Church abuse scandal: Who should confess, and who absolve?

Seven years ago, while Boston shook with the early tremors of the Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal, my mother shared news that made my family part of what now seems a global seismic event. Like thousands of others in more than 20 countries, she had been abused by a priest in her youth.

Forty years earlier, she had been a pious girl, so much so that she joined a religious order after high school and remained a nun for 10 years. A newspaper photo shows a priest blessing my mother's kneeling family on the eve of her departure for the convent. The caption read in part, "Dedicates Life to the Glory of God."

The priest in the picture had steered her toward religious life, my mother told me. He also abused her for a year. One of those notorious priests moved from parish to parish despite numerous warnings and complaints, he had a church personnel file -- which was made public through a lawsuit -- that included the descriptions "sick," "intolerable" and "extremely dangerous." "Will probably kill someone," said one memo sent up the chain of ecclesiastical command.

Perhaps most heinous: After many incidents of abuse, he drove my mother to a neighboring parish to do penance -- to ask forgiveness for what she had done.

I couldn't help thinking of this when I heard that Pope Benedict XVI finally used the word "penance" to describe how he and others implicated in the abuse scandal might make amends.

"We Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word 'penance,' " he said in a homily Thursday. But now, he added, "We see how it is necessary to perform penance, that is, to recognize what is wrong in our life."

At the risk of nitpicking the closest thing to an apology we have heard from the Vatican, might we ask who the pope thinks "we Christians" are? Far too many of the faithful -- the victims themselves -- have already been made to feel sinful, unworthy and generally penitent through the decades of this scandal. So when Benedict XVI speaks of penance, he might be more precise: Who exactly should visit the confessional over this, and who will absolve them?

Here is a suggestion based on family experience:

A year after sharing her revelation, my mother learned that the priest who abused her had died. I still do not entirely understand the pull the man's death had on us, yet we both felt it strongly enough that we made the 90-minute drive from my parents' house in the Boston suburbs to a funeral home on Cape Cod. Inside, my mother signed the guest book and together we approached the open casket.

What I saw there was not evil incarnate; it was just a withered little man. The gray makeup covering his skin blended into the silver of his hair so that it seemed his head had been dipped in paint. Full priestly regalia draped from his Roman collar to his ankles, where two canvas sneakers poked out from the hem of his vestments.

Before we left the priest's wake, I knelt beside the casket with my mother. I have no doubt she prayed for the man's eternal soul, for the healing of the church, for the well-being of the pope and the bishops. I did not pray so much as sigh with relief: Finally, forgiveness was not hers to ask for; it was hers to give.

If the Vatican truly wants to do penance, absolution should not be sought in the secrecy of the confessional but in the open air of the pews. And instead of "we Christians," the pope would do well to begin his act of contrition as I'm sure my mother began hers long ago: "My God, I am sorry."

Peter Manseau, a doctoral student in theology at Georgetown University and the author of several books, including Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and their Son.