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Acts of Contrition 

Last month, Pope John Paul II issued a one-paragraph apology to the peoples of the South Pacific for instances of sexual abuse by clerics in that region. The words of regret were historic in that the Church for years has been officially silent on a subject that has torn at its very soul -- and haunted the consciences of Catholics worldwide.

Wrote the pope: "In certain parts of Oceania, sexual abuse by some clergy and religious has caused great suffering and spiritual harm to the victims. ... Sexual abuse within the Church is a profound contradiction of the teaching and witness of Jesus Christ. The Synod Fathers wished to apologize unreservedly to the victims for the pain and disillusionment caused to them. The Church in Oceania is seeking open and just procedures to respond to complaints in this area, and is unequivocally committed to compassionate and effective care for the victims, their families, the whole community, and the offenders themselves."

Words spoken in earnest have the power to heal, and healing is an important part of the Church's mission. Christians worldwide believe that Jesus used his healing powers to spread his message of divine love and forgiveness. Now the Church finds itself asking for forgiveness and seeking to heal deep wounds. In that context, the pope's apology is an important and necessary beginning -- but it is only a beginning. Catholics and non-Catholics alike are waiting to see what flows from it, although some already are critical.

"For years, the Church was blamed for being silent," says the Rev. William Maestri, professor of moral philosophy at Notre Dame Seminary and designated spokesman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. "The pope comes out with a public apology, and then people say that words are not enough."

We think the pope's words are a sincere attempt to start the healing process. Rather than blame him for not going far enough, we recognize that the Church, like any large institution, moves deliberately when changing course on such grave matters. At the same time, the Church must recognize that, although it is an institution believed to be divine in origin, it is nonetheless human in execution. It thus faces the dilemma, in cases of sexual abuse, of trying to defend itself from civil liability while trying to hold the moral and spiritual high ground. Every move on one front affects, and sometimes weakens, the other. For example, if a bishop publicly apologizes for sexual misconduct by a priest, lawyers representing victims of that abuse will use the apology against the Church in court. Conversely, if the Church heeds its lawyers and remains silent while litigation grinds on, even the faithful will wonder if the problem is being addressed.

The papal apology acknowledges implicitly that the Church did not wake up one day to find itself between a rock and a hard place. It wedged its way in there. Now it's going to have to work its way out. Maestri says the local archdiocese, which has had to deal with several cases of sexual misconduct, is doing that.

"There is now a board that evaluates specific charges and allegations against priests or lay personnel of the Archdiocese of New Orleans," he says. "That board consists of lay persons, professionals in psychological areas that are competent to evaluate charges, and religious officials of the Archdiocese. ... Once this committee evaluates the charges and determines that there are grounds for suspicion, if it's a lay person involved, they can be placed on administrative leave or asked to leave their position."

Maestri describes a policy similar to that of any prudent employer in the private sector: in addition to the investigating committee, the accused's supervisors are also notified. If an allegation is made against a priest, it goes to the vicar general of the diocese, the head of priest personnel and the archbishop. "And of course when minors are involved, we report to the civil authorities, without question," he adds. Maestri says the archdiocese also offers victims psychological as well as spiritual counseling.

"There once was a tendency to cover up and a failure to address the real needs, and the bishops recognize this," says Maestri. "Telling the truth is in the best interests of those who have been victimized. The church has learned that the other approach -- of cover-up and silence -- is no longer acceptable because it is not right."

It is never easy to admit being wrong, and we take Maestri's words as a sign that, at least on the local level, the Church is taking steps to make the Pontiff's apology more than mere words. For all its human imperfections, the Church remains a powerful moral and political force throughout the world. For the Church to continue in that role, the legacy of Pope John Paul II will have to include not only his sincere words of apology, but also specific acts of contrition -- and healing -- by church leaders worldwide.

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