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James Martin, S.J.February 21, 2011

Irish Central reported today a dramatic scene in Dublin's St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral, part of the Vatican's visitation (that is, investigation) by Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York of the troubled church in Ireland (H/t Dotcommonweal and Whispers):  

In dramatic scenes, the archbishops of Dublin and Boston washed and dried the feet of eight victims of clerical abuse on Sunday in a Dublin cathedral. The archbishops invited five women and three men who were abused to come forward and have their feet washed. Several of them cried as Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston kneeled and washed and dried their feet. Martin stated he was deeply sorry for what happened in his Dublin archdiocese. A report last year castigated his predecessors for their actions in covering up for pedophile priests. "For covering up crimes of abuse, and by so doing actually causing the sexual abuse of more children... we ask God's forgiveness," Martin told the congregation. "The archdiocese of Dublin will never be the same again. It will always bear this wound within it." "For them to get down on their knees, it was humbling," said Darren McGavin, 39, who was abused as a child. "I've found it hard to forgive, but today I found a small bit of closure." O’Malley stated that the washing of the feet was a gesture of atonement that was deeply yearned for by the victims. He had been sent to Ireland by the Vatican to seek to repair the deep chasm in the church over pedophile priests.

Update on Zenit: In the "Liturgy of Lament and Repentance," Archbishop Martin expressed gratitude to victims who did not "remain silent."  "I appeal to you to continue to speak out," he added. "There is still a long path to journey in honesty before we can truly merit forgiveness."

Earlier, Archbishop Martin and Cardinal O'Malley lay prostrate before the cathedral's main altar in another highly symbolic act, with the two men using the same gesture performed by the presider each year during the Good Friday liturgy, which serves as a sign of sinfulness and repentance.  (The washing of the feet is performed at the Holy Thursday Mass, as another symbolic gesture of penance, and a sign of the humble foot-washing that Jesus himself did for his disciples at the Last Supper.)  These kinds of ritual penances are necessary.  Of course these are by no means the only penances that need to be done by church leaders; nor are such liturgical acts a substitute for real reform in the church or for real restitution to the victims; nor are such symbolic penances sufficient to end the scourge of sexual abuse in the church.  Nor do they excuse the crimes of priests or exculpate those who covered them up.  By no means. 

But these kinds of gestures can sometimes speak to something deep within the Catholic soul, and I've long thought that such public acts were necessities in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis.  Symbols always point to something greater; and these acts speak in a unique way to both the one doing them and the one seeing them. Last year I wrote a meditation on the need for penance in the church, on HuffingtonPost, and suggested that besides real penances (among them resignations, reforms and restitutions) some dramatic public acts were called for, and mentioned this pentitential gesture, along with the underlying theological rationale.  All of this is best understood in the context of the sacrament of reconciliation, which besides asks for not only confession of sins and a "firm purpose of amendment," but also penance.  In other words, the sacrament of reconciliation can offer an important template for real penance, substantive reform and the beginning of healing in our church.

Sometimes a bishop proclaims his faults publicly, in a letter or during a liturgical event. In March, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna and president of the Austrian bishops' conference, read out a dramatic statement at St. Stephen's Cathedral. "Some of us have talked about the gracious God," he said, "and yet done evil to those who were entrusted to them." These symbolic actions can help to heal (although the "some of us" is maddeningly vague). But they are not penances; they are confession. A penance goes further. One of my hopes during the past Easter season was this: during the Holy Thursday Mass, when the presiding priest washes the feet of 12 parishioners (imitating how Jesus washed the feet of the apostles at the Last Supper), bishops could have washed the feet of sexual abuse victims, as a pentitential gesture. But even this would be just a "symbolic" presence. A penitent in a confessional is not asked to do something symbolic but something real, something difficult, something that costs him or her something.

What would a real penance look like? What kind of penance would "correspond," to use the Catechism's language, with these sins? Priests convicted of sexual abuse are laicized (that is, they have their priesthood taken away and are returned to the lay state) and, when convicted in court, spend time in jail. Those are grave penances (that's why jails were formerly called "penitentiaries") but are undertaken involuntarily. After serving time for their crimes, these offenders, no longer priests, should perform additional penances and spend the rest of their lives praying for their victims.

