There are aspects of Pope Benedict XVI’s pastoral letter that we warmly welcome – especially the recognition that a ‘new vision is needed, to inspire present and future generations’ in Ireland. The letter will hopefully now precipitate a long-delayed conversation among Irish Catholics – priests, bishops and people together – out of which, with God’s help, such a new vision will emerge.
We welcome the papal recognition of the insights that survivors of abuse bring to the church and hope that this will inaugurate an intensive period of listening to them and their families. We welcome his severe confrontation of those who perpetrated abuse. We welcome also the direction now given to church leaders to cooperate with civil authority, and the call for spiritual renewal.
However, the letter’s analysis of the causes of the disaster we have suffered is weakened by a failure to recognise a basic structural problem in the church. Secularism is blamed for a weakening of faith in Ireland, but there is no acknowledgement that it was secular agencies such as the media, the police, the civil courts and the state that uncovered a problem kept hidden by the church’s own systems of governance. There is no recognition in the pastoral that the concentration of powers exercised by bishops led to a conflict of responsibilities, to a culture of secrecy and in too many cases to an unjust and intimidatory response to victims which compounded their sufferings.
As it was these secular processes which created the circumstances that led to the Murphy report – and to this pastoral letter to Ireland – we find it remarkable that the letter makes no reference to this, and sees no serious problem with structures of church governance that did not make church leaders accountable for their actions, or for their failures to act, until secular agencies stepped in.
Changes are needed to canon law to bring about openness and accountability in the governance of the church, ridding us finally of the culture of deference and secrecy that has caused us so much disgrace, distrust and pain. We regret that the pastoral has missed an opportunity to acknowledge this need, but hope that greater transparency and accountability will nevertheless come about as the church continues to learn.
Knowing that it is part of a long-term process of renewal, we believe that aspects of this pastoral letter will help that process reach fruition. We too ‘believe deeply in the healing power of [Christ’s] self-sacrificing love – even in the darkest and most hopeless situations – to bring liberation and the promise of a new beginning’.