Church’s song of sorrow has evolved and deepened

In Dublin today, O’Malley to lead rite for abused

Cardinal Sean O’Malley is in Ireland assessing the Archdiocese of Dublin’s response to sexual abuse. Cardinal Sean O’Malley is in Ireland assessing the Archdiocese of Dublin’s response to sexual abuse. (Associated Press File 2005)
By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / February 20, 2011

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A few days after the sexual abuse crisis exploded in the Archdiocese of Boston in January 2002, Cardinal Bernard F. Law read a statement of apology to journalists.

“Judgments were made,’’ he said, “regarding the assignment of John Geoghan which, in retrospect, were tragically incorrect.’’

As an expression of remorse, his remarks that day won mixed reviews, and ultimately Law’s many attempts at penitence were not enough — he resigned before the year was out.

Today in Dublin, nine years and an ocean away, Law’s successor will offer a far more elaborate expression of remorse for clerical crimes against children. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, who is in Ireland conducting a Vatican-commissioned assessment of the Archdiocese of Dublin’s response to sexual abuse, will help preside over a “service of lament and repentance,’’ written partly by abuse victims, at which he plans to wash the feet of survivors.

The Catholic Church has had a great deal of practice in the art of apology as the sexual abuse crisis has spread to dioceses around the globe, imperiling the church’s moral authority and institutional strength. Church leaders, in fits and starts, have learned to apologize more directly, with greater emotion and a deeper understanding of the wide circle of people the crisis has affected.

“When it first came out, the church was very defensive — ‘This is just a few rotten apples,’ ’’ said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. Over time, he said, many church leaders have gained “a much better understanding of the situation, so they’ve done a better job.’’

An April 2002 letter from Cardinal Edward M. Egan, then archbishop of New York, read aloud at Masses throughout Egan’s archdiocese, epitomized the strained, legalistic pronouncements that prevailed at the outset of the crisis.

“If in hindsight we also discover that mistakes may have been made as regards prompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeply sorry,’’ he said.

Seven years later, Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin might as well have been speaking a different language when he apologized following the release of the devastating Murphy Report on sexual abuse by Dublin priests.

“As Archbishop of Dublin and as Diarmuid Martin, I offer to each and every survivor my apology, my sorrow, and my shame for what happened to them,’’ he said. “I am aware, however, that no words of apology will ever be sufficient.’’

The trajectory from Egan’s tortured conditionals to Martin’s plain-spoken lament, however, has not been a steady one. And in recent years, even some of the church’s strongest apologies have fallen flat; the more the church says it’s sorry, the less impressed the public seems to be.

“As difficult as it is, sometimes, for church leaders to apologize, in some ways that’s the easiest thing they’re ever going to do in the sexual abuse crisis,’’ said John L. Allen Jr., a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

“Obviously, people want to hear it, but then once they’ve heard it, the words themselves are no longer enough,’’ he said. “They want those words to be matched by action. And then they get into a debate about whether the church’s actions have been enough.’’

Law learned this through painful experience. As the extent of his responsibility for the crisis became clearer, he kept apologizing in plainer and plainer terms.

“I did assign priests who had committed sexual abuse,’’ he said in November 2002, standing before the altar at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, his voice cracking with emotion. “The forgiving love of God gives me the courage to beg forgiveness of those who have suffered because of what I did.’’

But by then, his credibility was in tatters, and his compassion and promises of change fell on deaf ears. Weeks later, he stepped down.

Yet apologies will always have a critical role to play in society, and in the Catholic Church. Academics who study apologies say they are an indispensable human interaction, vital to healing fractured relationships. For the church, apology is embedded in the sacrament of confession, in which the sinner’s acknowledgment of sin and repentance for wrongdoing can help bring forgiveness and purification.

Pope John Paul II was especially enthusiastic about the possibilities apology offered; he famously apologized for scores of wrongs done by the church over the ages.

