Facing priest abuses, pope initiates healing

The pontiff ends 6-day visit that opened an unexpected dialogue on the sex scandal in the American church

The Pope in America

April 21, 2008|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,SUN REPORTER

This was supposed to be an introduction. On his first papal visit to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI would celebrate a few Masses, give a speech at the United Nations, and let a nation that knew him by his reputation as the church's doctrinal enforcer experience his softer, warmer, more welcoming side.

Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, plans changed.

Shepherd One hadn't yet touched down at Andrews Air Force Base when Pope Benedict made his first comments on the sex abuse crisis that has shaken the Roman Catholic Church in America.

And he didn't stop there. The 81-year-old pontiff raised the issue again during Mass at Nationals Park in Washington. Then came the news that he had met privately with a group of abuse survivors from Boston, epicenter of the scandal. And, finally, word that the church is considering changes to the canon law that regulates its handling of abuse allegations.

Pope Benedict kept his appointments with the United Nations, the White House and the leaders of other religions. He celebrated Mass and met with bishops, Catholic educators and youth.

But he kept returning to the abuse issue, raising it on each of his first five days here, and in short order, a trip that began as a diplomatic tour became a pastoral visit.

Now, bishops and advocates for abuse victims are talking about new hope for reconciliation.

"All I can say is, thanks be to God," said Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, who joined Pope Benedict at the altar yesterday for the Mass at Yankee Stadium in New York. "It's something that he could have avoided or made excuses about, but it's the mark of the man that he saw how serious this has been for us."

A report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops counted more than 10,000 complaints of abuse involving more than 4,000 priests from 1950 to 2002. Dioceses in the United States have paid out more than $2 billion in civil settlements; six have sought bankruptcy protection.

But beyond those numbers, involving as they do only a small percentage of the nation's 67 million Catholics, the scandal has shaken the faith of many in their church's hierarchy. Some analysts have linked it to the rate at which Catholics are leaving the church in the United States, which is greater than in any other major American faith.

"We are encouraged by Pope Benedict's acknowledgment that the sexual abuse crisis was very poorly handled," said Dan Bartley, president of Voices of the Faithful. "This acknowledgment provides a fresh starting point for us to begin healing and transforming our church."

Bartley, whose group came together in Boston in the wake of the scandal to call for greater transparency and lay involvement, said American bishops should follow Pope Benedict's example in treating abuse victims "with the compassion and respect they deserve."

"And we still ask the question," Bartley said: "How can the Catholic Church be a moral beacon while the bishops that moved abusive priests from parish to parish remain in office?"

At the least, Pope Benedict showed those affected that they have his attention.

"Certainly, one of the criticisms of [Pope] John Paul II was that he didn't really understand the full nature of the problem," said Mathew Schmalz, a professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross. "I think what you can say now is that the pope gets it. This will, I think, give greater impetus to victims groups to approach the hierarchy for some kind of reconciliation."

That hierarchy has received its instructions. In Washington, Pope Benedict reminded American bishops of their "God-given responsibility as pastors to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of trust, to foster healing, to promote reconciliation and to reach out with loving concern to those so seriously wronged."

"In saying that, he was admitting that the wounds are still open and that there's still work to be done," Schmalz said. "I know many members of victims groups have a kind of wait-and-see attitude now."

Visiting in the thick of a presidential campaign, Pope Benedict was careful to avoid statements that could suggest a papal endorsement of a particular candidate or platform. But he stressed that religious believers must be allowed to act on their faith in their public lives.

"The full guarantee of religious liberty cannot be limited to the free exercise of worship," he told the United Nations General Assembly. Rather, he said, it should include "the possibility of believers playing their part in building the social order."

How the pontiff's call for Catholics to bring their faith into public life will affect American politics is another question. During the 2004 presidential election, some bishops said they would deny communion to politicians who supported abortion rights. That year, Catholic voters favored Republican President Bush, a Methodist, over Democrat John Kerry, a Catholic.

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