A papal precedent has the power to reverberate to all corners of the planet. So as Benedict XVI sets out for Australia, on what will be the longest and farthest voyage of his papacy thus far, many are wondering what effect the Pope's bold response to priest sex abuse during his recent American trip will have on his visit Down Under and on other travels that will follow.
Catholics from Staten Island to Sydney will remember that coverage of Benedict's April visit to the United States was dominated by his unprecedented attempts to heal the wounds from the clergy sex abuse crisis, including a series of heartfelt remarks and a private meeting in Washington with five victims from the Boston Archdiocese, which was hardest hit by pedophile priests. But though the scandal in the U.S. may have been the most widespread, and certainly most public, there are, in fact, cases of sex abuse all around the Catholic world as there are, as the Vatican always points out, in all walks of life. In Australia, victims' rights groups are calling on the Pope to respond as he did in the U.S. This comes as news that the Catholic Church in Australia has been forced to review allegations of sexual assault by a priest committed more than 20 years ago. The Melbourne-based support group Broken Rites says it has been contacted by 3,500 people in the past two decades complaining of Church-related abuse.
The trip raises a broader question of whether the Pope set a precedent for himself with his forthright response in the U.S., making it a virtual requirement to address the issue in every country that has suffered from abusive priests. In the same way the pontiff traditionally meets with local leaders of other religions, priests, and political representatives, will the faithful expect a private encounter with victims on each new trip? Or was his response in the United States expected to cover the matter for the Pope?
There are reports that Benedict will travel next year to Ireland, another country where the local Church has been besieged by allegations of priest sex abuse in recent years, where nothing short of the kind of response offered in the U.S. is likely to satisfy local faithful.
The itinerary for the trip in Australia, which includes a four-day rest period after the Pope's plane touches down Sunday following the long flight, does not indicate whether the issue will be confronted. The Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, has indicated that the Pope will apologize in some way for past abuse.
Though he got high marks for his frank and sensitive response in the U.S., some Vatican officials fear that sex abuse issue could overshadow the original objectives of his travels. The main purpose that the 81-year-old Pope is flying so far to reach a country with some five million Catholics is to preside over World Youth Day in Sydney. Benedict's first trip as Pope three years ago was to attend the same event in Cologne, Germany.
The Pope is expected to address the plight of Australia's Aborigines, which John Paul II eloquently brought up during his visit in 1986. The German pontiff will spend the first four days of his visit resting at a retreat outside of Sydney run by the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei.