Action must back up words on sex abuse

“For covering up crimes of abuse, and by so doing actually causing the sexual abuse of more children ... we ask God’s forgiveness. The archdiocese of Dublin will never be the same again. It will always bear this wound within it.”

Those were the words of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland, and it is not overstating the matter to say that with those words, not to mention the dramatic washing of the feet of several victims, he provided the church worldwide with the most uncomplicated, unqualified confession we’ve yet heard from a member of the hierarchy. (See story.)

Martin, appointed to Dublin in 2004, has consistently represented a refreshingly honest assessment of church leaders’ culpability in the sex abuse crisis that has all but undermined the church in once solidly Catholic Ireland. We have commented on these pages previously about how different Martin is in tone and perception, when speaking about the scandal, from the defensive posturing and excuses we’ve become accustomed to in the United States.

Remember it was Cardinal Bernard Law who once thundered: “We call down God’s power on the media” after a spate of embarrassing stories appeared revealing the depth of abuse and cover up in the Boston archdiocese.

He would also offer a tepid acknowledgment of the church’s role: “Judgments were made ... which, in retrospect, were tragically incorrect.”

And Cardinal Edward Egan, then head of the New York archdiocese, said in a letter to his flock: “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.”

The distance between the “if” and “sorry” was proportionate to the level of skepticism that many felt about the sincerity of his remorse. More than sincerity is at stake, however. What remains in the balance is the integrity of our sacramental life and what it means to be truly sorry. It doesn’t take a theologian to detect the difference between defensive and guarded statements offered under heavy public pressure, and the unrestrained acknowledgment that the hierarchy covered up crimes “and by so doing actually caused the sexual abuse of more children.”

The Catholic community in the United States is still waiting for some member of the hierarchy to so clearly state the bishops’ culpability in covering up, and thus extending, the sexual abuse of minors by priests.

If Martin’s words ring with authenticity, we await the actions to back them up. He has repeatedly asserted the need for reform in the wake of the scandal. Just what he means by reform is yet to be articulated in any detail. Regaining the people’s trust will take time and more than words, though Martin’s words are a good start.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here