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Tom Ferrick Jr. |
Real Reparation Must Dig Deeper

By Tom Ferrick Jr. - Philadelphia Inquirer Columnist
Sunday, October 9, 2005

The cardinal is sorry. Only this time he is really, really sorry.

Thus reads the new missive from Cardinal Justin Rigali to Roman Catholic faithful about the priest sex-abuse scandal in Philadelphia.

Writing from Rome, where he is attending a Vatican synod, the cardinal issued his second pastoral letter in recent weeks on the topic. The new letter has a more contrite tone than his first one, issued the day a Philadelphia grand jury presented its report on the abuse scandal.

In the first letter, Rigali apologized to the victims while rejecting the grand jury's finding that there was a cover-up by the archdiocese. At the same time, archdiocesan lawyers lambasted the report as vile, biased and anti-Catholic.

That good-cop/bad-cop routine offended most Catholics, who let their parish priests and church officials know it.

Hence, this new letter from Rigali, dated Oct. 4, which turns up the contrition dial considerably.

The cardinal writes: "Our Archdiocese has been humbled by sins and failings which have scarred the lives of many young people and have deeply pained and scandalized the faithful."

He goes on to "seek renewed forgiveness for the evil committed by these priests as well as for harm resulting from mistakes and errors of judgment made in the handling of these matters by anyone in administration."

This is reparation?

Finally, he declares this "a time for reparation and renewal."

"Reparation," the cardinal writes, "acknowledges that evil has been committed. ..."

Renewal means that we must renew our "commitment to greater holiness and integrity of life, which involves absolute respect for others and observance of all God's commandments."

Therefore, the cardinal declares, he is directing every parish in the archdiocese to celebrate a holy hour each week, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, where we can pray for reparation and renewal.

So much for the verbatim quotes; let's move to the exegesis.

The tone is certainly somber, but is the cardinal saying anything that is much different from before? He now says "mistakes and errors of judgment" were made by higher-ups. The grand jury had a different tag for it: a cover-up that involved hiding cases and shuffling offenders from assignment to assignment.

He calls for reparations, but he seems to consider prayers as reparations - a sort of spiritual "I'm sorry" bouquet. My dictionary defines reparations as "something done or given as amends or satisfaction; the payment of damages."

Concrete ideas

I am not one to belittle the power of prayer, nor the calling of holy hours.

But something more concrete is needed if the archdiocese really wants to expiate its sins or, if you prefer, its "mistakes and errors of judgment."

Here are three ideas:

One. The archdiocese could announce public support for the changes in law urged by the grand jury, especially the one that calls for a longer statute of limitations for sexual abuse cases. None of the 63 priests identified in the report as known abusers could be indicted because of the current, limited statute.

Two. It could waive its immunity from civil suits from victims that it enjoys because of the similar statutes of limitations and enter into negotiations over monetary reparations. I should mention here that the Boston Archdiocese did exactly that to answer its own priest-abuse scandal.

Three. A suggestion advanced by the Rev. Paul Morrissey, an Augustinian priest stationed at St. Augustine Church: creation of a truth and reconciliation commission, along the lines of the one created in post-apartheid South Africa to publicly air this issue. Offender priests could testify, victims could testify, so could members of the hierarchy. The commission would have the power to offer reparations.

One final thing: Just because we are the cardinal's flock doesn't mean we have to be sheep.

Pray if you will, but also demand action from the church.

Contact columnist Tom Ferrick at 215-854-2714 or [email protected].
Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ferrick.