In what is being seen as his strongest statement of contrition yet for the abuse scandal that has rocked the 1.1 billion-member global community of Catholicism, the 83-year-old pontiff said he hoped “this chastisement” would help purify the Church and renew its commitment to young people and bring healing to victims.
The Vatican promised action after the Pope met five victims of sexual abuse by priests, including one from Scotland, for around 40 minutes at the home of the Vatican’s Ambassador to the UK in Wimbledon and expressed “shame” over what victims and families suffered. The Pope’s words failed to appease the critics including survivors of abuse who have consistently demanded more than apologies.
They believe Pope Benedict should have already handed over the Vatican’s secret abuse files to relevant police authorities so those responsible are brought to justice. To date, the Pope has always refused to do so. But after meeting the victims, the Pope had been “moved” by what they had to say.
“He prayed with them and assured them that the Catholic Church is continuing to implement effective measures designed to safeguard young people, and that it is doing all in its power to investigate allegations, to collaborate with civil authorities and bring to justice clergy accused of these egregious crimes,” said a spokesman for the Holy See.
The Pope delivered his remarks over institutionalised child abuse in a homily at Mass to cardinals, bishops and hundreds of the rank-and-file faithful who packed pews at Westminster Cathedral in London on the third day of his four-day state visit to Britain.
He said: “I think of the immense suffering caused by the abuse of children, especially within the Church and by her ministers. Above all, I express my deep sorrow to the innocent victims of these unspeakable crimes, along with my hope the power of Christ’s grace, his sacrifice of reconciliation, will bring deep healing and peace to their lives.
“I also acknowledge with you the shame and humiliation all of us have suffered because of these sins, and I invite you to offer it to the Lord with trust that this chastisement will contribute to the healing of victims, the purification of the Church and the renewal of her age-old commitment to the education and care of young people.
“I express my gratitude for the efforts being made to address this problem responsibly and I ask all of you to show your concern for the victims and solidarity with your priests.” Later, 85,000 pilgrims attended a prayer vigil in Hyde Park, which organisers said was the biggest event so far of the state visit.
He began the day meeting Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and the Labour Party’s acting leader Harriet Harman. He offered his condolences to Cameron following the death of his father.
But the Pope’s sermon did not go down well with the 11,000 protesters who marched from Hyde Park to 10 Downing Street, in a demonstration that included sex-abuse victims as well as those objecting to the Pope’s opposition to the use of condoms and marriage between homosexuals.
Naomi Philips, head of public affairs of the British Humanist Association, told the Sunday Herald: “It is no good just saying things. The Church has to be absolutely transparent and it hasn’t been. The people who carried out this abuse are criminals and should be dealt with by the criminal justice system. This should be about putting the children first, not the rights of the priests or clergy who carried out this abuse.”
Chris Daly, a 45-year-old Scottish abuse victim, said the Pope’s words helped but victims want to see action, an acknowledgment from church authorities of their failures and cover-up, and material support to help victims.
“There has to be an element of accountability here and truth is a big where the Church has been complicit in a cover-up of the abuse,” said Mr Daly, from Rutherglen. “They haven’t been open. They haven’t been truthful. It’s hardly Christlike to be complicit.”
Peter Isely of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said: “He’s disclosed not one document about the cover-up. He’s not defrocked a single bishop who secretly moved known predators. Showing remorse isn’t leadership. Taking decisive action is leadership.”
The pontiff himself faced allegations he failed to take action against predator priests, both as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees Catholic Church doctrine, and earlier as the Archbishop of Munich.