Pope Benedict has just released his letter to Irish Catholics concerning sexual abuse against children. Although we knew His Holiness would take a tough stand – he’s become less tolerant than his predecessor in punishing priestly abusers – this letter is nevertheless a bombshell for canonists.
One of the most important principles when applying canon law to a situation is that one interpret the law according to the mind of the legislator. Pope Benedict is the Supreme Legislator within the Church. This letter reveals Pope Benedict’s mind on this horrific topic in a manner that leaves little room for ambiguity in its interpretation. Although addressed to Irish Catholics, the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi would do well to pay attention. After all, any attempt from the Holy See to impose reform on Maciel’s movement will follow the mind of Pope Benedict. So you – and I’m speaking directly now to LC/RC canonists – would be foolish to dismiss this letter as addressed only to Catholics in Ireland, and not to your movement.
I urge everyone to read the entire letter here. Here are some key paragraphs that stand out in light of LC/RC handling of the Maciel scandal:
I can only share in the dismay and the sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them.
Notice the apparent absence of Romanita and Bella Figura in His Holiness’s words. Popes in modern times don’t talk like this. He considers the sexual abuse of children sinful, criminal and treachery. He will publicly shame an entire Church hierarchy to make his point.
It is true, as many in your country have pointed out, that the problem of child abuse is peculiar neither to Ireland nor to the Church. Nevertheless, the task you now face is to address the problem of abuse that has occurred within the Irish Catholic community, and to do so with courage and determination.
The fact that children are sexually abused outside of the Church, or in other parts of the Church, is no excuse for inaction. Focus on the problem in your own background. You have a duty to confront this problem and to fix it.
At the same time, I must also express my conviction that, in order to recover from this grievous wound, the Church in Ireland must first acknowledge before the Lord and before others the serious sins committed against defenceless children. Such an acknowledgement, accompanied by sincere sorrow for the damage caused to these victims and their families, must lead to a concerted effort to ensure the protection of children from similar crimes in the future.
There is no recovery without first acknowledging the wrong done, the serious of the wrong done, and the vulnerability and innocence of the victims. This must be followed by sincere sorrow for the wrong done, and a pro-active approach to preventing similar harm to children in the future.
The pope then shares good advice on praying for God’s grace and turning to saints for their Christian example. This is fairly strait-forward.
That being said, the following statements reveal that His Holiness sees bad methodology as a contributing cause to this crisis:
Significant too was the tendency during this period, also on the part of priests and religious, to adopt ways of thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel. […]
Certainly, among the contributing factors we can include: inadequate procedures for determining the suitability of candidates for the priesthood and the religious life; insufficient human, moral, intellectual and spiritual formation in seminaries and novitiates; a tendency in society to favour the clergy and other authority figures; 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. Urgent action is needed to address these factors, which have had such tragic consequences in the lives of victims and their families, and have obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing.
Finally, he makes it clear whose side he is taking in this scandal:
On several occasions since my election to the See of Peter, I have met with victims of sexual abuse, as indeed I am ready to do in the future. I have sat with them, I have listened to their stories, I have acknowledged their suffering, and I have prayed with them and for them.
Not only has Pope Benedict met with the victims personally and listened to their stories, but he has acknowledged their suffering and prayed for them. This is the response one would expect from good and holy priests. And since Christ calls the Pope as head shepherd to lead by example, this is the response the Pope himself expects.
Notice what is absent from the Pope’s letter: No blaming the victims for their (supposed) lack of charity; no passing the entire responsibility to the abuser alone, no silly cliches like “God writes straight with crooked lines,” no chastising the faithful for their outrage or for not also recognizing the good that abusers had accomplished. No use of euphemism to describe painful sind. No denying the effects of abuse upon the victims. No covering up for the sake of avoiding scandal in the Church.
What’s even more interesting, in re-reading His Holiness’s letter a second time, from the beginning, is that he calls the Irish hierarchy to account for their handling of the situation. Yes, the Pope is intervening to help fix the situation. However, it is only because the Irish hierarchy failed in their responsibility to do so. This should be a sobering reminder to current LC/RC supporters. Just as “I was only following orders” has been rejected as an argument for moral justification, so too does Pope Benedict appear to reject “I was only waiting for orders to follow.”
Which is why LC and RC should ask themselves what they (not Maciel) have done to correct the situation, and whether it lives up to the Pope’s expectations. This is the question he asked of the Irish bishops. And this is the question he will ask of you.
Or to quote the Holy Father in a part of the letter addressed specifically to bishops (after saying religious superiors should follow the advice he gives bishops):
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. This must arise, first and foremost, from your own self-examination, inner purification and spiritual renewal. The Irish people rightly expect you to be men of God, to be holy, to live simply, to pursue personal conversion daily.
The Holy Father concludes the letter with several excellent recommendations for prayer, fasting and reform.