Decades ago, some bishops considered cases of abuse primarily moral offenses and relied overly on the advice of those psychiatrists and psychologists who recommended placing the offenders back in active ministry. But that misguided trust in the advice of some psychologists may explain placing a man back in ministry only once. Those who moved repeat offenders from parish to parish cannot blame this on psychologists. Thus, if those who have sinned expect real forgiveness from those against whom they have sinned, a real penance is "necessary," as Benedict said -- resigning from their posts, caring for the sick in hospitals in the inner city, working in a remote refugee camp, serving in a homeless shelter in a slum, or retiring to a monastery to pray for victims.

My point is not to proscribe individual penances. I don't know who has sinned and who hasn't; I cannot look into someone's soul. (And I'm sure victims would have ideas for even stronger penances.) The point is that the hierarchy, seeking a way toward healing, has a spiritual resource that it overlooks at its peril. And that is the sacrament of reconciliation, instituted at the behest of Jesus Christ himself, and which lies at the heart of Catholic theology. And penance, part of that sacramental model, will help to begin to heal the serious rupture in the church.

But there is a difference in this case: the one who forgives. In the confessional the priest grants absolution in the name of God to the layperson. When it comes to these sins, it is the layperson who must grant absolution to those clergy who are seeking forgiveness.

James Martin, SJ


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Bill Mazzella
11 years 7 months ago
This is a great step in the right direction. Let's hope they do not regress the way the American bishops did. Further, I wonder whether Dolan should not have been one of the one's washing the feet of the victims. He and Cardinal Egan were clearly not concerned about compensating victims.

On another subject, we must give kudos to the Irish bishops for coming out against excessive captilisim.  http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/irish-bishops-reject-bonus-culture-capitalism-run-amok

ill the American bishops follow suit or will they continue to cater to the super rich?
11 years 7 months ago
As one who lives with the scars of clergy sexual abuse, this past week has been a tumultuous one.  Philadelphia was devastating.  I thought we learned our lessons in 2002.  Zero tolerance?  It doesn't look like it.  I am so disappointed in Cardinal Rigali. Dublin offered hope. The archbishop's humble reflections at the Liturgy of Repentence and the symbolic acts of repentence were necessary and some of the best attempts at helping the abused heal. You speak of penance, Father Martin.  When an abuser is dead, he cannot do penance in a way that brings healing to the one he abused.  Clergy sexual abuse is hell.  Just when you think all is well, you're good, healed, ok with things, loving God, loving the Church, then a Philadelphia happens and the pain begins all over again.  In essence, so does the abuse.  I don't know how to make that stop. A good spiritual director, counselor and supportive husband try to help, but in the end I'm alone with myself and the scars that have been left behind.
11 years 7 months ago
Your pointing to the faith and sacraments of Christ's Church as part of the way to new life is inspiring. To live this out - even in this, even when it requires a reversal of roles between lay and ordained, between the powerful and the meek - only makes it more so.

The humility required would be daunting - approaching that humility of our Lord humbling Himself to be made Incarnate.  Your imagination of confession, penance and ultimately reconciliation beginning with the lived reality of liturgy and sacrament is a call to a high standard, that of Christ Himself.

It is only a beginning, but new beginings that lead to reconciliation and restoration of life in its fullness are at the heart of what He offers us.
William Wilson
11 years 7 months ago
When is the pope going to do the same act of penance? When will the American bishops who aided and abetted abusers do likewise? When will the structural defects that enabled a church to abuse God's little ones be changed?
What the Irish bishops did is a good first step...but it is only a first step.
Paul Kellen
11 years 7 months ago
I am dissappointed by Rev Martin's view. We need to remember that sexual abuse of children is a crime and as such the first need is  justice not forgiveness. Bishops who attempted to thwart this justice should also be brought to account. Sean O'Malley, as ordinary in Fall River MA, is among them.

Symbols and ritual may have emotional appeal but it is deeds not words that begin true healing.

“We want to be part of a church that puts survivors, the victims of abuse, first — ahead of self-interest, reputation, and institutional needs,’’ O’Malley said.

It is unlikely that a third party will be present when a priest sexually abuses a child. So it is often a situation of he says she says. We face a choice between the safety of the child and the reputation of the priest. We need to give the benefit of the doubt to the child. This would appear to be the content of the Cardinal's words.
But not his deeds. He has reinstated into parish ministry at least six men who were party to court actions, both criminal and civil, where the plaintiff has prevailed. Does this put children first?

