Robert Mickens, the Tablet's prolific correspondent, kindly sent us this special report from the Vatican on the much talked about meeting between the pope and the Irish bishops prompted by that church's widening sex abuse scandal.
ROBERT MICKENS (Special to America)
ROME – Act I of a Vatican-orchestrated attempt to help Ireland’s Catholic bishops regain trust and restore the Church’s credibility in the wake of a devastating clerical sex abuse crisis has ended in a chorus of boos.
An extraordinary two-day summit that locked all 24 of the country’s diocesan heads into more than nine hours of confidential, closed-door talks with the Pope and ten top-ranking Vatican officials produced strong words but no concrete actions.
“The Holy Father observed that the sexual abuse of children and young people is not only a heinous crime, but also a grave sin which offends God and wounds the dignity of the human person created in his image,” said a 634-word Vatican statement at the summit’s conclusion on Tuesday. But the 82-year-old Pope deeply disappointed victims by issuing no formal apology, making no commitment to meet with them and sacking not a single bishop that was involved in covering up the scandal. He also sparked anger among some survivor groups by insisting that “the weakening of faith” was largely to blame for the widespread sexual abuse of minors.
“It is deeply insulting to survivors to suggest that they were abused due to failures of faith, rather than because sex-offending priests were moved from parish to parish, and those in authority looked away while further children were sexually abused,” charged Maeve Lewis, head of the One in Four group.
The Vatican said Pope Benedict was well aware that the ”grave crisis” in Ireland would “not be resolved quickly”. According to the statement, he attributed the crisis to “the failure of the Irish Church authorities for many years to act effectively in dealing” with clergy sex abuse cases, which he said had “led to the breakdown in trust in the Church’s leadership and [had] damaged her witness”. The Pope then “challenged the bishops to address the problems of the past with determination and resolve, and to face the present crisis with honesty and courage”, the statement said. But he did not admit that the Vatican bore any responsibility in the way the cases were handled.
The Vatican statement said the meetings, which took place all day Monday and the morning of Tuesday inside the Vatican Palace, were “frank and open”. Each of the 24 diocesan ordinaries (no auxiliary bishops were present) was given five to seven minutes to offer “his own observations and suggestions”. Cardinal Seán Brady of Armagh told reporters at a briefing on Tuesday afternoon he was “pleased” with the meetings, which Bishop Michael Smith of Meath described as “very productive”. The cardinal said the Pope understood that the phenomenon of clerical sexual abuse was “not an Irish problem, or an Anglophone problem or a problem of the Catholic Church”. He insisted it was a problem found throughout society. Bishops Joseph Duffy of Clogher, Dennis Brennan of Ferns and Brendan Kelly of Achonry joined Cardinal Brady and Bishop Smith at the crowded and, at times, raucous press conference, which was held at Vatican Radio rather than the more official Holy See Press Office.
Conspicuously absent from the final briefing was Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, who has received generally high marks by survivor groups and the media for insisting on transparency and sweeping reforms in response to the clergy abuse crisis. Cardinal Brady said the archbishop had to return to Ireland for a previous commitment. But Dr Martin also failed to meet the press at a briefing on Sunday at the Irish College, which was handled solely by the 76-year-old Bishop Duffy.
The Dublin archbishop’s suggestion that some bishops should resign because of their role in the cover-up has caused friction in the episcopal conference, but Bishop Duffy and Cardinal Brady said resignations “were not on the agenda” this week. Pope Benedict was obviously aware of the intra-episcopal squabbles. The Vatican said he hoped this week’s summit in Rome would at least “help to unify the bishops and enable them to speak with one voice in identifying concrete steps” that will help victims, renew faith and restore the Church’s moral and spiritual credibility.
One concrete step the Pope has ordered is “a deeper theological reflection on the whole issue”. He believes the problem can be at least partly resolved by mandating “an improved human, spiritual, academic and pastoral preparation” to all seminarians, religious and priests. And, perhaps, he has other suggestions...
... which brings us to Act II of the Vatican’s response.
This is to come in the form of a pastoral letter that Pope Benedict intends to send Irish Catholics sometime during this forty-day season of Lent. The letter was already announced last December and many believed it would have been ready for Ash Wednesday. But the bishops were given an unfinished draft of it this week and “an opportunity to examine and discuss” its contents. The Vatican said the Pope would be “taking into account [their] comments” and “now complete” the text.
Going by the press briefings on Sunday and Tuesday it appears that neither the bishops nor the Vatican is seriously contemplating substantial structural changes in such areas as church governance or the selection of bishops. This may be one of the reasons Archbishop Martin remained invisible to the press, given that he has consistently stated that sweeping reforms will be necessary in order to emerge from the crisis. His calls were clearly rebuffed this week.
But the Archbishop of Dublin was not the only notable absentee at Tuesday’s press conference. None of the Roman Curia officials that took part in the two-day summit appeared either. This only accentuated the Pope’s silence on the Vatican’s culpability in the way the Church in Ireland and every other part of the world – including his own native Germany – has dealt with clergy sex abuse scandals. The closest thing to an admission of guilt came during the papal visit to Australia in 2008 when Pope Benedict said he was “deeply sorry for the pain and suffering” the victims had endured. “We will do everything possible to clarify what is the teaching of the Church and help in the education and in the preparation of priests, in permanent formation, and we will do all possible to heal and to reconcile the victims,” the Pope said. “I think this is the essential content of what the word “apologize” says, he added.
Before this week’s talks even got under way, all the Irish and Vatican participants celebrated an early morning Mass on Monday that the tomb of St Peter. The Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB said the most difficult trials for the Church were internal ones. He said it was especially difficult for Catholics in Ireland to see “some men of the Church involved in acts” that he called “particularly abominable”. The cardinal said healing could come only on the condition that “the sinner recognises is own sin in full truth”. It was not clear if he was referring only to priests who committed the abuse or also to the episcopal authorities that covered it up.