Thursday, April 24, 2008

Popes apologizing

This is not the first time that a Pope has apologized for the sins of commission, omission and indifference of the Roman Catholic Church. History brings to light so many of these faults and there is no way a powerful and huge religious institution could sweep these under the altar. The only good way is to face up, say sorry and do something concrete to correct the mistake if that is possible.

The late and much-loved Pope John Paul II did a lot of apologizing for many faults that are now written into history. And he and the Church were the better for it.

One of the things JPII’s successor Pope Benedict XVI did during his recent six-day US visit was to apologize to victims of sexual abuse. The Pope did this personally by meeting with many of the victims—women and men who were sexually molested, many in their youth, by members of the US clergy. It was a moving and emotional private meeting which the Pope himself had requested.

Although these crimes were private in nature, these will be written into US church history and legal history.

“For 24 remarkable minutes,” the news report said, “the shepherd of the world’s 1 billion Catholics met with a handful of victims of the worst scandal to ever to tarnish the US church. In a chapel Thursday, Pope Benedict XVI prayed with weeping victims of clergy sex abuse, an extraordinary gesture from a pontiff who has made atoning for the great shame the US church the cornerstone of his first papal trip to America. Three victims told CNN they were deeply moved by the way Benedict apologized, listened to and comforted them.”

Well over 4,000 priests have been accused of molesting minors in the US since 1950, reports said, and the church has paid out more than $2 billion, much of it in just the last six years. Dioceses have been forced into bankruptcy because of the costs.

The media have to take some credit for exposing the abuses that Benedict XVI called a cause for “deep shame” and “enormous pain”. And no doubt a few bishops had to be discredited for covering up for their erring priests. It was like they were rubbing salt on lacerations.

If and when Benedict XVI comes to the Philippines he might have to make a similar apology. Or did he apologize to victims all over the world?

In 2003, the Association of Major Religious Superiors of Women in the Philippines (AMRSWP) did a survey, with the approval of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), on sexual abuse committed by the clergy here. I happened to have first crack at the survey results, thanks to the intrepid nuns who did the survey, and the Inquirer ran a two-part series on the findings.

Several cases involving a couple of bishops here got splashed in the media and ran for a season, with the women themselves providing the details. They were, if you ask me, badly handled by both accusers and accused and their handlers. They became grist for scandal sheets. And what became of all of them?

JPII, charismatic that he was, was the Pope who bravely stepped into the historical minefield and tackled explosive issues that needed apologies. The book “When a Pope Asks Forgiveness: The Mea Culpas of John Paul II” contains impressive research and texts of JPII’s “mea culpa” addresses till 1997. (The book was reprinted in the Philippines by Pauline Publishing.) Written by veteran Italian journalist and Vatican correspondent Luigi Accatolli, the book contains surprising discoveries the writer made while researching on JPII’s speeches. He unearthed a “hidden theme” of JPII’s papacy.

Accatolli’s discovery: JPII had publicly admitted Church culpability 94 times on many issues ranging from the Inquisition, to Galileo, the Jews, cultural oppression of natives and women, etc. The sex abuse issue was not rearing its head so glaringly at that time (not that JPII had not known about it) so, I think, papal mea culpa was not in the offing. That task fell on Benedict XVI.

Accatolli quotes renowned theologian Han Urs von Balthazar’s list of some principal errors of the past that JPII apologized for. “Forcible baptisms, inquisitions and auto-da-fe’s, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, the conquest of new worlds with fire and sword as if the release of brutal exploitation were also the way of the religion of the cross and of love; unasked for and utterly absurd meddling in problems of developing natural science; proscriptions and excommunications by a spiritual authority which behaves as if it were political, and even demands recognition as such.”

Von Balthazar, says Accatolli, proposes three steps to take: no defense can be given; it is necessary to make a full confession; it would not be right to throw stones “when no one is alive to stand up and plead for justification.” JPII had observed these in his mea culpas and even went beyond.

It was Paul VI who first asked for forgiveness from the separated brethren during the Second Vatican Council. His successors, JPII and Benedict XVI, would make asking for forgiveness a feature of their papacy. Asks Accatolli: “Who among the Popes had ever asked for forgiveness before Paul VI?”

In an interreligious day of prayer at Assisi in 1986, JPII told the delegations: “We Catholics have not always been bearers of peace.” But even as he asked for forgiveness for the church JPII also pleaded for forgiveness of and reconciliation with those who had harmed the church. He did so in 1996 when armed Muslims in Algeria slit the throats of seven Trappist monks they had held for days. JPII displayed “courage of forgiveness” in the face of extremism.

9/11 2001 is not a different story and JPII lived to see the day of terror. Benedict XVI was recently there at Ground Zero, praying.