February 28, 2004
January 9, 2004
The Pope's response
The pope issued his letter a week before Holy Thursday, when Catholics commemorate the last meal shared by Jesus with his apostles, who tradition holds became the first priests and bishops. "How marvelous is this vocation of ours, my dear brother priests!" the pope wrote. The institution of the priesthood has become tarnished in the United States, where it is difficult to read the pope's letter without refracting it through the lens of the current scandal.
"From that time on," the pope wrote in reference to the Last Supper, "to be an apostle of Christ, as are the bishops and the priests sharing in their mission, has involved being able to act in persona Christi Capitis" -- in the person of Christ as head. Too many trusted priests have abused that authority to deceive parents and ingratiate themselves with children.
Most of the pope's letter was devoted to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, often called Confession. "Its appeal is enhanced by the need for personal contact. . . . It does so by bringing the penitent into contact with the merciful heart of God through the friendly face of a brother." To anguished American Catholics, the pope's innocuous words have a painful double meaning.
The one section that referred to the scandal did so indirectly. "At this time, too, as priests we are personally and profoundly affected 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 mysterium iniquitatis" -- the mystery of evil -- "at work in the world," the pope wrote. He went on for three more sentences, but there were no recommendations for removing "a dark shadow of suspicion" over the priesthood.
The Vatican may yet produce specific policy directives. In the meantime, the scandal is resonating even in US dioceses where abuse is not an obvious problem. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, in his newspaper column this week, reaffirmed the tough policy he promulgated in 1991 "to act on allegations quickly, thoroughly, and fairly."
In an attempt to restore confidence, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops will address the issue at its annual meeting in June. The bishops will be acting on recommendations yet to be unveiled by a special committee. These need to be tough, fair, and unambiguous and should be adopted throughout the country so that Americans are reassured that every diocese is committed to bringing abusers to justice and preventing more children from being victimized.
"As ministers of the Eucharist and sacramental reconciliation," the pope wrote, "we in particular have the task of communicating hope, goodness, and peace to the world." In the United States, Catholic priests will be distracted from these essential tasks until the bishops put this scandal behind them.
This story ran on page A18 of the Boston Globe on 3/22/2002.