. The writer occasionally loses the run of himself: ‘In almost every family in Ireland, there |has been someone — a son or a daughter, an aunt or an uncle — who has given his or her life to the Church.' This overstates the enveloping scale of Irish Catholicism to the extent of failing to notice that there are Irish Protestants too.
The pitch to Irish Catholics is to feel good about themselves; to remember their proud history and not to be disheartened by the scandal; it is an appeal to them to indulge the old fantasies about the land of saints and scholars.
Much of the letter reflects on the creation of the problem of abuse. None of the blame attaches to Rome. There were poor selection procedures for priests and bad training in the seminaries, a culture of deference in our society and ‘a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal, resulting in failure to apply existing canonical penalties and to safeguard the dignity of every person.'
The Pope accuses the bishops of failures of leadership and a misapplication of canon law, and he tells them to ‘continue' co-operating with the civil authorities, as if there was never any impediment to them reporting abusers to the police, other than in their own failure to grasp Rome's intentions.
In other words, when Sean Brady was imposing oaths of silence on abused children, it was out of a misreading of canon law, not a judicious application of it.
The cardinal may be grateful for these Papal insights, as he says, but the Pope has just washed his hands of him. The letter says: ‘In particular, there was a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations.'
The tragedy is that abuse has ‘obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing'. So, the letter concedes nothing to those who blame the cover-up on systemic failures within the Catholic church. There is no suggestion, anywhere, that Rome was part of the cover up, or that those priests and bishops who protected abusers from the law had any endorsement for their measures from the Vatican.
The Pope believes the Catholic church in Ireland can be restored to former glory and that the scandals of abuse and cover up can be put behind us. This is good |news for anyone who feared for a moment that the church was going to change rules on celibacy or obedience, or seriously consider that there was anything systemically wrong with it.
The only problem, after all, was the bishops and their recruitment and training procedures — and a weakening of the faith. The Pope trusts all that can be put right and that things will be back to normal before long.