After years of his church covering up the crimes of the pedophiles in their ranks and transferring deviant priests to new parishes when their crimes began to surface, thereby putting whole new populations at risk, the Pope has finally decided that it is time to address the problem with a statement made on his current London tour.
As he has done on three previous visits, the pope held a private meeting with victims of sexual abuse hours after telling worshippers at a Mass that pedophile priests had brought “shame and humiliation” on him and the Roman Catholic Church.
A shame that they rightly deserve. Not so much because it happened – pedophiles show up in any group, particularly those that tend to exercise power over their members and where they have access to children. The shame and humiliation should come from the disgraceful way in which they tried to avoid the problem, protecting the criminals and even promoting some to higher level positions in the church.
But the mea culpa wasn’t all about how the church and the Pope had been damaged by the abuse scandal.
“I think of the immense suffering caused by the abuse of children, especially within the Church and by her ministers. Above all, I express my deep sorrow to the innocent victims of these unspeakable crimes …,” he said in his sermon in the towering cathedral built in the late 19th century.
Unfortunately the churches’ thinking about the suffering of the victims has come very late in the game. And certainly the courage to admit to the crimes has come about only with great reluctance.
A book by British Lawyer Geoffrey Robertson argues that Pope Benedict could be legally charged with obstructing justice or for harbouring pedophiles in the priesthood, although he admits that such a turn of events is unlikely to happen.
But the problem that church has is so huge that papal apologies, although necessary, hardly make up any ground for past actions.
Since the dam crumbled around the turn of the decade, a cascade of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy has come tumbling into the open. So many cases emerged that the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference commissioned an expert study, which concluded in 2004 that, since 1950, 10,667 individuals had made plausible allegations against 4,392 priests, 4.3 per cent of the entire body of clergy in that period. The total bill in settlements with victims is spiralling toward $2 billion and won’t stop, Forbes predicts, this side of $5 billion. Depressingly similar stories from other First World countries, including Canada, soon emerged; the situation in Latin America and Africa, where no investigations have ever been made, can only be imagined.
It will be interesting to see how Pope Benedict’s apologies will be be taken.
I know that for myself, when I initially heard the news report, my reaction was one of anger at what I saw as the hypocrisy of an apology when the hierarchy of the church knew what was going on for decades and did nothing. Actually they did worse than nothing. They aided and abetted and if I was a member of the Catholic congregation I don’t know if I could ever accept that apology in good faith.