“The first step towards any form of healing is to allow the truth to come out,’’ said Martin,...''
Is Archbishop Martin only talking about Irish truth? Our Cardinal promised several years ago to publicly identify those who have been accused. We are still waiting. And we may well ask which accused will we hear about, the deceased accused, the credibly(according to O'Malley) accused, the falsely accused or what?
“On behalf of the Holy Father, I ask forgiveness, for the sexual abuse of children perpetrated by priests, and the past failures of the church’s hierarchy, here and in Rome — the failure to respond appropriately to the problem of sexual abuse,’’ said O’Malley.  I haven't found the place in Catholic theology describing the practice of confessing and atoning for the sins of another.

Finally, our Cardinal makes a point about his meetings with survivors. Has he listened? I know scores of survivors and most cannot go into a church without reliving trauma, let alone be party to planning a liturgy. Perhaps this latest event is a strategy of Rasky Baerlein, the diocesan publicity firm. They won a national prize for their work on the Pope/survivor meeting in Washington in 2006. They, after all, only need to make the Cardinal look good not understand the needs of survivors.
Paul F. Kellen,
NE Co-ordinator,
National Survivor Advocates Coalition,
Medford, MA
781 395 3628
Rory Connor
11 years 6 months ago
This is UK cultural historian Richard Webster, writing about one of the ladies whose feet Archbishop Diarmuid Martin washed on Sunday 20 February. (The Archbishop certainly knows how to pick them!)

The Irish story then developed in a manner which paralleled the development of the North Wales story. In 1996 the producer and director, Louis Lentin, made a television documentary about abuse in children’s homes which was shown by RTE, the main public service broadcasting station in Ireland. It focused on the brutal regime which was said to have been operating during the 1950s at St Vincent’s Industrial School, Goldenbridge, one of a network children’s homes or detention centres which were funded by the state and run by the Catholic Church.

“The documentary featured allegations made against Sister Xavieria, one of the nuns belonging to the Sisters of Mercy order which ran the home. The woman ‘survivor’ at the centre of the film claimed that, on one occasion, she had been caned by Sister Xavieria so severely that the entire side of her leg was split open from her hip to her knee. She says she was treated in the casualty department of the local hospital and believes that she received 80 to 120 stitches.

“No medical evidence has ever been produced to substantiate this bizarre claim. The surgeon who ran the casualty department at the hospital in question has given evidence which renders it highly unlikely that such an incident ever took place. Apart from anything else, the surgeon points out that caning would not have caused a wound of this kind, which would have required surgical treatment under a general anaesthetic and not stitches in a casualty department. Yet although the evidence suggests that the woman’s memory was a delusion, her testimony was widely believed at the time. In the wake of the broadcast, atrocity stories about Goldenbridge and other industrial schools began to proliferate.

3. Sunday Times (Ireland), 28 April 1996, citing the views of the surgeon, J. B. Prendiville.
Rory Connor
11 years 6 months ago
The Sunday Times on Christine Buckley
For the (partial) text of the Sunday Times article referred to by Richard Webster see:
regarding the alleged savage beating of a young girl by Sister Xavieria
In an article in the Irish Times on 1st March 1996, Fintan O’Toole wrote:
“Strangely enough, of all the images in Louis Lentin’s superb documentary film on Goldenbridge orphanage, the most disturbing for me was not one of the violent ones – a child deliberately scalded with boiling water or beaten with a club until her whole leg from ankle to hip burst open. We see so much brutality on the screen that most of us, I suppose, have learned how to shield ourselves from it.”
The Sunday Times did not engage in any difficult feat of investigative reporting. They simply interviewed a surgeon who worked in the hospital where children from the Goldenbridge orphanage were treated during the 1950s. The only reason why O’Toole did not check out this information, is that he did not want to know. The same goes for Archbishop Diarmuid Martin today!
[ The remainder of the Sunday Times article dated 28 April 1996, deals with an allegation (made AFTER the broadcast of ''Dear Daughter'') that the Sisters of Mercy were responsible for the death of a baby left in their care who had allegedly died of burn injuries. Doctor Prendiville is quoting as saying:
''They didn't treat burns in St Ultan's. If the baby died from a burn, there would have to be an inquest.''
The postmortem said the child died of dysentery - which was the kind of illness that St Ultan's children's hospital had been set up to treat.
http://www.irishsalem.com/religious-congregations/sisters-of-mercy/sisterspayout-childkillingclaim-oct97.php ]

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