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Catholic Church Reform Should Start With 'I'm Sorry'

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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." This column was originally published via the Religion News Service,

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