February 1, 2022 Editor

Highlight: The lesson for bishops from Benedict report: Apologize, apologize, apologize

by Thomas Reese

photo above: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI sits in St. Peter’s Basilica on Dec. 8, 2015. A long-awaited report on sexual abuse faulted his handling of four cases. (AP/Gregorio Borgia) 

WN: The highlighted is so hard. But harder still and no comparison, is the suffering of the victims.

Incalculable harm has also been done to worldwide Christian witness.

Lord, in your mercy . . .


Too many Catholic prelates believe that, when it comes to clergy sexual abuse, being in charge means never having to say you’re sorry.

For as long as the crisis has been going on, lawyers for bishops have advised many of them not to apologize, as this would be an admission of guilt that would come back as evidence when they were sued in court.

Some were too arrogant and cowardly to admit guilt.

Others refused to apologize because they believe they are blameless since they made decisions based on the advice they got from psychologists and canon lawyers who themselves were ignorant. Some even foolishly thought that admitting responsibility would somehow harm the church.

But whatever the case, they clearly failed when they put the themselves, their priests or the institution ahead of the lives of children. How badly they sinned, I will leave to God, but there is no doubt that they need to apologize. They were either immoral or stupid — or both. In any case, an apology is required.

All of these evasions are contrary to Catholic teaching, which affirms that we are all sinners who are required to confess our sins, do penance, make reparations and amend our lives.

Retired Pope Benedict XVI, aka Joseph Ratzinger, is a case in point. When he was archbishop of Munich, abusive priests were not dealt with properly. How much he was involved in these decisions is irrelevant. He was the archbishop and the buck stops with him. Even if others made the decisions, he still appointed these people and delegated to them the authority to deal with abusive priests.

Those who defend Ratzinger argue that, thanks to the professional advice I cited above, practically all the bishops got it wrong prior to 1982, the year Ratzinger left Munich. True, but all this shows is that he was no better than the other bishops — not a high standard. And everyone else’s failures do not excuse him from confessing his own failures.

When prelates get around to their apologies, they should be full throated. No one wants to hear that “mistakes were made” or “we would not act in the same way today” or “I am sorry people are upset” or “I am sorry for anything I MAY have done wrong.”

Prelates should know how to confess; after all, they do it every day at the beginning of Mass. These are the words people want to hear from Benedict, Francis and other church leaders who did not handle abusive priests well:

“I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”

Prelates need to confess that they have greatly sinned in their words (denying the abuse and bullying victims into silence), in what they have done (moved abusive priests from one parish to another) and in what they have failed to do (protect children). They need to acknowledge that it is their fault, their fault, their most grievous fault.

Apologies should come from the Catholic liturgy, not be written by lawyers. When it comes to sin, in Catholic liturgy, there is no beating about the bush.

Prelates should also avoid asking for forgiveness, which puts a burden on victims. It may even revictimize those who are not ready to forgive. Whether they forgive or not is between them and God, not between them and the bishops who offended them.

“But we have apologized,” some bishops will say, “can’t we move on?”

No. One apology will not suffice. If a man cheats on his wife, one apology will not fix it. If he wants to stay married, he will have to apologize in one way or another for the rest of his life.

On the other hand, I would love to see some bishops spend Lent living on bread and water, camped out on the steps of their cathedrals. There was a time when public sinners were required to do such penance, only to be readmitted to the community at Easter. The bishop could live like a homeless person but at the same time provide pastoral care to anyone, especially survivors of abuse, who came to visit him.

Even a bishop not involved in the cover-up could take on such a penance on behalf of his predecessors and the diocese.

Please click on: Apologize, Apologize, Apologize

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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.