With the Catholic Church facing a sexual abuse scandal that has spread across Europe, Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday issued a rare apology to victims and their family members in Ireland but outlined no disciplinary action or changes in Vatican policies to prevent future incidents.
The apology, in the form of a pastoral letter, came as the church is embroiled in potentially its biggest crisis since Benedict became pope in 2005. Hundreds of abuse cases involving Catholic clergy have emerged in recent weeks in the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland and Benedict's native Germany.
The pope's letter was aimed at the church in Ireland, where a government report last year detailed thousands of instances of physical and sexual abuse of children by priests from 1930 to 1990.
But it amounted to the highest-level Vatican response yet to the mounting allegations of abuses in Europe, which have raised questions about Benedict's role in the handling of at least one case when he was archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982.
Some Vatican watchers and victims' groups said the apology fell short and would not curb the crisis.
In his letter, the pope said that he would dispatch a special delegation to Irish dioceses to more fully review their handling of cases and that "no effort should be spared in improving and updating existing procedures." But he did not address the role that the Vatican and its policies may have played in failing to prevent or manage sexual abuse cases. He also did not lay out new prescriptions, suggest punishment or touch on the wider scandal that has led European government officials to denounce church secrecy surrounding abuse cases.
Scholars said the letter underscored Benedict's willingness, compared with his predecessor, to address sexual abuse inside the church. Although Pope John Paul II offered apologies for historical missteps such as the condemnation of Galileo in 1633, he was seen as reluctant to confront the allegations of abuse that rocked the church in the United States a decade ago.
In contrast, Benedict has apologized to U.S. abuse victims, and his letter Saturday amounted to a personal response to Irish victims, many of whom were deeply involved in church life.
"You have suffered grievously, and I am truly sorry," Benedict wrote in the letter of more than 4,000 words, read aloud in Irish churches this weekend. "I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed, and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen."
The pope did recognize the church's failings, but he placed them at the national level of the church in Ireland. In the letter, he noted "inadequate procedures for determining the suitability of candidates for the priesthood and the religious life," "insufficient human, moral, intellectual and spiritual formation in seminaries and novitiates" and "a tendency in society to favor the clergy and other authority figures."
He also condemned "a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church."
But critics in Ireland who had called for bishops to be punished were disappointed. "What the Irish people are saying is, these were crimes, and they need to be reported before the courts," said James Kelly, lecturer in theology at Trinity College in Dublin.
Last year, two government-backed reports offered accounts of abuse scandals in Ireland. In May, a report cataloged abuses by priests and nuns of thousands of orphans and foster children, and in November, a second scathing report looked at how bishops in Dublin and the Irish police colluded in covering up abuses by Dublin priests.
It remained unclear Saturday how and whether the Vatican would hold church officials accountable. Benedict called for abusers to answer for their crimes "before Almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals" but did not say whether the church would discipline high-level authorities for mishandling cases, including those in which pedophilic clergy were permitted to go back to ministering.
"We're very disappointed the pope missed a historic opportunity in not acknowledging the cover-up that goes right back to the Vatican and instead focused only on the Irish failings," said Maeve Lewis, head of the Irish victims' group One in Four. "The pope's solution lies in spiritual renewal, and he doesn't propose any practical framework for the way forward."