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The strengths and shortcomings of Church apologies

Archbishop Denis HartLast 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 army would respond as the Chinese Government later did in Tiananmen Square.

Letters of apology leave their writers particularly vulnerable. They invest themselves in the letters, but it is open for their readers to dismiss their apology as inadequate, dishonest, perfunctory or uninteresting. I would argue, though, that even if they come late and are awkwardly written such letters are still important.

Letters of apology by the leaders of a community commit it to recognise that something wrong has been done in its name, that this is a matter of shame for the community, and that the leaders of the community accept the responsibility to do something about it. In the Catholic Church such an apology is a public act of confession, which includes the commitment to seek reconciliation, to make reparation where possible, and not to sin again. The symbol presupposes that the Church is more than a collection of individuals, that its members are accountable to one another, and that that the Bishop has the responsibility to act on its behalf.

Such letters are helpful symbols. But they are also limited. Like the Prime Minister's apology to the Stolen Generations they cannot remedy the consequences of the crimes and attitudes for which they apologise. Regardless of apologies, the destructive consequences in the human lives of survivors continue and touch more and more people.

However much we might want it, no symbol nor letter of apology can write the slate clean. A letter of apology is neither an ending nor a new beginning. The temptation to forget what is unpleasant in our history is strong. So apologies will need to be made, renewed and extended frequently. A bishop's letter is a significant step, but it is part of a mosaic.

Finally, words alone can do so much. Those of us who live by words are always tempted to imagine that if we get our words right we will change things. We hanker after the great speeches of yesterday. Good words can help change a situation, but only if they are translated into practical actions of reaching out to those who have been abused in our name, listening to them again and again, and changing the culture and the patterns of governance that allowed their abuse.

Words are powerful symbols, but the hungry and the injured do not live by words alone.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. 

Topic tags: Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart, letter of apology, sexual abuse, Catholic priests, Paul, pastoral letter



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Existing comments

Fr Robert M Hoatson proposes that Pope Benedict and the Vatican:

1) Hold a media event at which Pope Benedict calls forth from silence and shame any and all victims of clergy sexual abuse with the blanket assurance that they will be taken care of;

2) Refer all victims to panels of independent lay Catholics and non-Catholics who can properly assess the damage to and needs of the survivors. In addition, victims’ family members will be assessed for damage as well – clergy sexual abuse affects entire families;

3) Establish in every diocese and/or region of the world Centres for Restorative Healing. These centres will be comprehensive in-patient and out-patient medical and social service facilities, meeting the needs of survivors in the areas of housing, medicine, psychological counselling, food and clothing, education, career counselling, and whatever else the victims need;

4) All facilities will be paid for by the Roman Catholic Church and will remain open and operational until every last victim is restored to health. Victims will never be turned away from or denied services for as long as they live;

5) Use the resources and experience of Road to Recovery of the US to advise the Vatican in the establishment of a comprehensive programme of healing for victims. Victims of clergy sexual abuse live in terror, turmoil, and torment every day of their lives.

JohnBS1 | 08 July 2010  

I have never been sexually abused or for that matter abused in any way. I feel very strongly about this matter. No matter who the abuser may be, he/she must be prosecuted, no matter the age. Compensation can never bring back a lost youth and as a society we have to show that such people who abuse children are held to account.

Mira Zeimer | 08 July 2010  

Your discussion displays much perspicacity.

Thank you for the insight, Andrew.

Bob GROVES | 08 July 2010  

In the Archbishop's statement I searched for the word "sorry." I found it twice- in quotations from the Pope's words, but NOT in Denis Hart's. Kevin Rudd spoke from the heart, with his "sorrys" adding weight and sincerity to his statement. By comparison our archbishop's 'apology; was mediocre, and those who have suffered abuse deserved better.

Adrian C. | 08 July 2010  

I must nail my colours to the mast. I enjoy Andrew's articles immensely, whether I agree with their particular point of view or not.

But I am driven nearly to despair when some commentators either miss Andrew's point completely or use his point to chase some irrelevant rabbit down some even more irrelevant warren. I'm pretty sure Andrew expressed some of his own hopes when he wrote "if we get our words right we will change things." In much the same way Archbishop Hart probably hoped by his pastoral letter to make some amends for the harm done to the victims of sex abuse.

Unlike St Paul however he was writing with centuries of Church and secular law circumscribing his every word.

In some cases the greatest harm done to the victim of sex abuse by a priest is the severance of the relationship with the whole church. One priest, maybe even one act, can fill a victim with revulsion for the rest of his life at the simple greeting: "Good morning, Father!"

The Archbishop's letter may not even alleviate the psychological hurt done to the victims but at least he has tried to express corporate responsibility and repentance.

Uncle Pat | 08 July 2010  

I am impressed by Archbishop Hart`s letter. It is, and comes across as, sincere and responsible, and indeed loving.I believe the church at all levels has learnt a great deal about itself in this ordeal.It is important to relect on the statistics and proportionalities involved, and the archbishop did that well, but without using them as an excuse for the outrageous behaviour by a small minority which has done so much human and institutional damage.Fr Hamilton`s reflection on the letter, and all the pain involved, seems to me just right.

eugene | 08 July 2010  

The leter is both moving and well intentioned I believe but one simple but essential action must be taken to underscore its intent. The 300 victims of abuse in the Melbourne Diocese should each be written to and told that they are relieved of any obligation arising under the terms of the non-disclosure contract they they signed. For the church not to do this would make a bad position much worse....to do it would be a positive act of good faith.

jim macken | 08 July 2010  

I think the Archbishop's response completely overlooked the cause of the problem. No one, from the Pope through to the Bishops of Australia have acknowledged the central them of Bishop Geoffrey Robinson's book, that the culture of the church is a major contributing factor to the non-reporting and cover up of sexual abuse. The shameful treatment of Geoffrey Robinson and the fobbing off of victims and their parents is only another manifestation of the sexual abuse suffered by children at the hands of a feudal church.

Ray Ham | 09 July 2010  

I only recently moved to the Melbourne Archdiocese but the abuse has come closer than is comfortable a few times in other dioceses and has been hard to come to terms with. I found the apology comforting especially because the priest who celebrated the Mass I attended spoke to it very honestly. I am giving a copy to each of my children in case they don't get the opportunity to read the full text. Thank you Archbishop Hart.

Margaret MDonald | 09 July 2010  

Fr Hamilton rightly states the situation when he comments that "words can only do so much". An apology is important BUT only if it is accompanied by sustained action by the bishop or bishops. These actions need not only to facilitate "compensation" to the victims of priestly sexual abuse as well as counselling to aid healing BUT also actions to ensure that priests who have engaged in sexual abuse DO NOT CONTINUE their priestly functions. While I believe strongly in forgiveness,particularly as part of the healing of those who are abused, I also believe that priests who have engaged in sexual abuse can no longer have the trust of those to whom they might minister. Unfortunately, as the case of the Broken Bay incidents appear to show, this does not seem to be shared by the bishops.

Dr Judith Woodward | 14 July 2010