Pope Benedict XVI has said in a pastoral letter to believers in Ireland that he is shocked about the sexual abuse that took place in the country's churches and monastery schools. The pontiff said he was also shocked by the way the Roman Catholic church handled reports of abuse. "Like the victims, I feel betrayed by the priests and the bishops. The perpetrators will have to account for their behaviour before God and the judges."
Although Saturday's letter is addressed to the Irish faithful, it is generally seen as the expected answer to the burgeoning sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church. Around the world new cases are reported on a daily basis of priests who abused children in their parishes. Dutch cases of child sex abuse were brought to light by Radio Netherlands Worldwide and daily NRC Handelsblad.
Protecting church image
The first cases were made public in the US in the early years of this century. A little later, research revealed that priests in Ireland had sexually abused children on a large scale. The inquiry also found that the Roman Catholic church did not penalise the culprits, but transferred them to other parished in order to prevent damage to the church's image. Victims were told to remain silent about the abuse they suffered. Cardinal Seán Brady, Archbishop of Armagh and primate of all Ireland, has apologised for his involvement in the cover-up. He spoke during the Eucharist on St Patrick's Day, last Wednesday. He said he was deeply ashamed about what he did. Yet he is not stepping down, despite the demands of a number of victims for his departure.
As more and more cases of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergymen become known, it has become impossible for the church to keep the lid on, although some cardinals appear to try to. Only last week did Cardinal Bertone, the Vatican's second in command, claim that "someone is attempting to undermine the believers' confidence in the church". The suggestion was that the abuse reports were part of a plot to discredit the church – an echo of the approach of then Cardinal Ratzinger – the current pope - in 2002, who referred to "manipulated information intended to cast a bad light onto the church". But in Saturday's letter, Pope Benedict admits that the interests of the Church were put before those of the victims. He is blaming the Irish bishops for not properly applying canonical law.
Monseignor Scicluna, who acts as a prosecutor in the Holy See court, lent support to the pope in an interview with Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops' synod. "There's been a church law condemning such acts since 1922" and "Since 2001 Cardinal Ratzinger showed determination when handling these cases". But in the same interview, Scicluna is attempting to play down the abuse by distinguishing sexual acts with children below 12, between 12 and 16, and with teenagers over 16. Such an attitude is grist to the mill for critics who accuse the churc of a clerical omertà: the image of the church must be protected, whatever the cost. One minor detail was overlooked: the countless victims who were scarred for life.
The small number of known cases in Italy is remarkable. In this county with up to 50,000 priests only 80 cases of sexual abuse have been reported. Nonetheless, this week's frontpages prominently report the arrest of a sect leader in Rome who is accused of abusing girls and women in his sect. Reports about boys being abused by priests under the eyes of Benedict's brother in Regensburg were pushed to the inside pages by the Roman sect story.
In his Saturday pastoral letter, the Holy Father emphasised that the rules of the catholic church were applied incorrectly. He wrote that he felt betrayed by the priests and bishops involved, and added that the perpetrators will have to account for their deeds before God and the courts. There is no doubt that the pope is trying to limit the damage the affairs have done to the church's image.