And on a quick read, it looks very good indeed, truly hitting all the right notes in acknowledging the damage that has been done, acknowledging the mishandling of cases in the past, and calling for prayer and penance to be done for them.
Acknowledging the depth of the problem
The pastoral letter opens by acknowledging the sins of the past and just why the laity are so appalled by them, quoting US conservative commentator George Weigel:
"Against the backdrop of this Lenten paradox — of tears and joy, Cross and Resurrection — the Church in Australia has been rocked by child sexual abuse. As one prominent lay commentator observed: "Like every community, the Catholic Church is a Church of sinners. Its spiritual rhythms repeat the ancient biblical cycle of failure, repentance, penance, forgiveness and reconciliation. Yet even in a Church that knows a lot about sin, some acts of wickedness still retain their capacity to shock. The sexual abuse of minors by priests — men traditionally called 'Father' - is one such kind of wickedness. So is the failure of bishops — shepherds, in the ancient image — to guard the flock against predators, especially predators from within the household of faith." (George Weigel, The Courage to be Catholic, ppl-2)
It acknowledges that mistakes have been made and notes that "We must not put our heads in the sand about any of this, or try to minimise or explain it away."
It makes a formal apology for both the abuse and the mishandling of it.
It suggests that this is an opportunity for both church leaders and the 'community of faith' to 'listen to people's hurt and to respond with humility and compassion'.
And it calls for this to be an opportunity for the purification of the Church, expressing the hope that the Australian Church will come out of this 'humbler and holier'.
Acknowledging that more needs to be done
Another very positive step is the acknowledgement that the Towards Healing protocol is not enough, and more needs to be done:
"Our Dioceses will cooperate fully with the Royal Commission, police and other relevant authorities. With the help of the Commission report we will try to get to the bottom of the causes both of abuse and of failures to respond to it appropriately. We know we must re-examine our attitude to children and vulnerable people and how we can keep them safe; the ways we attract, discern and form vocations; how we appraise, develop, supervise and support those in ministry; ways to identify and best respond to any hint of misconduct; how we bring justice and healing to victims; ways to work best with civil authorities. Further concrete measures will emerge in the months ahead."
Action this Lent
The letter tells us that the Bishops Conference has called on the faithful to use the Fridays of Lent as special days of penance in the wake of the abuse crisis:
"The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference calls on all the faithful to join them in observing the Fridays of Lent in 2013 as special days of penance in the wake of the abuse crisis, by such means as prayerful reading of the Holy Scripture, a holy hour of prayer and petition before the Blessed Sacrament, and by traditional acts such as fasting and abstaining from meat. As your Bishops in New South Wales we undertake to lead you in these efforts and to continue to make a holy hour ourselves beyond Lent. We invite clergy and religious to join us in giving this lead and redoubling their prayers for this intention."
It also asks for prayer for the intentions of the success of the Royal Commission, justice and healing of victims, wisdom and compassion for leaders and healers, repentance by perpetrators, grace for those tempted to lose faith or hope, safety for all young people, and consolation for all affected.
The letter also calls for ongoing prayer and repentance beyond Lent:
"After Lent is over we ask the people of our Dioceses to continue to join their pastors in this spiritual response to our spiritual and moral failures, through regular participation in Mass, Holy Communion and Confession, and by praying daily for spiritual and moral renewal in the Church. The Hail Holy Queen might be an appropriate daily prayer as both abuse victims and the Church pass through this 'vale of tears'. There will be periodic prayers of the faithful in Mass for these intentions."
That's important. As the letter acknowledges:
"Wounds in the Body of Christ, even ones for which we are not personally responsible, will only be healed by our cooperation with God's grace in acts such as these."
The signatories to the Pastoral Letter include not just those bishops (and Auxiliaries) whose dioceses are formally part of the Province of Sydney (viz Armidale, Bathurst, Broken Bay, Lismore, Maitland-Newcastle, Parramatta, Sydney, Wagga Wagga, Wilcannia-Forbes and Wollongong), but also most of those whose territories include NSW, viz the Administrator for Canberra-Goulburn, the Military Ordinary (who is based in Canberra) and the Maronite Bishop of Australia (the Melkites and Ukrainians are the only ones missing from the list as far as I can see). This is good to see.
Is it enough?
We are starting to see at least some signs, albeit still with some mixed messages, of the Church hierarchy coming to grips with the abuse crisis, and this letter is part of that.
Confessing sins, expressing contrition, and doing some penance for them are all very appropriate responses indeed.
Yet the most important stage of the response to past mistakes must be firstly to actually change behaviour, and secondly to reach out individually to those that have been hurt and seek forgiveness from them. Neither of these things is ever going to be easy, and there will inevitably be relapses and failures along the way.
Reaching out and actually listening to victims, and more, doing what can be done to assure them that justice is being done is fraught with dangers. But it must be done if victims are to be reconciled to the Church, which must surely be the ultimate aim for our pastors.
Still a way to go yet methinks...