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Pope calls sex abuse by priests ‘Source of deep sadness and shame’


For the third time since the present sex abuse scandals broke in the U.S. Catholic church, and for the second time before an audience of youth in North America, Pope John Paul II has deplored sexual abuse of the young by priests.

At the same time, the pope called July 28 for Catholics to remember “the vast majority of dedicated and generous priests and religious whose only wish is to serve and do good.”

The pope’s comments came during the concluding Mass of the July 23-28 World Youth Day festival, held at Toronto’s Downsview Park. The Mass, held amid a driving rain and windstorm, drew an estimated 500,000-800,000 people, predominantly teenagers and young adults. It was carried live on television in Canada, the United States and Europe.

“If you love Jesus, love the church,” the pope urged the young people, some 600,000 of whom had slept overnight in cold, wet and muddy conditions waiting for the Mass. “Do not be discouraged by the sins and failings of some of her members.”

“The harm done by some priests and religious to the young and vulnerable fills us all with a deep sense of sadness and shame,” the pope said.

John Paul paused, then added the line about remembering the “vast majority” of priests not implicated in the sex scandals. As he boomed out the “but,” signaling a shift from contrition to defense of the church, a chorus of applause rose from the crowd.

The response mirrored attitudes on display all week. The young Catholics gathered in Toronto, largely drawn from the ranks of the most traditional Catholic families, seemed enthusiastic about calls to be proud of their faith and to support their clergy.

“There are many priests, seminarians and consecrated persons here today,” the pope said. “Be close to them and support them.”

The pope’s first comments after the American stories began to appear in January came at the end of John Paul’s annual Holy Thursday letter to priests, released March 21, and dedicated to the sacrament of reconciliation.

“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 mysterium inquitatis (“mystery of evil”) at work in the world,” the pope wrote.

“Grave scandal is caused, with the result that a dark shadow is cast over all the other fine priests who perform their ministry with honesty and integrity and often with heroic self-sacrifice.”

“As the church shows her concern for the victims and strives to respond in truth and justice to each of these painful situations, all of us … are called to commit ourselves more fully to the search for holiness.”

John Paul addressed the issue again on April 23, on the first day of a summit involving all the American cardinals and an high-profile group of Vatican officials.

“People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young,” he said. The pope also said that society rightly considers sexual abuse a crime.

At the same time, however, the pope also urged the bishops not to forget “the power of Christian conversion.”

Ironically, the last time John Paul II visited North America for a World Youth Day, he also addressed the issue of sexual abuse. In August 1993, before a crowd of 18,000 in Denver’s McNichols arena, the pope condemned the “suffering and scandal caused by the sins of some ministers of the altar.”

As they have in the past when the pope has spoken on the subject, advocates for the victims of sexual abuse criticized the pope’s comments as inadequate.

David Gagnon, director for a network of abuse victims in Canada, said he wished the pope had instructed the bishops to treat victims with compassion. Gagnon had requested a meeting with the pope but said he received no response.

“He talked more about good priests than the pain of the issue,” Gagnon said. “He chose to minimize the crisis and affirm the priesthood, which to survivors is a very disturbing thing.”

David Clohessy, U.S. director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said the pope should have said he was sorry.

“A few words of apology from someone of his stature could help perhaps hundreds of people to feel some sense of healing,” he said.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Vatican correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org.

National Catholic Reporter, August 16, 2002