A Papal statement is a carefully crafted document, intentionally written in an ambiguous style that addresses both practical and spiritual issues. But each phrase is full of meaning -- political, spiritual, and historic -- if you know how to read it. While we can't, of course, know what was in the Pope's mind as he wrote this speech, based on his past statements and statements of other church officials, here is what we think the Pope really meant to say. Beliefnet editors offer, in brackets, our annotated version.

Dear Brothers,

Let me assure you first of all that I greatly appreciate the effort you are making to keep the Holy See, and me personally, informed regarding the complex and difficult situation which has arisen in your country in recent months. I am confident that your discussions here will bear much fruit for the good of the Catholic people of the United States. You have come to the house of the successor of Peter, whose task it is to confirm his brother bishops in faith and love, and to unite them around Christ in the service of God's people. The door of this house is always open to you. All the more so when your communities are in distress. [The Pope's real message: Even though the Vatican may look like a fortress, he does care about you and what's going on in the American Church.]

Like you, I too have been deeply grieved by the fact that priests and religious, whose vocation it is to help people live holy lives in the sight of God, have themselves caused such suffering and scandal to the young. Because of the great harm done by some priests and religious, the church herself is viewed with distrust, and many are offended at the way in which the church's leaders are perceived to have acted in this matter. [He now recognizes that this scandal has already done great damage to the Church. It has injured its credibility because lay Catholics believe the Bishops themselves have covered up the problem.]

The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society [In the 1980s, the Church usually spoke of this as a "great scandal," not as a crime. The Pope's acknowledgement that this is crime, in civil terms, can be seen as a signal to Dioceses that they should cooperate with law enforcement authorities and prosecutors. This is a new emphasis for the Pope] ; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God. To the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern. [It's interesting that he personally doesn't directly express remorse. He may be, ever so slightly, distancing himself and the Vatican from the scandal, trying to convey the sense that he is on the side of the aggrieved.]

It is true that a generalized lack of knowledge of the nature of the problem and also at times the advice of clinical experts led bishops to make decisions which subsequent events showed to be wrong. [He's saying that early on in this crisis, the Church messed up because it didn't understand pedophilia and relied on psychologists who told us that pedophiles could be reformed. It should be noted, however, that victims often view this explanation as a hollow rationalization: Even though there was less knowledge about the nature of pedophilia, church officials did know molesting children was wrong.] You are now working to establish more reliable criteria to ensure that such mistakes are not repeated. [Though the statement is ostensibly addressed to the bishops, it is actually designed to reassure the public that the Church is taking proactive steps.]

At the same time, even while recognizing how indispensable these criteria are, we cannot forget the power of Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God, which reaches to the depths of a person's soul and can work extraordinary change. [This is, in some ways, one of the most remarkable statements in his speech. The Pope is reiterating a commoly held view that these priests are sinful, which means God can change them if they ask for forgiveness, as opposed to being irreversibly ill and therefore likely to repeat the behavior.]

Neither should we forget the immense spiritual, human and social good that the vast majority of priests and religious in the United States have done and are still doing. The Catholic church in your country has always promoted human and Christian values with great vigor and generosity, in a way that has helped to consolidate all that is noble in the American people. [Message: People shouldn't get caught up in the media frenzy. Even though America is often decadent, there are noble aspects of the American culture, and we Catholics are the ones who have most effectively championed those more wholesome values.]

A great work of art may be blemished, but its beauty remains; and this is a truth which any intellectually honest critic will recognize. [Yes, the Church is imperfect, he is saying, but the media, the public and the Catholic reform movement should still recognize its great services to humanity and not imply that the entire institution is without value today.]

To the Catholic communities in the United States, to their Pastors and members, to the men and women religious, to teachers in Catholic universities and schools, to American missionaries in all parts of the world, go the wholehearted thanks of the entire Catholic church and the personal thanks of the bishop of Rome. [Those who have stuck with us, know that I personally appreciate what you've done.]
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