Thomas P Doyle
 by Thomas Doyle, J.C.D.
March 21, 2010

          Pope Benedict’s letter to the Irish people was doomed by the first paragraph.  He admitted his source of information about the Irish situation was the Irish bishops and that his analysis and proposed solutions were the result of collaboration with senior Vatican officials.  This combination guaranteed yet another superficial and myopic view of this horrific plague and an astonishingly misdirected solution that looked to rescue the cause of the problem rather than its victims.

          The letter has some positives.  For the first time the man at the top actually came close to recognizing the real causes of this nightmare even though they’ve been obvious to most people for years.   We didn’t need the pope to tell us that “misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church” and the “tendency” of the laity to favor the clergy contributed to the disaster.  Speaking to victims he acknowledged that when “many were courageous enough to one would listen.”  The fact is that many....nearly all, were rebuffed and would still be rebuffed were it not for the massive outrage that finally cracked the papal and hierarchical wall of denial.  Everything the pope said about the causes has been obvious to just about everyone except the hierarchy.  The good news is that whether he knew it or not, the pope recognized clericalism, the heresy that priests and bishops are superior to lay people and therefore entitled to special treatment, as a major part of the problem.

          For much of the letter Benedict is preaching to the Irish people rather than showing that he has a grasp of the true nature of this massive rupture in the hull of the Barque of Peter. He speaks of the criminal nature of the actual acts of abuse and reminds the perpetrating priests and religious of the shame and dishonor they have brought to the priesthood but he makes the egregious mistake of putting the “immense harm done to victims” on the same level of urgency as the damage done to the Church, meaning I’m sure the institutional church, and the reputation of the priesthood and religious life.  There is no comparison.  The violation of the victims by the marauding abusers and the rejection by the self-serving bishops is far worse than “harm”.  It is the wholesale murder of their souls.  The dismantling of the sacred image of the priesthood and the clerical culture is an expected and justified result.  His Holiness scolds the bishops but he also makes a lame attempt at bailing them out.  The failure, not of “some of you” but of every bishop who faced a case of abuse, to use canon law confirms the delusion that the cause of the problem can also be the solution to the problem.  Canon law has not only been useless in protecting the laity from abuse, but it is a major part of the problem.  The secrecy that has covered this plague is a product of Canon law. Furthermore, although sex abuse of minors is named a crime in the Church’s law code, it is also a crime in secular society.  The experience of the past decades has demonstrated without question that the Church and its Canon law are not only ineffective in dealing with clergy sex abuse, but that the obsession with the external image and security of the Church’s structure has enabled the abusers and extended the damage.  In expressing appreciation for the bishops’ efforts to remedy past mistakes, the pope fails to recognize that any effective remedies of any kind that bishops have implemented have been the result of massive pressure from the civil courts, the exposure by the media and above all, the outrage of victims and society.  In spite of his strong words of rebuke for the bishops, Pope Benedict seems blinded to their fundamental role in this disaster.  Can he not see that the intense anger and outrage is primarily directed at the bishops and not the pathetic abusers? 

          The view of the world from the Vatican is clearly myopic.  The pope and the senior officials with whom he consulted apparently see the institutional Church as the sole source of spiritual security for Catholics and a societal exemplar for the secular world.  The letter makes it clear that the pope and the bishops believe that the ultimate healing for the victims and their families is their “reconciliation” with the institution and the restoration of the “respect and good will of the Irish people towards the Church.”  By injecting self-serving references about the institutional church throughout the letter Pope Benedict reveals that what this is really all about is not healing the victims or purging the church, but about power, their power and the assurance that more of it won’t be lost.

          The concrete solutions are surreal.  Asking the Irish people to do penance for the renewal of the Irish Church is asking them to accept blame for the scourge of sexual abuse. This is way over the top. It was not the Irish people who brought this assault on the Church but the very men who have been consecrated to preserve it. Calling for prayer-based programs and a national mission as the way out of the tsunami is what the mental health professionals refer to as magical thinking.    The Pope and the bishops are in the midst of the most profound crisis to face Catholicism in a thousand years.  They have lost all power to do anything effective to resolve it or even mitigate it.  Seventeen years ago Pope John Paul II wrote a letter to the American bishops about this very problem.  In it, he told the bishops that among the means they had for responding to the problem “the first and most important is prayer: ardent, humble, confident prayer.”  Seventeen years later the plague has been revealed not only in the United States, where Pope John Paul and his curia erroneously claimed it was contained, but throughout Europe with every indication that the future will only see more revelations in the church in yet more countries.  Martin Luther King once said “Its fine to pray, but now we have to march.”  Marching would have meant taking decisive steps that both Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict have been incapable of accepting because these steps involve marching out of the tower of power and admitting that the hierarchical system and its obsession with power and control is the enemy, not the secular world.

          The pope has obviously been deeply moved by the suffering of the victims and their families but personal anguish in exchange for inaction is not enough.  Those who look to this letter as the ultimate sign that the Church has emerged from this long, dark night of the soul will be sadly disappointed.  The days of “The Holy Father said it so it must be so” are dead and buried.  The pope truly believes that the church is the only agent for healing the victims and ending the nightmare.  This may well be true, but it won’t be the Church of Pope Benedict, the bishops and the clerical elite.  Confidence and trust in them is evaporating like water in the desert. It will be the People of God, the “church” that is grounded not in the Vatican and the monarchical structures, but in the hearts and souls of those who have put the comfort and support of the most vulnerable and most damaged before all else.