Pope letter on Catholic sex abuse scandal meets Irish skepticism

In Ireland, news that Pope Benedict is sending a letter on the Catholic sex abuse scandal was met by disagreement over whether the church can regain its moral authority. The letter will be made public Saturday.

Alessandra Tarantino/AP/File
The Dec. 30, 2009 file photo shows Pope Benedict XVI during his weekly general audience in the Paul VI hall at The Vatican. He has written a letter to Irish Roman Catholics on the issue of preventing and punishing sexual abuse of children by priests.

Pope Benedict XVI has written a pastoral letter to Irish Roman Catholics on the issue of preventing and punishing sexual abuse of children by priests – but opinion here is divided on whether the church can ever regain its moral authority.

The papal letter, expected later today, follows a series of accusatory Irish government reports last year into pedophilia within the Irish Roman Catholic Church.
Pope Benedict says he hopes the communication, to be made public Saturday, "will help in the process of repentance, healing, and renewal."

Garry O'Sullivan, editor of the Irish Catholic, a weekly newspaper independent of the church, says if it is to have any impact at all, the letter needs to address the church's culpability.

"The hope is it will have a fulsome apology. The victims want the pope to make a proper admission of a systemic cover-up, not just minimize it as a few problems," he says.

Cardinal embroiled in scandal over priest

The letter comes as Cardinal Sean Brady, head of the Irish Church, finds himself embroiled in a scandal surrounding the late Rev. Brendan Smyth. Father Smyth abused children from the 1940s onward, and was moved from parish to parish, including a stint in the United States, which was when the church became aware of it.

In 1975, Cardinal Brady, then a priest, was present when two of Smyth's victims were asked to sign an oath of secrecy. Brady did not inform the statutory authorities.

Speaking on the national radio program Morning Ireland, Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor Donal McKeown said Cardinal Brady made a 'bad decision' and regretted very much.

Calls for his resignation, including from Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness, deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, were met with refusal – Brady told BBC Radio he will only go if asked to do so by the pope. He says he was working in a clerical position at the time and that he appropriately discharged responsibilities by providing senior clerics with the information on Father Smyth.

Garry O'Sullivan says the "culture of secrecy" was a nationwide phenomenon at the time: "It was 1975 – the culture then in the guards [police], the church, and politics was one of secrecy. People went to the church [with allegations of abuse] because they believed the good bishop would sort out the dirty priest.

"That's where the real [systemic] error is: the good bishop didn't sort out the dirty priest. It's now up to the church to clear its decks," he says.

Reputation in tatters

Ireland, long a Catholic bastion, traditionally looked to the church not only for moral guidance but it was also entwined in all aspects of social and political life. Now in their second decade, the investigations and revelations of abuse have all but destroyed the church's institutional reputation.

Lorcan Price, a young practicing Catholic, says the papal apology is needed, but more important is confirmation that the era of pedophile priests being shielded from the courts is over.

"The new child protection plans are good, but confidence has been rattled by the scandals," he says. "People need to hear it will never happen again. The ordinary person is concerned about the culture of secrecy, something that has been confirmed by the drip, drip of revelations."

"People will be less inclined to listen to the church on a wide range of social issues now – I think that's a shame. You have to hear voices from all corners," he says.

Deregister as Catholics?

Paul Dunbar, who is involved in the Count Me Out project, which provides nominal Catholics with an easy way to deregister as Catholics, says the pope's letter will miss the point, regardless of what he writes in it.

"As a non-Catholic, I'm not sure I have the right to comment on the pope's letter. It is intended as a communication between the Vatican and Irish Catholics. However, herein lies a flaw, in my opinion: The pope should be addressing the Irish people as a whole and unreservedly apologizing for the cover-up and the failure of the hierarchy, in Ireland and elsewhere, to address the scourge of child sexual abuse crisis," he wrote in an e-mail to The Christian Science Monitor.

"The Roman Catholic Church has clearly lost sight of its Christian values and it will take more than a pastoral letter to right this wrong."

According to Count Me Out, 7,998 people have completed a "declaration of defection," signaling they have left the Catholic church.

Another cleric, retired canon lawyer Monsignor Maurice Dooley, was summoned to the archbishop's palace in Thurles this week after saying he would not report clerical abusers to the state authorities. He has been officially silenced on the issue by the archbishop.

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