John Paul on Sex Abuse

The Register is sending this issue to the printer shortly before the bishops' conference's National Review Board releases its report on diocesan compliance with sex-abuse guidelines. The timing leaves us unable to comment on the specifics of that report.

What we can offer instead is a brief overview of Pope John Paul II's thinking on this subject.

On page 4, we've printed “John Paul's Year in Review,” recalling how the Pope confronted the world on the subject of peace in 2003. John Paul's 2004 will see him in discussions about the U.S. bishops' handling of the sex-abuse scandals.

Starting in March, the Holy Father will start meeting U.S. bishops in their ad limina visits. The visits give bishops a chance to speak directly with the Pope. Each country's bishops get a turn every five years.

This year's ad limina visits by American bishops will be the first such encounters since the clerical sex-abuse scandal shook the Church in the United States.

Recently, the Pope raised the subject of sex abuse with Philippine bishops on their ad limina visit. The Catholic Church in the Philippines has been rocked by a handful of well-publicized accusations of sexual abuse or misconduct against priests and two bishops.

John Paul used the opportunity to condemn abuse by priests — but also to call for a Christian way of dealing with accusations of priests.

Bishops must “always be just and always be merciful,” he said. “True discipleship calls for love, compassion and, at times, strict discipline in order to serve the common good.”

The bishops should work openly and publicly, he said.

“Dear Brothers, Shepherds of God's Holy People,” John Paul concluded. “It is of the utmost importance that openness, honesty and transparency should always be the hallmark of everything the Church does, in all her spiritual, educational and social undertakings, as well as in every aspect of her administration.”

The U.S. bishops have led the way in openness in their National Review Board report. As Bishop Wilton Gregory is fond of saying, the report puts the Catholic Church at the forefront of other institutions when it comes to forthrightness about the sex-abuse problem.

But in addition to discussing how sex-abuse cases should be handled, the Holy Father spoke to the Philippine bishops about the root causes of the problem. His words echoed what he said when he spoke to American cardinals at the height of the sex-abuse scandal in April 2002.

He told the U.S. cardinals that lay people “must know that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality, a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life.”

When he spoke with the Philippine bishops, he made this line of argument much more explicit. He encouraged them “to ensure an ever more complete and permanent formation for your priests.”

He added: “Your lives and those of your priests should reflect an authentic evangelical poverty and detachment from the things and attitudes of the world, and the value of celibacy as a complete gift of self to the Lord and his Church must be carefully safeguarded.”

His concluding words spelled out what must be the next stage of the U.S. bishops' attack on sex abuse in the priesthood: a careful look at what is being taught in seminaries.

“Behavior that might give scandal must be carefully avoided,” the Pope told the Philippine bishops, “and you yourselves must diligently investigate accusations of any such behavior, taking firm steps to correct it where it is found to exist. Here, too, seminary formation is very important, for the convictions and practical training imparted to future priests are essential for the success of the Church's mission.”