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Pope visit holds mirror up to 'grappling' US Catholics

  • 28 April 2008
Did the six day visit to the United States by Pope Benedict XVI usher any significant changes in the direction of Catholicism in that country? For prolific writer on religion Amy Welborn, the visit was not only 'busy' and 'rich', — it was a 'mirror held up to American Catholics, asking us to consider who we are, honestly and with humility'.

The reflections in that mirror were often jarringly unpleasant. The institutional crisis wrought by child abuse allegations hovered menacingly over traditional discussions about faith, war and peace. According to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, some 689 new accusations of sexual abuse were made in 2007 alone, with $615 million paid in settlements.

Since 2002, when allegations of sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiocese came to light, charges have proliferated. They were not only directed at individuals such as a now defrocked John Geoghan, but the culture of concealment that had crept around those suspected of abuse. Pointed salvos were fired at Cardinal Bernard Law and former deputies Bishop John B. McCormack and Bishop Thomas Daily for their seeming indifference.

To his credit, Benedict made it clear that it was a problem that had to be confronted, a cultural condition sorely in need of eradication. In St Patrick's Cathedral, New York, he urged officials to 'continue to work effectively to resolve this issue'. At the Immaculate Conception Shrine, he argued that the issue of pedophilia or what he termed 'gravely immoral behaviour' within the Church had been 'very badly handled'.

But the Pope would not divorce the matter of child abuse from the broader assault on community values, perpetrated by, among others, members of the media. 'What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today?' The 'manipulation' of sexuality had proven corrosive for the young.

Very little in the way of concrete responses were outlined, though he urged a 'determined, collective response'. And, to the disappointment of some victims, Benedict did not visit the Archdiocese of Boston.

Despite the omission, he made it clear early in the tour that the church would 'absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry. It is more important to have good priests than many priests. We will do everything possible to heal this wound.'

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has undertaken its own steps, drafting an annual report detailing progress made in implementing