Too little, too late, Pope Benedict

The Pope's letter to Catholics in Ireland, a short version of which was read out at all Masses in the country last Saturday night and Sunday morning, is too little, too late. It has been dismissed with something approaching contempt not just by the victims of clerical abuse, but by people in general here.

All the newspapers and TV did vox pops -- street interviews -- in the wake of the letter, and reporters had a real problem finding anyone to say it was an adequate response to the abuse and cover-up scandal here.

People are right to be dismissive. I didn't go to church at the weekend myself. I don't go that often anyway, but I might have gone because I was curious.

But I decided against it because I did not want anyone to be interpreting the Pope's message for me. I prefer to make up my own mind on these things, which makes me a sort of Free Thinking Protestant, I suppose.

So I read the full text of the Pope's letter on line (it's easy to find on the web). It's not that long, and anyone interested in this issue should do likewise.

Not for any enlightenment, mind you, but to see what a load of self-serving waffle the Pope's message to Ireland actually is.

The Pope's letter is an exercise in obfuscation, rambling on at length about all kinds of extraneous matters without ever getting to the point. The point should have been to make changes in the Catholic Church that would help to prevent abuse like this ever happening again, at least on the scale it happened in Ireland.

Changes like ending priestly celibacy, ordaining women, confining close contact with children to married clergy, relaxing church rules on contraception, on sex before marriage, on people who are gay and on many other things.

Also helpful would be a school system in Ireland that is multi-denominational and co-educational rather than single religion and single sex. And of particular help would be an immediate decision by the church to refuse to ordain any young man who went straight from a single sex school into a seminary and had little or no contact with women or the world outside.

I could go on. As I have said before in this column, you don't have to be a psychologist to understand that a system that sent young boys from all male schools into all male seminaries was a recipe for arrested sexual development.

Repressed or arrested sexuality will always find a way out, and it is the release of that which put so many children in Ireland at risk from so many priests and religious who were incapable of a mature sexual relationship.

So what has the Pope to say about these things? Nothing, of course, because that would mean questioning the fundamentally negative attitude of Catholicism to sex.

And it goes way back. Remember that this is a religion which finds sex so questionable that the Immaculate Conception had to be dreamed up to explain how Mary had become pregnant with Jesus!

So in his letter the Pope had nothing to say about married priests, about celibacy, about ordaining women or any of the other things that might actually result in a clergy people can trust. He had no suggestions of changes in church teaching which might encourage a mature, responsible enjoyment of sex between consenting adults.

Instead he continues with a regime of repression and guilt. He prefers a church which is so uptight about sex that it produces twisted, fumbling abusers.

That is the broad context in which this Pope's message should be read. But even within a narrow context that accepts the current Catholic status quo, the Pope's letter to Ireland is so poor it's embarrassing.

For example, he presents the crisis over sex abuse as a problem not just for the Irish clergy but for everyone, as though everyone somehow shares in the blame. In the letter he even suggests it's a problem that's bigger than Ireland and the Catholic Church, further spreading the blame.

"It is true, as many in your country have pointed out, that the problem of child abuse is peculiar neither to Ireland nor to the church. Nevertheless, the task you now face is to address the problem of abuse that has occurred within the Irish Catholic community, and to do so with courage and determination,” the Pope wrote.

So it's a problem for "the Irish Catholic community," not just the clergy who ran the rotten system here.

The letter has a lot of flattery about the historic role of the Irish missionaries over the centuries, and a hope that the great days of the Irish Catholic Church can be restored. And there is a constant refrain that prayer and devotion can fix everything.

The Pope praises the way we stood up to years of persecution and the strength of traditional Catholicism in Ireland. And that brings another shoal of red herrings.

"In recent decades, however, the church in your country has had to confront new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularization," he says, adding that "fast-paced social change” has been “often adversely affecting people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values.

“All too often, the sacramental and devotional practices that sustain faith and enable it to grow, such as frequent Confession, daily prayer and annual retreats, were neglected . . . the program of renewal proposed by the Second Vatican Council was sometimes misinterpreted and indeed, in the light of the profound social changes that were taking place, it was far from easy to know how best to implement it. In particular, there was a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations."

Er, hello? What he seems to be suggesting there is that it's our fault for becoming too materialistic and not being good enough Catholics. And Vatican 2 didn't help either, it seems.

And on and on it goes with the waffle, when he could be talking about real change. To the abuse victims, the Pope says he is "truly sorry" and that what happened to them is "sinful and criminal." But all he really suggests is healing through more prayer.

To the Irish bishops he says, "It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse . . . grave errors of judgment were made and failures of leadership occurred."

That's a serious rap on the knuckles, but there's no real follow-up. And the reference to canon law is worrying. The Pope doesn't come right out and say they should have gone to the police instead of covering up the abusing priests.

What the Pope does tell the bishops is that “in addressing cases of child abuse, continue to cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence.”

Notice that word "continue," which sort of suggests that this has been happening for ages. And also notice the reference to "competence," which seems to suggest that the bishops can decide which cases of child abuse the “civil authorities” are competent to deal with.

On and on this waffling and hair-splitting goes, and still there is nothing you could call a real breakthrough to respond to the situation. The Pope fails to ask any of the bishops, especially our compromised Cardinal Sean Brady, to resign.

To the Irish clergy in general he says, "I urge you to examine your conscience, take responsibility for the sins you have committed, and humbly express your sorrow."

That "take responsibility" phrase could be taken as a call for resignations, but if that's what he means, why not say so?

When it comes to what he calls "concrete initiatives to address the situation," the Pope calls for more intense prayers, Lenten devotions, Eucharistic adoration and so on. He says he is "confident that this program will lead to a rebirth of the church in Ireland."

Well he may be, but I think most ordinary Catholics, as opposed to the daily Mass goers, want something much more concrete.

The Pope also says in the letter there is to be an "Apostolic visitation" (a formal process whereby the Pope sends outside church investigators) to some places in Ireland where the worst abuse was going on -- dioceses, seminaries and religious orders. But that's not going to impress anyone here if they're more clergy.

As I was saying here last week, there is one big problem for the Pope in all of this. At the beginning of his message he says that he decided to write the letter to Ireland because of the "gravity of these offenses, and the often inadequate response to them on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities in your country.”

But it's not just a problem for the Irish bishops. It's a problem for him, as well.

Under an edict from the Vatican in 2001, which was mainly the work of the present Pope who was then Cardinal Ratzinger, all bishops were ordered to report cases of clerical child abuse to the Vatican authorities instead of police in their own countries. Such cases were to be handled under canon law and kept secret, as they always had been.

Which is exactly what the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, had done back in 1975 when he handled cases of clerical child abuse under canon law and did not report them to the police.

People now say Brady must resign because of the cover-up. But if Brady goes, surely the Pope must resign as well?

In recent weeks we have learned about dozens of abuse cases in Germany which happened during the time he was Archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982, and there were cover-ups and priests were moved around there as well.

For all those reasons, the Pope's letter was greeted here with indifference, disdain and contempt. Too little, too late.

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