The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Pope decries 'sins' of priests

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 3/22/2002

Pope John Paul II, responding for the first time to the ''grave scandal'' of clergy sexual abuse that is roiling the Catholic Church in America, yesterday decried ''the sins of some of our brothers'' in his annual letter to the world's priests.

His comments, although general and brief, were welcomed as a first step by theologians and victims' advocates who have been looking for evidence that the Vatican is treating the crisis seriously.

But some wished the pope had gone further. The statement did not use the phrase ''clergy sexual abuse'' or ''pedophilia,'' and offered no specific criticism of the church's handling of the issue.

''As priests, we are personally and profoundly afflicted by the sins of some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination in succumbing even to the most grievous forms of the [mystery of evil] at work in the world,'' the pope wrote in his annual pre-Easter letter to priests. ''Grave scandal is caused, with the result that a dark shadow of suspicion is cast over all the other fine priests who perform their ministry with honesty and integrity and often with heroic self-sacrifice.''

The pope has spoken out on clergy sexual abuse several times since 1993, when he first denounced ''suffering and scandal caused by the sins of some ministers of the altar'' in a speech during World Youth Day in Denver. But yesterday's letter marked the first comments on the issue by the pope since January, when a Globe Spotlight Team report on the Archdiocese of Boston's handling of a pedophile priest, John J. Geoghan, sparked a national crisis for the church. ''The Holy Father clearly understands that this is a tremendous moment of crisis for the church in America, and he wants to put that crisis in its proper context,'' said the pope's American biographer, George Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. ''He accurately described this as a matter of sin, as a matter of wickedness, and as a terrible violation of solemn vows that damages everyone.''

The Vatican has been reluctant to talk about the crisis in the United States. The pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, has repeatedly refused to talk about the situation in Boston, and to date his only comment has been to suggest that seminaries need to rethink the admission of gay candidates for the priesthood.

In Rome yesterday, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos of Colombia, who heads the Congregation for the Clergy, said the pope is ''supportive'' of bishops and priests in dioceses shaken by the scandal. At a news conference about the pope's letter, Castrillon Hoyos declined to answer questions about clergy sexual abuse, but assertedthat ''The church has never neglected the problem of sexual abuse.''

Victims advocates had mixed reactions, praising the pope's comments but saying they wished he had gone further.

''Abuse thrives in secrecy, so it's always good whenever it's publicly discussed,'' said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. ''But the survivors I've spoken with today are, by and large, disappointed, feeling that the focus seems to be on the handful of bad apples, and not on the leaders. He doesn't even call the problem by its proper name.''

Said Boston lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, who has represented more than 200 people who say they were victims of sexual abuse by priests, ''Just for the pope to acknowledge that a problem exists is a step in the right direction.''

Even some church scholars said the pope has failed to acknowledge the scope of the problem in the United States. ''But what's most striking to me is the brevity of the statement, the delay from the Vatican in addressing the full extent of the crisis,'' said R. Scott Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. ''That makes me wonder how fully aware the Vatican is of the deeper, underlying elements of the current crisis.

''This story is about sexual abuse, but even more so it's about the anger and disappointment of lay Catholics and priests and some bishops over the way the scandal was mismanaged, and it's about the laity not wanting to give the bishops a break on this because they see it as part of a pattern of church governance that is elitist and illiberal, opaque and unaccountable.''

Stephen J. Pope, the chairman of Boston College's theology department, was also critical, saying that ''insufficient attention is given to the terrible suffering of the victims of pedophilia and their loved ones'' and that ''emphasis on personal sins makes it a moral issue and of individual moral failings. It does not recognize the problem as one of pathology. Neither does it acknowledge that the crisis is related to wider institutional issues.''

Michael P. Riccards, the president of Fitchburg State College and author of ''Vicars of Christ: Popes, Power, and Politics in the Modern World,'' said, ''The pope is acknowledging that he's got a terrible problem, but I don't think he's gone any farther than that. They didn't understand the magnitude of the sexual problem they were dealing with, and the church, for whatever reason, really engaged in a systematic cover-up of the problems. I think they've confused the two issues.''

But Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston welcomed the statement, saying, ''I am most grateful to the Holy Father ... for the sensitive and helpful way he addresses the situation that has so absorbed us.''

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops referred reporters' inquiries to the Rev. C. John McCloskey, director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington.

''The pope's words hit the perfect tone ... pointing out the mystery of evil, that this is something which has caused great damage to people who are victims, but on the other hand praising the great majority of priests who are faithful, wonderful men,'' McCloskey said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/22/2002.
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