The truth is the Church has apologised on a number of occasions. They have been significant apologies and have indeed been offered by successive pontiffs. Many would find it hard to believe that John Paul II made over a hundred apologies to a whole range of people. The groups that he said sorry to included the Jewish community, Galileo, women and Muslims killed by Crusaders. In fact one of the first apologies in terms of child abuse was given by John Paul II on November 20th 2001. In March 2010 Benedict XVI apologised speaking of his ‘shame and remorse’ and said that he was ‘truly sorry’. Over the past twenty years we as a Church have issued a lot of apologies. Some people are suggesting that it would be important that Pope Francis apologises when we he is here in Ireland at the end of August. Should he?
I find myself struggling with a number of issues when I ask this question. Should Pope Francis apologise? I do not think anyone is in any doubt that there has been much hurt caused, often times either by, or in the name of, the Church. So in one sense it might be argued that there is plenty to apologise for. However I wonder might I ask some questions about the idea of a papal apology at the World Meeting of Families? What would this apology achieve? Is an apology ever enough? Is it likely that those who seek an apology will be satisfied?
It is interesting to park the notion of a papal apology for a moment and just take a look at the idea of ‘apology’ in our own lives. Is it the case that the song is right, is it that sorry seems to be the hardest word? Did you ever say ‘I demand an apology!’ Did you get it? Did it satisfy you? Did you need more? Did you feel it was heartfelt? Did it leave you needing more?
Is there something not quite right about the ‘demanded’ apology? Does the fact that it is ‘demanded’ not begin to dilute it from the beginning? Now here’s a strange question, in fact it’s more than a question it’s actually a suggestion: Is it possible that we are doing not only the many people hurt by the Church, and indeed the Holy Father himself, a great dis-service by reducing this all to the question of an apology?
In other words what I am saying is that an apology is not good enough, it’s a start, perhaps a good start, but it’s only a start. If it’s to be an apology on its own, then in my view it’s better not given. If it’s an apology as part of a serious package of reform then for me it’s welcome. A apology focused on the past is fine but very limited. An apology that does not acknowledge that abuse continues today hardly deserves the name. In Irish society we should be ashamed of ourselves given the ongoing scandal of provision centres and our disgraceful on going crisis with regard to homelessness. What about within the Church? Surely today there is no abuse in the Church? Now I think it’s good to acknowledge the huge work done around the country in all the different dioceses to genuinely make the Church a safe place for both children and vulnerable adults. Further to this I believe we can be proud of our own Archbishop’s contribution to this here in Dublin. So is there no abuse today in the Church? I’m afraid I feel that it’s not as simple as that.
In so far as we are guilty of clericalism, in so far as we are homophobic, in so far as we are elitist, in so far as we are intolerant of dissent, we are guilty of continued abuse. I think we have a way to go yet when we say we are no longer an abusive Church. Should the Pope apologise? If it’s cosmetic, populist and about the optics then no he should not apologise. If, however, the Pope wishes to apologise as part of a genuine package of healing and reform then that brings us into a different place. If he wants to ask the People of God for forgiveness, for another chance, if he wants to articulate a new vision of Church and if he wants in the context of his apology to herald a new chapter of re-Evangelisation in the Irish Church, then yes perhaps let’s begin with the apology. In this scenario, apology ceases to be a cul-de-sac and becomes the welcome precursor to a new day of the Lord.