From the New York Times:
VATICAN CITY — Addressing the sexual abuse crisis from the seat of the Roman Catholic Church before thousands of white-robed priests, Pope Benedict XVI on Friday begged forgiveness, saying the church would do “everything possible” to prevent priests from abusing children.
“We, too, insistently beg forgiveness from God and from the persons involved, while promising to do everything possible to ensure that such abuse will never occur again,” Benedict told thousands of priests and the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square for celebrations marking the end of the Vatican’s Year of the Priest.
The pope did not outline specific actions that the church would take to combat abuse, as many had hoped — and as Benedict had pledged at an audience in April. Nor did his remarks go much beyond what he had already said in a letter to Irish Catholics in March and in a private meeting with victims of sexual abuse on Malta in April.
But it was the first time that Benedict had asked forgiveness for the crisis from St. Peter’s Square, the heart of the church itself, and on an occasion focused on priests. (italics added)
The pope said the Devil was behind the scandal, saying it had emerged now, in the middle of the Vatican’s Year of the Priest, because “the enemy,” or the Devil, wants to see “God driven out of the world.”
The Roman Catholic Church seems unable to shake the sex abuse scandals that have plagued her over the last decade and more. The incidents of abuse have undoubtedly rocked the church and, more seriously, devastated many individuals and their families.
I’ve not followed the Church’s dealings with this matter very closely. I’m certain others have more astute observations. But reading The Times coverage of Pope Benedict’s comments, I’m left with a few quick thoughts.
1. Promises to “do everything possible” absent concrete plans and actions amounts to a failure to repent. There must be deeds in keeping with repentance or the Church’s credibility on this matter is completely shot.
2. Superstition won’t solve the problem. It appears from The Times article that at least this writer thinks something significant has happened because pronouncements were made from St. Peter’s Square. A fiat from “the heart of the church itself” means nothing if it doesn’t address the hearts of priests and leaders inside the church. I suppose something of an aura of ex cathedra pronouncement is supposed to attend these comments. If so, what a sad indictment when the problem exists in churches on main street around the world, churches that have basically received protective cover from the Church hierarchy.
3. Blame-shifting won’t solve the problem. It’s rather sad that the Pope resorts to “the Devil made them do it.” To be certain, the Enemy opposes the people of God. But from all outward appearances, he seems to be getting a fair amount of help from the Roman Catholic Church herself. As far as I know, it’s not within the Slanderer’s ability to prevent a full and thorough repentance, the acceptance of accountability, and serious action to protect children from priests. The Pope’s comments seem rather interested in not spoiling a celebration for the priesthood rather than actually taking steps to secure justice for abused individuals and families. It’s lame to blame the Devil. Better to repent in sackcloth and ashes, and make restitution four-fold.
4. Polity matters. The way a church organizes herself to call leaders and to practice discipline matters immensely. The Roman Catholic Church faces this tragic circumstance in great measure because its polity allowed the protection of offenders and disenfranchised its members. Church polity could never prevent abuse in any absolute sense. But a New Testament approach to membership and discipline, resting final adjudication with the local church, would certainly have helped to contain the spread of abuse and the collusion of priests and bishops. If as in 1 Cor. 5 or Matthew 18, the congregation had authority to hand an unrepentant sinner over to Satan, to treat the offending priest like a pagan or tax collector, abuse cases would have instantly been public, accountability and scrutiny intense, and members protected and informed. At the end of the day, church polity isn’t a dusty old idea bored pastors sit around and discuss. It’s part of how we live the faith and it has significant consequences for those affected.
5. Finally, only the gospel rightly understood and applied will heal these hurts. Some want justice; others want mercy. Some demand punishment; others want forgiveness. Some want financial remuneration; others the kind of charity that protects the Church’s collective interest. The competing justice concerns are staggering. No one will be justified before God, no matter the option chosen. The only sufficient hope is a discovery of justification by grace alone through faith alone. What else frees us from self-righteousness? What can purchase forgiveness without compromising justice? How else will victim and sinner be reconciled to one another and to God? Only by an exclusive embrace of Jesus Christ and the work He accomplished in His crucifixion and resurrection. Only by trusting that alone–apart from any works of merit–will there be freedom to survive this abuse and scandal and to live in the redemption that Jesus provides. Law won’t fix it. Only grace alone can.