Person of the week

The apologetic shepherd

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By facing up to the issue of sexual abuse by priests, Pope Francis reinforces his reputation for sincerity
“The scene where Peter sees Jesus emerge after a terrible interrogation… Peter whose eyes meet the gaze of Jesus and weeps… This scene comes to my mind as I look at you, and think of so many men and women, boys and girls. I feel the gaze of Jesus and I ask for the grace to weep, the grace for the Church to weep and make reparation for her sons and daughters who betrayed their mission, who abused innocent persons.”

Thus begins Pope Francis’ address to a group of six victims of sexual abuse by priests. The full text is touching in how earnest he is in facing up to an issue that has dogged the Catholic Church for decades. To the victims who came to his residence at the Vatican last Monday, the Pope spoke of the pain he felt at their faith being betrayed. He listed the effects of such abuse, including addictions, difficult relationships and even suicides. He accepted the church’s responsibility and said the deaths weighed on his conscience.

Successive Popes have ignored or tried to stifle allegations of child sex abuse by priests. John Paul II, a towering Pope in recent times with a 26-year reign, was accused of being in denial of the problem and refusing to take measures to address it. That Pope Francis should not follow the tested path is no surprise. His approach has been refreshingly different across a variety of issues that the papacy has traditionally been rigid on.

Much of it has to do with his not being part of the same pool from which popes have usually been appointed.

As a CNN article noted soon after his election: ‘He’s the first Latin American pontiff; the first Jesuit; the first Francis— and the first non-European in 1,272 years.’ He is also of a frugal and ascetic nature and even charged with being a pseudo-Communist because of his concern for the poor. In May this year, in a speech at the United Nations, he called upon governments to look at legitimate redistribution of wealth. On the prickly issue of recognising homosexuality, he surprised the world by publicly stating that he was no one to judge gaydom.

But facing up to the issue of child sex abuse in the Church is something that has also been thrust on him. The outrage that repeated child sex abuse cases by priests had left the Church defensive for some time. There have been a number of court cases and, in recent times, the world media has consistently highlighted the issue. The Vatican would have had to own up to it sooner or later. Pope Francis has even invited criticism for holding such a meeting so long after he took over the papacy.

But his gesture was accompanied by grace and will assist in rebuilding the reputation of the Church on issues of child abuse. The Pope spoke without any fine print and begged forgiveness of the victims.

He ended his address with hope, continuing the parable that he had begun with: “Jesus comes forth from an unjust trial, from a cruel interrogation and he looks in the eyes of Peter, and Peter weeps. We ask that he look at us and that we allow ourselves to be looked upon and to weep and that he give us the grace to be ashamed, so that, like Peter, forty days later, we can reply: ‘You know that I love you’; and hear him say: ‘Go back and feed my sheep’—and I would add—‘let no wolf enter the sheepfold’.”