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Commentary: True Reform Would Start with ‘I’m Sorry’

c. 2011 Religion News Service

(RNS) The Vatican has given the world’s Catholic bishops one year to set policies for handling allegations of child abuse, including reporting to police where required by local law. And on Wednesday (May 18), the U.S. bishops released a 300-page report on the “causes and context” of the abuse scandal here at home.

Critics cite weak wording and anemic incentives in the Vatican’s directive, and in many respects, those complaints are valid. So, too, are criticisms that the U.S. bishops continue to pass the buck for allowing the scandal to fester.

As a survivor of childhood clergy abuse, the Vatican’s directive is welcomed, and for me it feels like a step forward — a baby step to be sure, but nonetheless a long overdue turn toward the light.


If the Roman Catholic Church is to erase this stain on its reputation, it will have to be based on a complete reversal of its callous shielding of abusers within its ranks. Every pirouette begins with the motion to turn. And perhaps this could be that movement.

And yet, another part of me — the child who endured unspeakable abuse at the hands of the clergy — is wary. I’ve heard the platitudes too many times. I worry these are empty words. Real reform starts with something terribly basic, just two words: “I’m sorry.” And I and other abuse victims are still waiting.

Nearly 10 years after the abuse scandal erupted here in the U.S., the Vatican has been flooded with new information, new warnings and more horrific stories of sexual abuse from around the globe. And yet we’re still waiting.


We’re still waiting for a real and sincere apology from the pope and the rest of the hierarchy. In its place, the Vatican and the U.S. bishops have offered vapid pamphlets preaching “zero tolerance” — Band-Aid fixes to the gaping wounds of hundreds of thousands of victims and survivors.

In fact, it seems Pope Benedict XVI and the bishops have learned little, if anything, about the concept of apology. Instead, the church continues to cover up, ignore, and shift the blame.

Hierarchical callousness has real and profound effects.

“Spiritual development of the young remains the foundational mission of the church,” said William F. McMurry, a Kentucky lawyer who has represented abuse victims in suits against the Vatican. “How ironic, then, that a church destroys its mission by fostering a culture of child sexual abuse, yet clings to its mission without remorse. When the fathers of the Church become monsters in the eyes of a child, many are never again able to experience harmony or any connection with God.”


It’s a story that I and other victims know all too well. Many of us have survived, however wounded. Others have seen their lives and livelihoods destroyed. For some, it becomes too much to take and they have taken their own lives. Still others suffer in hopeless silence.

In the Roman Catholic Church, Easter isn’t just a day, but an entire 50-day season of rebirth and renewal. Some of us hope the church is on the edge of Easter renewal; others of us haven’t yet escaped the shadows of the tomb.

What would rebirth and renewal look like for the Roman Catholic Church? It would start with a true and sincere apology, accompanied by true and sincere reform, which would show victims that the church does not sanction what it has done.


Two simple words — “I’m sorry” — would show the world that the Roman Catholic Church really does care about victims and survivors and the immense pain and harm we have suffered.

Compared to the magnitude of the pain inflicted, the harm done and the lives shattered, one simple phrase is not too much to ask.

(Kim Michele Richardson survived a decade of abuse at the hands of nuns and a Roman Catholic priest at a church-run orphanage in rural Kentucky. She is the author of a memoir, The Unbreakable Child.)

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    It is amazing you survived the terrors of the RC and though I had nothing to do with it I’m sorry you had to endure what you did. NO child should ever have to endure abuse of any kind—physical or emotional.

    Well written commentary and I totally agree—“I’m sorry” can be 2 powerful words. Being who I am, however, I’d be skeptical of those saying it in the RCC.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment nnmns

    I completely agree with pagansister.

  • DPierre

    1. Richardson wrote, “the U.S. bishops released a 300-page report on the ’causes and context’ of the abuse scandal here at home …”

    Actually, although the study may have been released by the bishops, the study was conducted and written by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

    2. Contrary to Richardson’s claim, the Pope and countless bishops have apologized profusely for teh scandals and to victims. Richardson is flat-out wrong here.

    3. Richardson says the Church has lacked “true and sincere reform.” Well, let’s see: Over $2 billion in settlements. Over $70 million in therapy for victims. Review boards in every diocese. Intense screenings of all seminarians and employees. Yearly audits and reports. Ongoing apologies. If that’s not reform, I don’t know what is.

    4. Richardson says, “the church continues to cover up, ignore, and shift the blame.”

    Please. Richardson does not have a shred of evidence to support that statement.

    While we must continue to demand JUSTICE and COMPASSION for all victims of clergy abuse, this commentary is factually inaccurate and awfully unfair.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Michael in Abu Dhabi

    DPierre writes “While we must continue to demand JUSTICE and COMPASSION for all victims of clergy abuse, this commentary is factually inaccurate and awfully unfair”

    I agree we must demand Justice and Compassion for all victims of clergy abuse. But I wonder why we do not so much demand justice and compassion for victims of abuse from others that are not clergy.

    Maybe there is just so much justice and compassion to go around and so we have to reserve it for victims of clergy abuse? Or is something else going on here?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment kenneth

    They’re only sorry they got caught.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Bill Wilson

    I have one word for DPierre: PHILADELPHIA

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment jestrfyl

    If they cannot admit the sin, or complicity in it, then no reform will have root enough to survive. Reformation without confession is simple a attempt to humor a greater authority. In this case the ones doing the humoring are the RCC spokespeople, and the greater authority is the world that has seen its sin and required of it confession, before it can gain absolution. This ought to sound familiar to the RCC folks.

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