In this summer of shame, how should bishops speak about scandals of sexual predation in the clergy? There have been some remarkable failures. Cardinal Donald Wuerl launched a special website praising his own record while Bishop of Pittsburgh in the light of criticism from the Pennsylvania grand jury report. That went over so badly that the website was scrapped within days. For good measure, Cardinal Wuerl then cancelled his keynote address at the World Meeting of Families in Ireland.

Silence was also the second option for Cardinal Kevin Farrell who, after the revelations about now ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, gave an interview professing to be shocked, veritably shocked, at the news. When his protestations were poorly received, he cancelled his trip to Baltimore to give the keynote address at the Knights of Columbus convention.

Silence was the initial option chosen by the Holy See after the Pennsylvania report. But after a few days that became untenable, and a belated but strong statement from the Holy See Press Office was released. Then on Monday a letter to the entire Church from the Holy Father himself spoke strongly about repentance and conversion. Pope Francis referred to policies and protocols, but at the heart of his letter was this appeal: “I invite the entire holy faithful People of God to a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting.”

Pope Francis wants to move our response to sexual infidelity and abuse from management, which is necessary but not sufficient, to a conversion and renewal of clerical culture. And that can only be accomplished by recognising both particular sins and sinful structures, being contrite for them and doing penance.

It was noteworthy that the Holy Father quoted in his letter the stark language of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the Good Friday Via Crucis in 2005, just weeks before his election as pope: “How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to [Christ]! How much pride, how much self-complacency! Christ’s betrayal by his disciples, their unworthy reception of his body and blood, is certainly the greatest suffering endured by the Redeemer; it pierces his heart.”

We now know that while decrying the “filth” in the priesthood, Cardinal Ratzinger has already send his chief investigator, Mgr Charles Scicluna, to do the interviews that would lead to the banishment of Fr Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ and likely the greatest fraudster in the long history of the Church.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection