Acts of Contrition

New York Times
February 28, 2011

One can scarcely imagine the pain borne into St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral in Dublin last month at a Mass — "A Liturgy of Lament and Repentance" — offered for the victims of sexually abusive priests.

It was a reminder that the scandal, a global catastrophe for the Roman Catholic Church and a national tragedy in Ireland, is also a universe of individual tragedies. But there was also hope that some church leaders, at least, are facing up to that pain and that catastrophe. The archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, and Cardinal Séan O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston, presided over the Mass, which went to unusual lengths to involve victims and to gaze unflinchingly at their suffering.

With 400 people in attendance, lectors read long passages from official reports on decades of abuse in Irish parishes and schools — horrific reading for a sacred space. A few victims interrupted the proceedings with their own stories of shame and terror.

Just as unusual, even startling, was the way the archbishop and cardinal made personal the church's act of contrition. They lay prostrate in silence before a bare altar. They washed and dried the feet of eight abuse victims — just as the Catholic clergy do at Mass on Holy Thursday to recall how Jesus washed his disciples' feet, a gesture of humility and service.

Archbishop Martin offered what may be the most specific apology yet, showing an understanding — rare among his peers — of the difference between lip service and true repentance. "When I say 'sorry,' " the archbishop said, "I am in charge. When I ask forgiveness, however, I am no longer in charge. I am in the hands of the others. Only you can forgive me; only God can forgive me."

Not all survivors of abuse will likely accept the apology. They are right that the church has a long way to go to cleaning house and repairing trust with its flock. Reforms are lagging, many victims are still waiting for compensation and a full accounting of crimes. Some predator priests are still in ministry. Bishops have largely avoided punishment or credible repentance.

Still, gestures and ritual can be meaningful, and forgiveness has to begin somewhere, which is why the Dublin Mass seemed to be a true step forward. "We want to be part of a church that puts survivors, the victims of abuse, first," Cardinal O'Malley said, getting it right.

And for that Sunday, anyway, the victims took precedence. "What the hell did I do wrong as a child?" asked a man, Robert Dempsey, who told of being abused in a mental institution. "What the hell did any of us do?"