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A penitent church

Will the Vatican finally stop denying the severity of the sexual abuse scandals? Will it be less defensive when new details emerge about the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s efforts to shield offenders? Both possibilities are suggested by a remarkable statement last week from Pope Benedict XVI and by some actions that speak as loudly as his words.

For months, Vatican officials have responded to scandals in Germany — one of which occurred in Munich when the pope was still the archbishop there — as well as in Ireland and other parts of Europe by attacking the church’s critics and attempting to shift blame. On Good Friday, for instance, the pope’s personal preacher compared criticism of the pope and the church to the “collective violence” inflicted on Jews. The dean of the College of Cardinals — who has been accused by a fellow cardinal of blocking an investigation into an abusive Austrian prelate — said at an Easter Mass that the church would not be intimidated by “petty gossip.” Then there was the Vatican secretary of state, who blamed the scandal on homosexuality.

Benedict himself, in a letter to the scandal-scarred Irish church several months ago, complained that psychologists gave bishops “conflicting expert advice” about whether pedophiles could be reformed, and he endorsed the theory, popular with Catholic conservatives in the United States, that abuse by priests had something to do with the liberalization of the church that followed the Second Vatican Council.

Last week, however, the pope sounded a dramatically different note. He told reporters accompanying him on a pilgrimage to Portugal, “The greatest persecution of the church doesn’t come from enemies on the outside but is born from the sins within the church.” He added, “The church needs to profoundly relearn penitence, accept purification, learn forgiveness but also justice.”

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His words have been matched by actions. The Vatican has taken control of the Legion of Christ, an ultraconservative Mexico-based order whose late founder exploited his Vatican connections to escape punishment for molesting seminarians. It also has issued guidelines that for the first time explicitly say that church officials should report instances of sexual abuse to the police. That policy has been in force in the American church for the last eight years.

The pope’s acknowledgment that the church has sinned more than it has been sinned against can’t exorcise its past failures, for which victims continue to seek justice — including a lawsuit filed in this country against the Vatican itself. But it is important nonetheless if it signals what in Catholic theology is called the “firm purpose of amendment” that must accompany a confession of sin.


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