Five members of the Irish Bishops' Conference, led by their president and Primate of all Ireland Cardinal Sean Brady, addressed the media on Tuesday afternoon following two days of what they called "intense" discussions with Pope Benedict XVI and members of the Roman Curia. Cardinal Brady said in his remarks that the bishops should spend the penitential season of Lent doing penance to promote “a change of heart.”
Over "a very productive two days," 24 Irish bishops met with the Holy Father and Vatican officials on the topic of sexual abuse in the Irish Church over the last 40 years. Every bishop had a handful of minutes to speak individually during the meetings.
Present at the Tuesday afternoon press conference were Bishops Michael Smith, Joseph Duffy, Denis Brennan and Brendan Kelly and Cardinal Brady, who relayed some of the exchange between the bishops and the Pope, since the meeting was closed to the press.
Cardinal Brady said he used his time with Pope Benedict to speak of "the amount of support we got after the report from members of other churches" and "the impact this report had on people." He also stressed that the bishops of Ireland need to listen better and should do this by further implementing the structures that already exist in the Church, referring specifically to parish/pastor councils and diocesan councils.
"These are structures which could be used more fully and more meaningfully to involve lay people in a more direct way in the running of our Church," Cardinal Brady said.
Bishop Brennan from the Diocese of Ferns spoke "about the culture that has emerged between the bishops, church leadership and Irish society" and the pain and concern he feels for the current situation of the Church, since "it came about because of a breach of trust between us and the people."
He elaborated on how the issue has affected the Church, saying, "people trusted us to do a better job in this area and many of them are disillusioned that we haven't … .”
"This is a long-term process and every day is a step along that road and what we are determined to do, and more determined after this, is to regain that trust of the Irish people," Bishop Brennan added.
Bishop Smith described the meeting as a very "clear, frank and open discussion," and said that each bishop was "listened to and... responded to."
"The Pope himself was there for all of the meetings, and there was tremendous engagement."
Cardinal Brady added that survivors were the "main concern" throughout the meetings, which he said also served "to help the Holy Father put the final touches to his letter, which will address victims... and address them appropriately.
"At the center of it all was concern about how to help victims heal completely," the cardinal stressed.
He called these meetings "one of many steps that will have to be taken" and said that Pastoral Letter from Benedict XVI will provide the Church in Ireland with a "message of encouragement to deal with this problem honestly and courageously," but that "then it will be up to us to continue this work.”
"It is a great problem, and at the center of it all must be the welfare of victims," the cardinal stated.
Speaking about the draft of the pastoral letter from Pope Benedict to the Irish Church, Cardinal Brady said that "generally, the pastoral letter was pleasing," although the Irish bishops did express some "reservations" to certain points which "were listened to very respectfully."
According to a statement released by the Press Office of the Holy See at the conclusion of the meetings the pastoral letter will be finished and presented during the Lenten season.
The Vatican statement also included the Pope's concern over a "more general crisis of faith" in the country, which he indicated as a contributing factor to the phenomenon of abuse, along with a lack of respect for the human person.
Cardinal Brady said that Pope Benedict had told them in the discussions that "at the heart of this is a renewal of faith because faith ultimately is the real and true protector of human dignity and that is the dignity of every human being, who is made in the image and likeness of God."
"That dignity," he continued, "has been wounded by sin and then there is the reality of Jesus who came into the world to heal the wound brought be sin and our job is to go back and continue to bring and preach and live the love of Jesus Christ in our own lives and to express that, especially to those who have suffered so previously as a result of these hideous crimes."
The Holy Father had emphasized the necessity of "a deeper theological reflection on the whole issue, and called for an improved human, spiritual, academic and pastoral preparation both of candidates for the priesthood and religious life and of those already ordained and professed," according to the Vatican statement.
Bishop Smith specified that Holy Father had told them that the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, "Gaudium et Spes," had been "totally misrepresented in some of the moral teaching and attitudes that came into theology."
He said the Pope called on them "to 'refind' the deep vision of humanity and the human person as contained in that particular document."
Bishop Smith also recalled that Pope Benedict has "spoken of it many times: that there is a poverty to the teaching of moral values and moral theology... in the Church.
Summing up the situation and the next step, Cardinal Brady affirmed, "Yes, there have been failures, of course, in our leadership," and "the only way that we will regain that credibility would be through our humiliation. Tomorrow is the beginning of Lent. It is a time of penance and we must begin with ourselves."
"Real penance," he said. "A change of heart."