The pope attempted to defuse growing anger in the Irish Republic over the sex abuse scandal today by urging people to read an open letter on the crisis “with an open heart and in a spirit of faith”.
Pope Benedict took the opportunity of St Patrick’s Day to address Irish members of his general audience, acknowledging the church had been “severely shaken” and that he was deeply concerned.
“I ask all of you to read it [the letter] for yourselves,” he said. “My hope is that it will help in the process of repentance, healing and renewal.”
The comments came just hours after the most senior figure in the Irish church used his sermon to apologise for helping to cover up child abuse allegations.
Cardinal Sean Brady, the primate of All Ireland, has so far resisted calls to resign after his admission that he attended a meeting 35 years ago where two abuse victims were forced to sign an oath of silence over complaints against one of the country’s most notorious paedophile priests.
In his sermon, at Armagh’s Catholic cathedral, he told the congregation he wanted to apologise to “all those who feel I have let them down” and that he would think about his future by “discerning the will of the Holy Spirit”.
He added: “I want to say to anyone who has been hurt by any failure on my part that I apologise to you with all my heart. Looking back, I am ashamed that I have not always upheld the values that I profess and believe in.”
He said the church “must humbly continue to deal with the enormity of the hurt caused by abuse of children by some clergy and the hopelessly inadequate response to that abuse in the past”.
Brady said last weekend that, in 1975, while a recording secretary in the case of priest Brendan Smyth, he had taken notes during one meeting and interviewed the children in another.
Although he referred the abuse claims to his superior, he did not report them to the police and it was only in 1994 that Smyth’s appalling abuse came to light. Smyth died of a heart attack in prison 13 years ago, while serving 12 years for 74 sexual assaults on children.
Victim support groups and politicians berated Brady for his actions. The cardinal said he would go if the pope told him to, but felt that resigning would mean he had failed as a bishop. His refusal to step down has caused further outrage.
Christine Buckley, from the child abuse survivor group, the Aislinn Centre, welcomed the apology but said Brady should “do the honourable thing”.
“He’s head of the Catholic church in Ireland and he’s shown no leadership in this regard because he knew about this for 35 years.”
Colm O’Gorman of the One in Four victim support charity said Brady was attempting to avoid recognising how his failure to report the crime had caused “untold damage to countless numbers of children”.
The archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, also attacked Brady for failing to act but said that resigning was a personal decision.
He said: “Brendan Smyth should have been stopped from the very first time it was known he was abusing. How a person would have abused and continued to abuse for so long — 18 years after — and God knows how many years before.”
He said it may be necessary to hold a national inquiry into abuse cases and allegations in order to restore public confidence in the church. The only internal inquiry to date produced the Murphy report, a 720-page document that concluded the Archdiocese of Dublin and other church authorities had engaged in “the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the church and the preservation of its assets”. Four of the five bishops named in the report resigned. It also led to an emergency meeting at the Vatican, where the pope demanded Irish clergy explain their actions.
Martin said that a national exercise in self-scrutiny may be the only solution to the current crisis.
“It may be necessary if we cannot get a way of ensuring that the truth is out and people know that the truth is out. People want to know exactly what happened. I believe there will be no healing until we fully address the past.”
The crisis in Ireland is being replicated across Europe as the Catholic hierarchy struggles to minimise the fallout.
Yesterday Robert Zollitsch, head of the German bishops’ conference, met with members of the Bundestag to discuss the issue, having last week spoken privately with the pope about the scandal and later issued an apology to the victims.
Zollitsch has appointed Stephan Ackermann, the bishop of Trier, to lead a national body to deal with the abuse cases. Ackermann announced that a hotline for abuse victims will be set up within the next two weeks.
An increasing number of German clerics have expressed their remorse over the scandal. Josef Meissner, the cardinal of Cologne, called it the “biggest crisis for the church that I’ve experienced in 48 years in the priesthood”, while others have compared the crisis to that faced by the German Catholic church in 1945 when it was confronted by allegations over its role in the Holocaust.
Hans Kung, the theologian and one of Benedict’s most high-profile adversaries, said German Catholics’ trust in the church had been shattered. —