Will the Irish Catholic Church Repent?

This morning’s mass in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome had a special message for the Irish bishops: ‘clergy who had sinned must admit blame for "abominable acts".’

image The Irish Times reports that Vatican secretary of State Cardinal Bertone spoke at the morning mass, which preceded crisis talks between the Pope and the Irish bishops about how to respond to Ireland’s clerical sex abuse scandals.

The Irish Times describes Cardinal Bertone’s homily, saying that he

urged the Irish bishops to consider their trials with joy because, while on the one hand they humiliate, on the other hand they test faith, producing patience and perseverance.

Cardinal Bertone’s homily presumably drew on today’s reading in the liturgical calendar, James 1:1-11, which includes this text,

My brothers, consider it a great joy when trials of many kinds come upon you, for you well know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance, and perseverance must complete its work so that you will become fully developed, complete, not deficient in any way.

I think Cardinal Bertone’s admonition that clerics must ‘admit blame’ is a first step if the Irish Catholic Church is to emerge from this (largely self-inflicted) ‘trial’ with any spiritual or moral authority intact.

But I wonder if ‘admitting blame’ is enough? I was not in Rome to hear the mass, so I can only comment on what I have read in the Irish Times report. I don’t know if Cardinal Bertone sees individual clerics admitting blame as a first step in a process in which the leadership of the Irish Catholic Church engages in acts of repentance for its sins as an institution.

I do not think it is sufficient for individual clerics to ‘admit blame’ for their sins. The Irish faithful have heard enough words of regret and condemnation. Putting the onus on individual clerics will not get at the heart of a clerical culture in which abuse was not just permitted, but seemingly allowed to flourish.

A more meaningful response from the leadership would be formal recognition of the church’s institutional failures – yes, sins. This would go beyond ‘admitting blame’ to putting structures and safeguards in place to make sure that such abuse never happens again. And it would be more effective if accompanied by some public acts or rituals of repentance or penance, performed by clergy at all levels of the church.

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