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Editorial: A heartfelt confession in Portland

“What I do this evening is to call sin sin.”

There is no mystery why those words stand out in the text of Bishop Joseph J. Gerry’s recent apology to victims of sex abuse by some of the priests of the Portland, Maine, diocese.

“Some of our priests have abused minors, and that is wrong,” said Gerry, during an April 20 service of healing and reconciliation.

The sex abuse scandal has been an ugly and destructive chapter in church history made worse by the lack of candid response and openness on the part of church authorities. Gerry’s plain plea for forgiveness honors the deepest and best instincts of our sacramental tradition.

The words are clear, uncluttered and unqualified. They have the sound of a heartfelt confession of sin, not a lawyer-scripted sound-byte for public relations purposes.

In fact, Gerry had, the week before, issued a letter of apology for sexual abuse of minors by some priests in the diocese as mandated by a court settlement with a victim.

The special healing and reconciliation service at Portland’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, however, was not required by the settlement.

In his talk at the cathedral, Gerry spoke with the directness and remorse that has so often been missing from the church’s dealings with victims of clergy sex abuse. He seemed to deliberately clear away the obfuscations that too often accompany the limited conversation that occurs in the church over the issue.

“We do not come before the Lord this night to attempt to rationalize our guilt away or to blame present societal trends,” Gerry said. “We come to lay before the Lord honestly and sincerely what we know to have been a grave disorder, a serious abuse of trust and the cause of an indelible scar on the victims.”

Enough is enough, some might say. It is time to get beyond this scandal; no use dwelling on the negative.

But Gerry not only sees the need to revisit past failures but also to refer to the service at the cathedral as “a single small step in order to make public reparation to the victims of sexual abuse by priests for the harm they have suffered.”

A central point he made is that, “Saying this publicly is not saying something new, but it is saying it for everyone to hear. At the same time,” he continued, “by saying it so publicly, if, God forbid, it should ever happen in the future, no one upon hearing it should ever begin by denying the possibility of such a thing occurring, but should bring the matter to the attention of those in authority and make sure adequate steps are taken immediately.”

Gerry’s actions represent, we dare say, more than a small step in the right direction.

“I cannot bring you any great consolation,” he told the more than 200 attending the service. “As much as I’d like, I cannot wave a wand and have it all disappear.”

Some of your peers, bishop, have tried to act as if some magic could make the pain disappear. You did better than that. You made a humble and honest public acknowledgment of the pain that victims have suffered, and you asked forgiveness.

National Catholic Reporter, May 15, 1998