PARIS (Reuters) - Pope Benedict’s apology to Ireland went further than any other papal statement on child sex abuse by priests, but still fell far too short for many victims of the scandals shaking the Roman Catholic Church across Europe.
Contrasting it with the past, bishops in several countries praised the letter as courageous for condemning abusive clerics. Victims measured it against what they hope to see in future — sanctions for bishops they say helped hush up the problem.
The gap separating these views is the arena for the bitter public fight over clerical child abuse. Every new revelation gives the victims fresh ammunition and puts more pressure on the Church to undertake painful reforms it clearly wants to avoid.
“They still don’t see this isn’t just about individual cases, but about an overall structural problem (in the Church),” said Christian Weisner of the German lay movement We Are Church. “This letter still does not amount to a big breakthrough.”
What the critics want is transparency and accountability, from full disclose of abuse to removal of complicit bishops.
Benedict’s letter partly met their demands, expressing “shame and remorse” for the “sinful and criminal acts” Irish victims suffered. He stressed bishops could not hide abuse cases from police and ordered an inquiry into some Irish dioceses.
Beyond that, he made no mention of scandals shaking Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands nor hinted any bishops had to step down for leadership failures he sharply criticized.
“There is nothing in this letter to suggest that any new vision of leadership in the Catholic Church exists,” said Maeve Lewis of the Irish victims’ group One in Four.
Several European prelates seemed to indirectly confirm the Church had a structural problem by describing the pope’s letter to Ireland as a warning to them and their churches as well.
“The sexual abuse scandal is not just an Irish problem. It’s a Church scandal in many places and it is a Church scandal in Germany,” Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, head of the German Bishops’ Conference, told journalists on Saturday.
But he shied away from blaming this on a culture of secrecy among clerics concerned to hush up scandals, as victims do.
Zollitsch’s meeting with journalists was especially awkward because he had to confirm reports he had failed to turn in an abuse suspect in the early 1990s. “I should have been more forceful in searching for witnesses and victims,” he said.
Cardinal Sean Brady, the Irish primate, has heard bitter calls for his resignation after admitting he had two victims sign a secrecy agreement in 1975 while he was assistant to a bishop dealing with a notorious abuser, Rev Brendan Smyth.
Scathing Irish commentators have accused him of using “the Nuremberg defense” — a reference to Nazi war criminals who claimed they were only following orders — or being “a man of the cloth now recast as little more than a pen-pushing jobsworth.”
One Irish bishop has resigned after being accused in an official report of covering up abuse cases. Three others cited there have handed in resignation letters but the Vatican has not accepted them, while a fifth has refused to offer to step down.
Some commentators have speculated that Benedict could not retire bishops who covered up abuse cases because his own stint as Munich archbishop from 1977 to 1982 was marred by the case of a reassigned predator priest who often worked with youths.
Church officials say the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had no part in that reassignment. In any case, Benedict is such a traditional churchman that his letter would probably not have been different even without the tenuous link to Munich.
But by avoiding bolder measures, the letter has left the defensive Church vulnerable to further buffeting from scandals that have not yet come to light but will.
“If a company had crisis management like this and was just as shy about replacing its managers, it would go broke,” the Vienna daily Die Presse commented.
Editing by Myra MacDonald