To Ireland's victims of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic clergy, Pope Benedict XVI offered an apology: "You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry." For Ireland's bishops, the pontiff had a reprimand: "Serious mistakes were made. All this has seriously undermined your credibility." Thus the highlights of an eight-page letter from Rome received at Mass around Ireland on March 21.
In an unprecedented move (the Vatican had previously commented on the Irish clerical sex scandal only in private letters), Benedict apologized to victims and accused Ireland's bishops past and present of "grave errors of judgment" and "failures of leadership" in their handling of sex-abuse cases in the church.
The Pope also wrote that a team of Vatican inspectors would be sent to dioceses, seminaries and religious congregations in Ireland. But victims' groups were unimpressed, charging that the papal letter had failed to address the cover-up of child abuse by the Irish Catholic authorities exposed in recent weeks. "He didn't apologize for anything the church has done, only for the actions of pedophile priests," says Andrew Madden, who was abused as an altar boy and is a member of the victims group One in Four. "[The Church's actions] weren't just down to errors of judgment. This was a proactive covering up of the sexual abuse of children to avoid scandal for the church. Pope Benedict completely failed to own up to this."
The shocking extent of child abuse by clergy in Ireland's parishes and Catholic institutions was exposed last year in two government inquiries, known as the Ryan Report and the Murphy Report. The first described "endemic sexual abuse" at schools and orphanages run by religious orders from the 1930s to the 1990s, while the latter accused the Catholic Church, the state and the Irish police of colluding in the covering up of sexual abuse committed by priests in the archdiocese of Dublin.
In recent weeks, however, the scandal has reached the very top of the Irish Church hierarchy. Cardinal Sean Brady Ireland's most senior Catholic has faced calls to resign over his handling of the case of one of Ireland's most infamous pedophile priests. That's because in 1975, Brady had met with young people who had been abused by Father Brendan Smyth. The victims were asked to sign an oath of secrecy, promising not to reveal details of an investigation into Smyth's actions. Brady did not contact the police after the meetings, and Smyth went on to abuse dozens more Irish children before being convicted of 90 offenses against children some 20 years later. Some of those abused by Smyth claim other victims committed suicide because of the abuse. In the past week, two more Irish bishops have also apologized for their handling of abuse allegations in their own dioceses.
In 1999, journalist Mary Raftery's documentary film States of Fear was broadcast on Irish television. The film brought to public attention for the first time the systemic nature of abuse at Catholic institutions in the past. Since then, Raftery has campaigned for an investigation into child abuse to be held in every Catholic diocese in Ireland.
"I think Irish society should take this letter extremely seriously," says Raftery. "For years, we handed over all responsibility for our morality to these people who now stand condemned with such devastation by their own Pope."
Raftery believes the Church's handling of child-abuse allegations has prompted many people to challenge its role in modern Irish society. It's estimated that around a third of Irish Catholics attend Mass regularly, but the Catholic Church runs over 90% of the country's elementary schools and holds positions on the management boards of public hospitals roles that Raftery believes are no longer tenable.
"We now know there was decades of disgraceful behavior that was absolutely contrary to every single thing [the Church] preached. With this knowledge, it's going to be impossible for people to establish the same relationship of trust with the Catholic Church. I think it has vanished."
With the reputation of the Catholic Church at an all-time low in Ireland, convincing young men to join the priesthood may seem like a lost cause. But Father Patrick Rushe, coordinator of vocations for the Catholic Church in Ireland, believes the damage can be repaired.
"I was happy that [Pope Benedict] said sorry and I think it was long overdue," says Rushe. "But these are our own problems to solve and the Irish church has to take responsibility for what happened in the past."
So, does Rushe believe the Church can recover? "People committed to their faith are just about hanging on," he says. "But I don't think it would take a huge amount of further revelations to undermine the goodwill that's left."
Further revelations may, in fact, not be very far away. Last week, Northern Ireland's Health Minister Michael McGimpsey said that a state inquiry into institutional and clerical child abuse should be considered. For campaigner Mary Raftery, the possible consequences of such a probe are clear. "It would inevitably expose a range of cover-ups and would make the church's role [in Irish society] unsustainable," she says. "The number of people whose hands aren't dirtied by this is quite small."