SYDNEY – In a Christmas message issued after a turbulent year for the church, Australia’s most senior Catholic cleric on Monday apologized to those who “suffered at the hands” of priests and religious teachers.
In the video message broadcast on television, Sydney Archbishop George Pell said he was shocked and ashamed, following a series of pedophile allegations against priests and claims they were hushed up.
Pell said his heart went out to “all those who cannot find peace at this time, especially those who have suffered at the hands of fellow Christians, Christian officials, priests, religious teachers.”
“I am deeply sorry this has happened,” he added.
“I feel, too, the shock and shame across the community at these revelations of wrongdoing and crimes.”
Without specifically mentioning child sex abuse, Pell said the hurt caused was “completely contrary” to Christ’s teachings.
“We need our faith in God’s goodness and love to cope with these disasters, to help those who have been hurt,” he said.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard last month ended more than a decade of growing pressure by ordering a royal commission to investigate the responses of all religious organizations, schools and state care to allegations of abuse.
Her announcement came after a senior police investigator claimed the church had covered up sexual abuse of children in the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney, to protect pedophiles and its own reputation.
The government in Victoria state is already investigating allegations of sex abuse by the clergy, with the church telling a state parliamentary hearing in September that at least 620 children had been abused since the 1930s.
When Gillard announced the royal commission, Pell welcomed it as an opportunity to help victims, “clear the air” and “separate fact from fiction.”
“We are not interested in denying the extent of misdoing in the Catholic Church,” he said at the time.
“We object to it being exaggerated, we object to being described as the only cab on the rank,” he said. “I don’t think we should be scapegoated.”
Pell’s Christmas message drew mixed reactions from victim support groups, with some saying it represents a “major shift” in the church’s position while others said it does not go far enough.
“It’s pleasing that he’s opening up his heart to these people,” Wayne Chamley, a spokesman for victims support group Broken Rites, told ABC television.
“They seem to now appreciate the scale of it. I don’t think we’ve seen a statement in the past which was reflecting on the scale of what’s gone on.”
But Adults Surviving Child Abuse President Cathy Kezelman called it “an absolutely minimal response to express regret.”
“It’s very important that we also acknowledge the failure of religious organizations, including the Catholic Church, to respond appropriately to victims,” she said.
“To have that ultimate betrayal by someone not only you should trust but is meant to be setting a moral compass.”
Gillard has refused to put a deadline on the royal commission, but said the government had taken the first steps toward shaping the terms of reference.
Child sex abuse allegations have rattled the Catholic Church across the world, particularly in Ireland, but also in the United States, Germany and Belgium.