Canberra, Australia - The Roman Catholic Church's culture of discretion and focus on "sin and forgiveness rather than crime and punishment" were among ingrained factors that ultimately led to the child sex abuse scandal and cover-up surrounding the church today, a pre-eminent Australian bishop said Monday.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, whose archdiocese is based in the national capital of Canberra, took the unusual step of writing an open letter attempting to explain the culture that led the church to turn a blind eye to priests accused of molesting children.
Factors include a determination to protect the church's reputation, a culture of discretion, "institutionalized immaturity" of priests fostered by seminary training, and an outlook of "sin and forgiveness rather than crime and punishment," Coleridge wrote.
Clerical celibacy was not itself a factor but it "has its perils," he wrote. "The discipline of celibacy may also have been attractive to men in whom there were paedophile tendencies which may not have been explicitly recognised by the men themselves when they entered the seminary."
Coleridge said as a young priest in the 1970s, he regarded pedophilia cases as "tragic and isolated." Coleridge's view shifted when he was called to serve at the Vatican as chaplain to Pope John Paul II during a five-year period that ended in 2002. While there, Coleridge came to regard child abuse in the church as "cultural."
"There is no one factor that makes abuse of the young by Catholic clergy in some sense cultural," Coleridge wrote. "It seems to me a rather complex combination of factors which I do not claim to understand fully."
Coleridge, a priest for 36 years, said no one could now deny the scale of the pedophilia problem in the church.
"All can see that this is a time of crisis for the Catholic Church ... there will be no quick fix to this problem, the roots of which go deep and wide."
Coleridge said Monday that Pope Benedict XVI was the right church leader for the challenge. Before he became pope in 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger held a key Vatican role in dealing with sex abuse.
"As cardinal and as pope, he has acted as vigorously as I think he can without claiming that he's got a magic wand or that the pope can just speak a word from on high and it all happens," Coleridge told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio Monday.
Canberra-based church historian Paul Collins said Coleridge's letter was unprecedented in Australia in that it openly admits the scale of the child abuse problem.
"Certainly Coleridge is the first bishop to have tackled it head on in this way in Australia," said Collins, an author and former priest.
Broken Rites Australia, a support group for victims of clergy sex abuse, said the church's failing as outlined by Coleridge was unforgivable.
"The archbishop's comments show how the Catholic Church hierarchy have covered up sex abuse and dealt very badly with the victims," group president Chris MacIsacc said. "But there is no excuse for not understanding that rape, sodomy and child sex abuse is a crime. To be more concerned for the perpetrator of crime than the victim is unforgivable."