Papal letter is just a start
CRITICS of the Pope's pastoral letter to Irish Catholics have made many valid points about what they see as its inadequacies. But there are at least two positive sides to the event: its unique nature, and the graciousness and humility of Benedict XVI's apology to victims of clerical sex abuse.
These are matched by the strong terms in which he denounces the failings of the Irish bishops. After all those decades of cover-up and equivocation, they fully deserve his harsh words. And there are, at least potentially, practical implications of an encouraging kind.
The recent Rome meeting between Pope Benedict and the bishops disappointed most Irish Catholics. It appeared Archbishop Diarmuid Martin had been sidelined and the Pope had failed to endorse the firm actions he had taken against those involved in the "culture of concealment". Presumably the archbishop can take it that he now enjoys the support of the Vatican.
But while that is a good sign for the future, there are many aspects of the letter which must give rise to deep concern and raise a central question -- whether the Pope himself fully understands the most painful issues.
In all frankness, it would appear otherwise. What can one make of the opinion that secularisation contributed to clerical sex abuse? Some of the most grievous crimes were committed before secularisation even began. It is the errant priests and bishops who have driven people away from the Church.
The Pope's reference to implementing the church guidelines, and continuing to co-operate with the civil authorities, is puzzling. It throws no light on an overwhelmingly important issue, the systematic concealment of serious crimes from the police.
And not only the Irish police. The practice, approved by the Vatican, occurred all over the world. On this very point, Benedict himself has been criticised in his native Germany.
These facts in no way exculpate or diminish faults in the Irish church or in Irish politics and civil society. But they do raise questions about the decision to hold a Vatican inspection of (unnamed) dioceses, orders and seminaries in Ireland.
It would be tragic if that were seen as an alternative to government-led inquiries. It would give ammunition to those who doubt the document's sincerity. The doubt is unworthy, but the document certainly is fallible. The Pope has nobly repented. He has not committed himself to real reform.