In the spring of 2002, he made the first significant attempt at a papal apology for clergy sexual abuse of minors, declaring in a message to US cardinals that sexual abuse was “an appalling sin in the eyes of God.’’

“To the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern,’’ the pope said.

But the real work of papal apology for the sexual abuse crisis has fallen to John Paul’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI. Allen said Benedict’s apologies for clergy sexual abuse have become “a standard element of his public rhetoric,’’ usually incorporating at least four components: Saying he is sorry, expressing compassion for victims, promising to cooperate with secular authorities, and vowing to prevent abuse in the future.

“I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering the victims have endured,’’ Benedict said at a Mass during a worldwide gathering of Catholic youth in Sydney in 2008. “I assure them as their pastor that I too share in their suffering.’’ He added that those responsible for these “evils must be brought to justice.’’

But Benedict’s own aides have sometimes undercut his message, Allen noted. On Good Friday last year, for example, a senior Vatican priest compared criticism of the church for the sexual abuse crisis with anti-Semitism.

And some critics are angry that Benedict has never fully addressed his own role in the sexual abuse crisis, both as the former head of the Vatican department that dealt with abuse allegations and, before that, as a German bishop.

The pope’s expressions of concern about the abuse crisis in Ireland have sometimes highlighted the ongoing tensions between the church hierarchy and the laity, and the chasm between Vatican culture and contemporary society. In his letter to the Catholics of Ireland, issued last Easter, he promised to send high-ranking prelates — including O’Malley — to investigate the church of Ireland and help bring about its “renewal.’’

“You have suffered grievously, and I am truly sorry,’’ Benedict wrote in the section addressed to victims. “. . . Your trust has been betrayed, and your dignity has been violated.’’

But many Irish Catholics found the letter disappointing. Some criticized the pope for blaming the Irish bishops but not Vatican policy; others ridiculed Benedict’s implication that the secularization of society created a context for abuse to flourish. Still others were taken aback by Benedict’s recommendation that Irish Catholics spend the year praying for the church’s revival.

“There was a tone of expectation that people would come back to the church that I think people thought was extremely premature,’’ said Colleen D. Brown, program coordinator at Journey Towards Healing, which trains faith leaders in trauma awareness in Northern Ireland and Ireland. “It was felt to be an indication that clearly the extent and long-term impact of the damage were not yet understood.’’

As O’Malley now tries to assist the Catholic Church in Ireland, he is drawing on substantial experience with abuse scandals in the United States. He is often hailed as one of the church prelates most adept at managing abuse crises because he has led three dioceses racked by scandal; in those posts, he has used verbal apologies, liturgical rituals, and a variey of other actions, from settling lawsuits to changing policies, in an effort to heal wounds and prevent future abuse.

In 2006, he led a series of Novena services in nine Boston-area parishes with painful histories of abuse, beginning with a service at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in which O’Malley and 22 priests prostrated themselves in a gesture of humility and repentance after a victim of clergy abuse spoke of his suffering.

And in 2008, he arranged a meeting between abuse survivors from Boston and Benedict, at which he presented the pope with a hand-lettered book listing the first names of 1,476 abuse victims.

O’Malley nonetheless has his own critics as well, who argue that his skillful use of symbolism and language overshadow insufficient action in some areas. For example, victim advocates are unhappy that the Boston Archdiocese has not published a promised list of credibly accused priests.

In Dublin, the success of O’Malley’s mission will be likely to depend far more on his recommendations to the pope — and how Benedict responds to those recommendations — than on his eloquence at today’s service in St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral.

And yet, O’Malley seems to have long understood that the time to apologize is not over, and that it may not be for years to come.

“I have said it many times, and I’m going to say it again for the victims today, as much as I can represent the church as a bishop, then I do ask for forgiveness for these horrendous sins and crimes that have been committed,’’ O’Malley said at his first news conference in Boston in July 2003, the day the Vatican announced he would become the archbishop. “The whole church feels ashamed and pained, and I do ask for forgiveness again and again.’’

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at