By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Pope Benedict XVI today offered a direct apology for the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests and religious, saying he is "deeply sorry for the pain and suffering the victims have endured," assuring them that "as their pastor, I share in their suffering."
The pope said that sexual abuse deserves “unequivocal condemnation,” pointedly acknowledging the “shame” and “great pain” caused by the recent scandals in Catholicism. Twice, the pope referred to sexual abuse as an “evil.”
In a separate context, Benedict XVI also defended the discipline of celibacy for priests and religious.
Benedict XVI made the remarks in a homily during a Mass, celebrated with the bishops of Australia, for seminarians and religious novices gathered in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. Benedict is visiting Australia in conjunction with the celebration of World Youth Day.
The pope's direct apology was a last-minute addition to his prepared text, perhaps reflecting a climate of expectation of such an apology created in the press following remarks aboard the papal plane on Tuesday, in which Benedict used the term "apologize" in previewing his message in Australia.
The pope was referring specifically to the scandals in Australia, but his remarks have a wider resonance. They build on five public references to the sexual abuse crisis from Benedict during his mid-April visit to the United States, highlighted by his unprecedented meeting with five victims.
“I would like to pause to acknowledge the shame which we have all felt as a result of the sexual abuse of minors by some clergy and religious in this country,” Benedict said today.
“These misdeeds, which constitute so grave a betrayal of trust, deserve unequivocal condemnation. They have caused great pain and have damaged the church’s witness.”
“I ask all of you to support and assist your bishops, and to work together with them in combating this evil. Victims should receive compassion and care, and those responsible for these evils must be brought to justice. It is an urgent priority to promote a safer and more wholesome environment, especially for young people.”
“I join you in praying that this time of purification will bring about healing, reconciliation and ever greater fidelity to the moral demands of the Gospel,” the pope said.
The comments are the most direct so far from Benedict on the sexual abuse crisis during this ninth foreign trip of his papacy. Like the United States, Australia has been repeatedly rocked by sexual abuse scandals since the early 1990s.
Just days before the pope touched down on Tuesday, two cases erupted anew, creating special embarrassment for the pope’s host, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney.
One concerned an adult male who was molested by a priest, and later reported the incident to then-Archbishop Pell in Melbourne. Acting on the advice of investigators, Pell decided there was insufficient evidence the conduct was not consensual, although the priest was later caught on tape admitting that he had “forced himself” upon the young man.
The other case involves two girls who had been raped by a priest, one of whom later committed suicide and the other became involved in alcohol abuse, suffered a serious hit-and-run accident, and now requires 24-hour care. The parents of the girls have appeared widely in the Australian press in recent days, drawing a testy response from a World Youth Day official who complained of a few people “dwelling crankily on old wounds.”
Sex abuse was not the only note struck by the pope in his homily today. He warned the seminarians and novices, for example, that they are entering the service of the faith at a challenging historical moment shaped by the influence of secularism.
“In the name of human freedom and autonomy, God’s name is passed over in silence, religion is reduced to private devotion, and faith is shunned in the public square,” the pope said.
“Yet history, including the history of our own time, shows that the question of God will never be silenced,” the pope said.
Benedict argued that whenever the vision of the human person as an image of God is obscured, humanity itself is diminished.
“Wherever man is diminished, the world around us is also diminished; it loses its ultimate meaning and strays from its goal,” the pope said. “What emerges is a culture, not of life, but of death. How could this be considered “progress”? It is a backward step, a form of regression, which ultimately dries up the very sources of life for individuals and all of society.”
Benedict called upon the seminarians and novices to be “living altars,” modeling themselves upon Christ’s own self-giving in the Eucharist. In this connection, he also spoke of the value of celibacy.
“Never forget that celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom means embracing a life completely devoted to love, a love that enables you to commit yourselves fully to God’s service and to be totally present to your brothers and sisters, especially those in need,” he said.
At the outset of the liturgy, a seminarian and a young woman religious, a member of the Schoenstatt community, offered testimonies to the pope. During the Mass, Benedict consecrated a new altar for the cathedral.
As he did during a liturgy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City last April, Benedict wove references to the architecture of St. Mary’s into his hreflections.
“Let me conclude these reflections by drawing your attention to the great stained glass window in the chancel of this cathedral,” he said. “The artist has represented Mary, as the new Eve, offering an apple to Christ, the new Adam. This gesture symbolizes her reversal of our first parents’ disobedience … and the first fruits of that redeemed and glorified humanity which she has preceded into the glory of heaven.”
“Let us ask Mary, help of Christians, to sustain the church in Australia in fidelity to that grace by which the crucified Lord even now ‘draws to himself’ all creation and every human heart,” Benedict said.