THE Pope has apologised for the crimes of abuse committed by Roman Catholic priests in an open letter to all members of the RC Church.
In the letter, published on Monday, Pope Francis says: “We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.”
The letter follows the publication of a 1300-page report by prosecutors in the United States that found that more than 1000 children had been sexually abused by 301 RC priests in Pennsylvania over the past 70 years.
Pope Francis says that, despite the fact that most of these “cases belong to the past”, it is clear “that they require us forcefully to condemn these atrocities and join forces in uprooting this culture of death” because “these wounds never go away”.
He continues: “With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realising the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives”
The Pope calls on Roman Catholics around the world to join in fasting and prayer to “open our ears to the hushed pain felt by children, young people and the disabled” and “make us hunger and thirst for justice and impel us to walk in the truth, supporting all the judicial measures that may be necessary”.
And he quotes his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who said while still a cardinal: “How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to [Christ]!”
The letter is addressed to “the people of God”: Pope Francis writes that everyone in the Church must be take part in action against abuse and the cover-ups that follow it, given that the culture of clericalism in the Church helped foster the conditions for the crimes to occur.
“Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.”
He tells all in the Church: “The only way that we have to respond to this evil that has darkened so many lives is to experience it as a task regarding all of us as the People of God.”
And he continues: “Let us beg forgiveness for our own sins and the sins of others. An awareness of sin helps us to acknowledge the errors, the crimes and the wounds caused in the past and allows us, in the present, to be more open and committed along a journey of renewed conversion.”
Pope Francis looks forward as well as back: “Looking back to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient.
“Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated. The pain of the victims and their families is also our pain, and so it is urgent that we once more reaffirm our commitment to ensure the protection of minors and of vulnerable adults.”
As well as the Pennsylvania revelations, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, RC Archbishop of Washington from 2001 to 2006, now aged 88, resigned last month, accused of abuse in several counts.
This year has also seen sexual-abuse scandals for the RC Church in Chile, where the Pope forced every bishop to tender their resignation (News, 25 May); and in Australia, where the Vatican Prefect for the Secretariat of the Economy, Cardinal George Pell, is facing a jury trial on historical abuse charges (News, 1 May).
The Pope begins his visit to Ireland later this week, where the topic of sexual abuse is expected to be high on the agenda. He has been put under pressure by the former president, Mary McAleese, to meet survivors and victims (News, 10 August).
Speaking last week, the RC Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, the Most Revd Eamon Martin, said that people wanted “action” from the Church, and not just a “simple apology”.
Archbishop Martin told the BBC: “I would like to think that the Pope will meet with survivors of abuse but will also address this issue in some way during his presence among us.
“I’m not sure what his words will be, and I’m not sure that a simple apology is what survivors of abuse want. They themselves are on record in recent days as saying they want action. They say they want to know that the Church accepts that abuse within the Church was systemic, that it was facilitated, and that this will happen no more.”