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‘Words are not enough’: Australian Bishops welcome Pope’s letter on abuse but call for action

Pope Francis

“I acknowledge once more the suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons.” Photo: CNS

THE Catholic bishops of Australia have welcomed Pope Francis’ letter to Catholics regarding sexual abuse in the Church.

Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge said the letter, released on August 20, included important words from Pope Francis, but noted words were not enough.

“Now is the time for action on many levels – one of which is spiritual, which is why we commit again, as we did in February, to the prayer and fasting mentioned by the Pope,” Archbishop Coleridge said.

“We commit as well to all the actions mentioned in the response to the recommendations of the Royal Commission by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia which will be released next week.”

Addressed “to the People of God”, Pope Francis said in his letter that “no effort must be spared” to prevent future cases of clerical sexual abuse and “to prevent the possibility of their being covered up”.

“I acknowledge once more the suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons,” the Pope wrote in the letter dated and released on August 20.

The letter was published less than a week after the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report on decades of clerical sexual abuse and cover-ups in six dioceses in the United States.

The report spoke of credible allegations against 301 priests in cases involving more than 1000 children.

“The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced,” Pope Francis said.

“But their outcry was more powerful than all the measures meant to silence them.”

“The pain of the victims and their families is also our pain,” he said, “and so it is urgent that we once more reaffirm our commitment to ensure the protection of minors and of vulnerable adults.”

Archbishop Coleridge said the message of Australian Church leaders in the past was consistent with the Pope’s letter.

The Archbishop acknowledged the work of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse “especially in creating a safe place for survivors to be heard and believed”.

“We again thank the survivors who have so courageously shared their stories.”

In his letter, Pope Francis insisted all Catholics must be involved in the effort to accompany victims, to strengthen safeguarding measures and to end a culture where abuse is covered up.

While the letter called all Catholics to prayer and fasting, it does not change any current policies or offer specific new norms. It did, however, insist that “clericalism” has been a key part of the problem and said the involvement of the laity would be crucial to addressing the crime and scandal.

abuse cartoon

Tragedy: Cartoonist Joe Heller depicts the more than 1000 people who say they were abused by 301 priests in Pennsylvania, many whom are now dead. The state’s attorney released a grand jury report on August 14 on a months-long investigation into abuse claims spanning a 70-year period in six Pennsylvania dioceses. Photo: CNS

Change, the Pope said, would require “the active participation of all the members of God’s people”.

“Many communities where sexual abuse and the abuse of power and conscience have occurred,” he said, were groups where there had been an effort to “reduce the People of God to small elites”.

“Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to a split in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today,” Pope Francis said.

“To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.”

In his letter, Pope Francis acknowledged the Church’s failure.

“With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realising the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives,” he wrote.

“We showed no care for the little ones,” Pope Francis said.

“We abandoned them.

“Looking back to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient.

“Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated.”

Recognising the safeguarding policies that have been adopted in various parts of the world as well as pledges of “zero tolerance” for abusive clerics, Pope Francis also acknowledged that “we have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary, yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future”.

As members of the Church, he said, all Catholics should “beg forgiveness for our own sins and the sins of others”.

Pope Francis also asked Catholics to pray and to fast so that they would be able to hear “the hushed pain” of abuse survivors.

He called for “a fasting that can make us hunger and thirst for justice and impel us to walk in the truth, supporting all the judicial measures that may be necessary. A fasting that shakes us up and leads us to be committed in truth and charity with all men and women of good will, and with society in general, to combating all forms of the abuse of power, sexual abuse and the abuse of conscience.”

Read the full letter by Pope Francis here.

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