Pope Francis’s letter on abuse contained much of value. Don’t write it off

Pope Francis: call to repentance (CNS)

In this summer of shame, how should bishops speak about scandals of sexual predation in the clergy? There have been some remarkable failures. Cardinal Donald Wuerl launched a special website praising his own record while Bishop of Pittsburgh in the light of criticism from the Pennsylvania grand jury report. That went over so badly that the website was scrapped within days. For good measure, Cardinal Wuerl then cancelled his keynote address at the World Meeting of Families in Ireland.

Silence was also the second option for Cardinal Kevin Farrell who, after the revelations about now ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, gave an interview professing to be shocked, veritably shocked, at the news. When his protestations were poorly received, he cancelled his trip to Baltimore to give the keynote address at the Knights of Columbus convention.

Silence was the initial option chosen by the Holy See after the Pennsylvania report. But after a few days that became untenable, and a belated but strong statement from the Holy See Press Office was released. Then on Monday a letter to the entire Church from the Holy Father himself spoke strongly about repentance and conversion. Pope Francis referred to policies and protocols, but at the heart of his letter was this appeal: “I invite the entire holy faithful People of God to a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting.”

Pope Francis wants to move our response to sexual infidelity and abuse from management, which is necessary but not sufficient, to a conversion and renewal of clerical culture. And that can only be accomplished by recognising both particular sins and sinful structures, being contrite for them and doing penance.

It was noteworthy that the Holy Father quoted in his letter the stark language of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the Good Friday Via Crucis in 2005, just weeks before his election as pope: “How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to [Christ]! How much pride, how much self-complacency! Christ’s betrayal by his disciples, their unworthy reception of his body and blood, is certainly the greatest suffering endured by the Redeemer; it pierces his heart.”

We now know that while decrying the “filth” in the priesthood, Cardinal Ratzinger has already send his chief investigator, Mgr Charles Scicluna, to do the interviews that would lead to the banishment of Fr Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ and likely the greatest fraudster in the long history of the Church.

As cardinal and then as pope, Benedict authored the principal initiatives that changed the processes for priestly discipline in abuse cases, leading to the hundreds of priests he dismissed from the clerical state as pope. But like Pope Francis in his recent letter, Benedict saw that penance was the necessary spiritual and theological response.

He laid out the case most fully in the most erudite and piercing off-the-cuff homily given by a pope in living memory, at a Mass for the Pontifical Biblical Commission on April 15, 2010. “There is an exegetical trend that states that in Galilee Jesus would have proclaimed a grace without conditions, absolutely unconditional, therefore also without penitence, grace as such, without human preconditions,” Benedict preached.

“But this is a false interpretation of grace,” he continued. “Repentance is grace; it is a grace that we recognise our sin; it is a grace that we realise the need for renewal, for change, for the transformation of our being. Repentance the capacity to be penitent, is a gift of grace. And I must say that we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word ‘penitence’. It seemed to us too difficult. Now, under the attacks of the world that speak of our sins, we see that the capacity to repent is a grace. And we see that it is necessary to do penance, that is, to recognise what is wrong in our lives, open ourselves to forgiveness, prepare ourselves for pardon by allowing ourselves to be transformed.”


Less than a month later, on the plane to Fatima, Benedict returned to the same theme. “The sufferings of the Church come precisely from within the Church, from the sin existing within the Church,” he said. “This too is something that we have always known, but today we are seeing it in a really terrifying way: that the greatest persecution of the Church comes not from her enemies without, but arises from sin within the Church, and that the Church thus has a deep need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn forgiveness on the one hand, but also the need for justice. Forgiveness does not replace justice. In a word, we need to relearn precisely this essential: conversion, prayer, penance and the theological virtues.”

Conversion, penance, justice and forgiveness. All these themes are taken up in the letter of Pope Francis. That’s the language needed in this time of crisis.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of

This article first appeared in the August 24 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here