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Pope Benedict letter to Ireland fails to ease anger over abuse scandal

Pope Benedict XVI responded to a blossoming abuse scandal in Ireland with a letter that addressed Church failings in handling sexual abuse of children by priests. But he did not promise an end to the secrecy that has surrounded the church's policing efforts.

By John HearneCorrespondent / March 21, 2010

A woman holds rosary beads during a Sunday mass in a Church in Armagh, Northern Ireland, Sunday. In a letter of apology read during Sunday services across Ireland, Pope Benedict apologized to victims of child sex abuse by clergy.

Cathal McNaughton/Reuters



A pastoral letter from Pope Benedict XVI addressing the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests was read from pulpits across Ireland on Sunday. The pontiff acknowledged grievous failings by the church, but stopped short of a full repudiation of the secrecy that shrouded the abuse scandal and that many here contend was a key element in protecting alleged child molesters.

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In his letter, Pope Benedict referred to "a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations" in the past. "It is in this overall context that we must try to understand the disturbing problem of child sexual abuse, which has contributed in no small measure to the weakening of faith and the loss of respect for the Church and her teachings."

The pope told Ireland's bishops that "only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and good will of the Irish people towards the Church to which we have consecrated our lives."

But many Catholics were not satisfied.

The Guardian newspaper quoted Father Brian D'Arcy, an Irish church reformer, as saying he was disappointed that Benedict had not called for wholesale reform of the church. "Those reforms should include [priestly] celibacy, canon law, and unquestioning authority," he said. He also criticized the pope for, in his view, linking a decline in faith in Ireland with cases of abuse by priests.

Center of the storm

At the center of the latest storm in Ireland is Cardinal Sean Brady, the head of the Irish branch of the Catholic Church.

The Irish church acknowledged in a statement last week that Mr. Brady, acting as an expert in church canon law, had interviewed two boys in 1975 who alleged sexual abuse by the Rev. Brendan Smyth and that at the end of their interviews he had administered an oath of secrecy to the two victims.

Father Smyth was assigned to a number of a church jobs after that 1975 investigation, and went on to abuse more children in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and in the US. Smyth died in prison in 1997 following a conviction for sexually abusing children. No one involved in the investigation ever contacted the police about the 1975 allegations.

The revelation of the extent of Brady's involvement in that investigation has led to calls from some in Ireland that he step down or be removed from his office. Brady has said he will serve until removed by Pope Benedict, who did not address the controversy surrounding Brady in his letter read on Sunday.

Smyth's victims