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The strengths and shortcomings of Church apologies

  • 08 July 2010
Last weekend Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart published a letter of apology for sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the Melbourne Catholic Church. It was read aloud in most local churches. It followed similar letters by bishops in other Catholic churches around the world.

The letter, which was both a personal response and an outline of what the Melbourne Church was doing, drew a variety of responses. I found it quite moving. Some Catholics expressed gratitude for it; others thought it came too late or omitted points they thought central; representatives of victims groups considered it inadequate.

The letter and the responses to it invite broader reflection on the place of letters by leaders of churches, and particularly of letters of apology. In the churches, pastoral letters go back a long way. So does scepticism about the value of carefully prepared words.

Paul's letters to the churches he had worked in are still read weekly in Christian churches. But in a passage of rhetorical virtuosity Paul also warned of the mismatch between rhetorical eloquence and the Christian message. Jesus too advised his followers not to prepare the words they will speak if prosecuted for their faith. In a world where survival often depended on rhetorical skill, that was a startling piece of advice. James later writes eloquently about the dangers of the human tongue. He wanted good actions.

Given this history, one can understand the ambivalence about letters and the inclination to avoid reading them. But letters from bishops to their churches are powerful symbols, particularly when written in response to particular crises. Letters require their writers to take a position. Their signatures require them to stand to the position they have taken. And having letters read to the members of their church is an act of both strength and vulnerability. They associate their readers in what they have written. But they also hand themselves over to their readers for response and judgment and must wait on the unforeseen consequences of their letters.

That is why pastoral letters, although symbolic, can be extraordinarily effective. A letter of the Philippine bishops, drafted by Bishop Cisco Claver who died last week, was instrumental in the peaceful popular uprising against the Marcos regime. People power stared down the army. But to appreciate the vulnerability of the Bishops in subscribing to the letter, we need only recognise that they must have considered the possibility that the Government and