Pope Apologizes for Damage From Sexual Abuse by Clergy


Pope John Paul II offered an apology Thursday for sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy, saying it has caused the victims “great suffering and spiritual harm” and has damaged the church.

The pontiff tucked his one-paragraph apology into a 120-page message to Catholics in Oceania on a wide range of issues raised by their bishops in 1998. Meeting at the Vatican, the bishops had condemned sexual abuse within the church and in society as a whole.

John Paul’s message, said by the Vatican to be the first personally sent by a pope over the Internet, also followed a series of articles by the National Catholic Reporter quoting internal Vatican reports about sexual abuse of nuns and other women by priests and bishops.


According to reports cited by the U.S.-based weekly last spring, some priests and missionaries forced nuns to have sex with them and, in several instances, committed rape and obliged the victims to have abortions. The reports covered cases in 23 countries, including the United States, the Philippines, Ireland and Papua New Guinea.

The Vatican, in response to the articles, acknowledged that the problem existed and said an investigation was underway.

Thursday’s papal message to Catholics in Australia, New Zealand and far-flung South Pacific islands went much further.

“In certain parts of Oceania,” John Paul said, “sexual abuse by some clergy and religious has caused great suffering and spiritual harm to the victims. It has been very damaging in the life of the church.

“Sexual abuse within the church is a profound contradiction of the teaching and witness of Jesus Christ,” the pope said, adding that the church wishes to “apologize unreservedly to the victims for the pain and disillusionment caused to them.”

The church, he said, is seeking “open and just procedures to respond to complaints in this area” and is committed to “compassionate and effective care for the victims, their families, the whole community, and the offenders themselves.”


John Paul’s promise of “open and just procedures” also answered a demand raised at the Vatican last month by Sister Mary Sujita Kallupurakkathu, superior general of the Sisters of Notre Dame in India.

During a worldwide synod of bishops, she called for a forum to deal with what she called the “increasing exploitation and abuses” of nuns in India.

The bishops of Oceania had expected John Paul to travel to the island of New Caledonia this fall. Their 1998 meeting at the Vatican had been one of five regional synods held in recent years to help the pope identify Catholic priorities for the new millennium, and John Paul had visited each of the other four regions to deliver his conclusions in person.

But the 81-year-old pontiff’s declining health weighed against a long journey to the South Pacific, and he decided instead to address his audience over the Internet. Sitting at his laptop computer in the frescoed Clementine Hall, he dispatched the message in English and French.

The message also apologized for the forced evangelization of aborigines, who the pope said were subjected to “shameful injustices” by Catholic clergy, including the separation of children from their families. That passage and the one on sexual abuse were the latest in a growing list of soul-searching apologies by the pope for the sins of his 1-billion-member flock.

Some critics of sexual misconduct in the church say apology is not enough. Last July about 150 Catholics demonstrated at the Vatican’s mission to the United Nations in New York, demanding independent investigations of sexual abuse by priests, punishment of the guilty and reparations to victimized nuns.


The Vatican has ordered a working group to study complaints of sexual abuse detailed in a 1995 internal report by Sister Maura O’Donohue, a nun and physician. Among the cases she cited was one in which a priest forced a nun to have an abortion, which led to the nun’s death, then officiated at her funeral.