VATICAN CITY — In a pastoral letter to the Church in Ireland, Pope Benedict XVI has personally apologized to victims of priestly sexual abuse and announced new steps to heal the wounds of the scandal, including a Vatican investigation and a year of penitential reparation.

In the letter, released by the Vatican March 20, the Pope began by saying he had been “deeply disturbed” by the abuse cases. “I can only share in the dismay and the sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them,” he wrote.

He told the victims they had “suffered grievously” and added: “I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated.”

He then addressed the perpetrators of the abuse with especially strong language, saying they had “betrayed the trust that was placed in you by innocent young people and their parents” and that they must “answer for it before Almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals.”

He said bishops had made serious mistakes in responding to allegations of sexual abuse, and that only “decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and good will of the Irish people toward the Church.”

The Pope, who stressed that “child abuse is peculiar neither to Ireland nor to the Church,” said “serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations.”

He criticized an excessive deference to ecclesiastical authority and a misplaced concern for the Church’s public reputation. He also pointed to inadequate selection of priesthood candidates, poor formation programs and a tendency in society to favor the clergy and other authority figures.

The Holy Father also linked clerical sexual abuse to more general developments, including the secularization of Irish society and of Irish clergy and religious themselves, and misinterpretation of the Second Vatican Council.

The 4,600-word letter, read at Masses across Ireland March 20-21, came in response to the disclosure last fall that Irish Church leaders had often failed to deal properly with abusive priests over the last 35 years. Similar allegations have since come to light in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland.

The Pope, who recalled the Church’s great patrimony and history in Ireland, said he was convinced that having adopted strict new measures against sexual abuse, the Church was now on the right path. But he said the healing process for Irish Catholics will take time and requires a deep spiritual renewal.

The Holy Father said he was ready to meet with victims and offered them sympathy and understanding. He noted that many victims found that, when they had the courage to denounce the abuse, “no one would listen” and that those abused in Catholic residential institutions must have felt that there was no escape from their sufferings.

“It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel. At the same time, I ask you not to lose hope,” he said.

Benedict XVI said those who have abused should openly acknowledge their guilt, try to atone personally for what they have done and “not despair of God’s mercy.” He also had a word for ordinary, upstanding priests, noting their personal discouragement, the pain of being tainted by association and their anger at the way their superiors had handled these cases.

But what many commentators saw as the most newsworthy aspect of the letter was the Pope’s decision to hold an apostolic visitation (internal Church investigation) of certain dioceses in Ireland, as well as seminaries and religious congregations. He said details would be announced later.

Papal biographer George Weigel, writing in National Review Online March 22, predicted the visitation would result in major changes in Church leadership. The letter points to radical reform being “the only path back to a vital and vibrant Catholic Church” in Ireland, he said, and that the investigation, if conducted well, would serve to remove the scourge of “cover-ups” which have long been used by critics to try to cripple the Church.

In addition to the visitation, the Pope also announced a yearlong period of penitential and devotional practices, beginning this Easter, with the intention of strengthening holiness in the Church in Ireland.

Eucharistic adoration, he said, should be set up in every diocese to enable “reparation for the sins of abuse that have done so much harm.” And he called for a nationwide “mission” to be held for all bishops, priests and religious to promote a better understanding of their vocations by drawing on the expertise of preachers and retreat givers and by studying Vatican II documents and more recent teachings.

The Pope ended with a message of hope, especially to young people. “We are all scandalized by the sins and failures of some of the Church’s members,” he said. “But it is in the Church that you will find Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forever.”

“May our sorrow and tears, our sincere efforts to redress past wrongs, and our firm purpose of amendment bear an abundant harvest of grace,” he prayed in closing.

Although deploring the crimes, many prelates, especially in Italy, have criticized the vicious attacks on the Church which have come in the secular media. Speaking to the Register March 18, Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said that although he fully supported the Pope’s willingness to ask victims for forgiveness, he felt the excessive coverage of the scandals was eclipsing the good work carried out by most Catholic clergy and laity. “What isn’t recognized is that there exists another horizon, another sphere consisting of a much larger percentage of priests, laity, Christians, Catholics,” he said, and recalled their indispensable work in helping the poor in Milan, his home city. “This is the injustice of these attacks.”

His comments were echoed by Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of Italy’s bishops’ conference, who said March 22 the Church would not tolerate “generalized campaigns to discredit it.” Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Mueller of Regensburg, Germany, also decried the media’s coverage and accused them of manipulating people “with their twisted and shortened reports.”

One Vatican official, speaking to the Register March 17 on condition of anonymity, said he believed there was a media persecution of the clergy taking place, aimed at weakening their identity and disheartening them. He said he was confident God would bring good out of these scandals and attacks. “There’s going to be a new era for the priesthood,” he said, “but this purification is, I’m afraid, a part of it, too.”

CNS contributed to this report.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.

SHADOW OF ROSARY SEEN IN IRELAND CATHOLIC CHURCH. The shadow of a woman holding a rosary is seen during a Mass at a church in Armagh, Northern Ireland, March 21. Pope Benedict XVI’s letter to Irish Catholics was a pastoral not a disciplinary document, aimed more at spiritual rebuilding than establishing a chain of accountability for the priestly sex-abuse scandal. CNS photo/Cathal McNaughton, Reuters