The Catholic Church is the oldest institution in the western world, and with more than one billion members worldwide, it is the largest Christian church. Its history spans almost 2,000 years and is rooted in the Church's Canon of Scripture and Tradition. At the head of the church is the Pope, who Catholics believe is the successor to Saint Peter whom Christ appointed as the first head of His church. The Pope, according to the religion's doctrine, can speak infallibly on matters of faith and morals. The Catholic Church practises closed communion and only baptised members of the church are permitted to receive the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.
Pope's apology a start, now we need action
Pope Benedict has not been short of words about the sexual abuse of children by the Catholic Church in Ireland. His unprecedented letter of apology read out at Mass throughout the country was full of shame and rebuke for bishops. But remorse is only a small part of what the victims seek. They most of all want what the church has been unwilling to give until forced by public pressure or police: action.
Few crimes are as appalling as the sexual abuse of children. Those found guilty are invariably given harsh sentences. The victims are entitled to financial compensation and psychological help. There has not been a willingness by the church to take the initiative. Instead, it has wrongly seen the issue as an internal one, to be dealt with by church rather than state law
The travesty is not new and extends far beyond Ireland: physical and sexual abuse of children by priests and nuns has been an issue the world over for decades. But only since the 1990s has there been a concerted movement to ensure it is taken beyond secretive church hands and dealt with by criminal courts. The Pope met victims during visits to the US and Australia in 2008. As global as the matter is, though, he has been unwilling to issue a global apology and change the church's ways with a concerted strategy of rooting out past and present abusers and ensuring they face the laws of the land. Victims have to be properly compensated. Most of all, mechanisms must be put in place to ensure that there won't be repeats.
Despite the Pope's letter, there is no certainty of this. The church refused to co-operate with three official Irish inquiries between 2001 and last year, which found Catholic leaders protected the church's reputation from scandal at the expense of children. Amid fresh scandals across Europe, even the Pope is implicated in one case of an abusive priest and another involving a choir long run by his brother.
Reputations and embarrassment are not excuses. Lives have been destroyed. Abusers have to face justice. The Pope's letter is welcome, but it is only a first step in a process that has to ensure that the church is truly repentant and not above the law.