The Press and the Pope's Letter on Sex Abuse

Right Wing, Left Wing and in Between Agree It’s “Unprecedented”

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By Jesús Colina
ROME, MARCH 23, 2010 ( Whether in favor, opposed or divided, the world’s media received Benedict XVI’s letter to Ireland’s Catholics as an “unprecedented” document, not only for being the first dedicated by a Pope to the issue, but also because of the grief with which it is written.
Interest in the statement has gone far beyond the coasts of Ireland, as witnessed by the fact that minutes after its publication in the Vatican at midday on March 20, it could already be read on the Web sites of newspapers such as Suddeutsche Zeitung, the New York Times, Le Monde, the Telegraph, El Mundo, Le Figaro, El Universal, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and El Pais.
The first headlines concentrated on the request for forgiveness, in the name of the Church, which the Pope addressed to the victims of abuse committed by clerics: “You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated.”
Responses of the victims
After the presentation of the document, the first commentaries published by the media concentrated on statements from victims’ associations, among which reactions varied.
Among the negative criticisms, for example, is that of Maeve Lewis, executive director of One in Four, and the communiqué issued that same Saturday to newspaper editorial boards by the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
In particular, that note harshly criticizes, even with irony, that in the document Benedict XVI does not take concrete measures to address the scandals, in particular, that the letter does not call for the resignation of more persons who in some way might have been involved. Similar, often harsh, criticisms were made by other associations of victims.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, had responded to this criticism in the presentation of the document to journalists, explaining that it is a pastoral letter and, therefore, does not address administrative and juridical measures, as, for example, the resignation of more Irish bishops.

The Irish Survivors of Child Abuse Organization (Irish-SOCA), noted that the letter contains an evident acknowledgment that the Church in Ireland sinned in the gravest way against youngsters during many decades.
On occasions these same associations acknowledge that they do not understand the extent of one of the Holy Father’s announcements as it touches upon technical questions of Canon Law: the convocation of an apostolic visitation, that is, a sort of hearing in certain dioceses of Ireland, as well as in the seminaries and religious congregations, with the help of leaders of the Roman Curia.
In the document, the Pope himself affirms that he understands how difficult it is for the victims of these abuses to accept his words: “It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel.”
In his presentation to journalists, the Vatican spokesman also responded to a criticism voiced by German newspapers, which expected allusions from the Pope to the situation of his country. Each country has its own specific elements, said Father Lombardi, adding that the Holy Father will decide when and how to intervene in the case of his homeland.
Before God and before the courts
The other passage most quoted by newspapers and victims, in particular by Irish-SOCA, is that addressed “to priests and religious who have abused children” to assure them they have “betrayed the trust that was placed in you by innocent young people and their parents, and you must answer for it before Almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals.”

“God’s justice summons us to give an account of our actions and to conceal nothing,” the Pope wrote to abusers. “Openly acknowledge your guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God’s mercy.”
Because of this, headlines announcing the letter often reflected the idea “pedophile priests must answer before God and the courts.”
Sincere and humble
The Pope succeeded inasmuch as associations of victims and the press in general agree that “unprecedented apologies” appeared in a letter that is sincere and humble.
“I can only share in the dismay and the sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them,” acknowledges the Pope.

Such comments brought headlines to affirm the Pope’s shame in face of cases of pedophilia.

What they’ve missed
Much of the media has ignored the Pope’s proposal of community penance for the Church in Ireland.
The Pontiff invited Irish Catholics to “devote your Friday penances, for a period of one year, between now and Easter 2011, to this intention. I ask you to offer up your fasting, your prayer, your reading of Scripture and your works of mercy in order to obtain the grace of healing and renewal for the Church in Ireland.”
Neither was much space given to the Holy Father’s encouragement that the sacrament of reconciliation be rediscovered, as well as Eucharistic adoration, and the convocation of a “nationwide mission [to] be held for all bishops, priests and religious.”
By neglecting these passages, the media left aside the central phrase of the letter in view of the future: “I am confident that this program will lead to a rebirth of the Church in Ireland in the fullness of God’s own truth, for it is the truth that sets us free.”

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