VATICAN CITY—Calling forgiveness "one of the highest virtues taught to us by Jesus," Pope John Paul II issued a papal decree Monday absolving priest-molested children of all sin.
"Though grave and terrible sins have been committed, our Lord teaches us to turn the other cheek and forgive those who sin against us," said the pope, reading a prepared statement from a balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square. "That is why, despite the terrible wrongs they have committed, the church must move on and forgive these children for their misdeeds."
"As Jesus said, 'Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,'" the pope continued. "We must send a clear message to these hundreds—perhaps thousands—of children whose sinful ways have tempted so many of the church's servants into lustful violation of their holy vows of celibacy. The church forgives them for their transgressions and looks upon them not with intolerance, but compassion."
The papal announcement arrives in response to public outcry over the sex scandal sweeping the Catholic church in the U.S. Though official church doctrine condemns such transgressions, the pope's decision, observers say, is intended to demonstrate the church's willingness to put the scandal behind it and restore the public trust.
"By forgiving these children, primarily churchgoing boys between the ages of 5 and 15, the pope has shown true Christian kindness," said Father Thomas O'Malley, a member of the New York archdiocese and one of the many priests implicated in charges of sexual activity with minors. "The pope is saying that, in their own way, these sinful youths are victims, too. Through their absolution, he sends the important message that empathy, contrary to what naysayers and critics in the secular media would have us believe, does have a place in modern Catholicism."
For Catholics waiting for the pope to break his long silence on the scandal, the sweeping, decisive nature of his response has come as welcome relief.
"The pope has shown great love and compassion, much as Jesus did when he ministered to tax collectors and whores," said Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston. "Despite all they have done to jeopardize the careers of so many priests—to say nothing of imperiling the priests' immortal souls—the church embraces these underaged seducers and tempters with open arms. The pope's words and actions prove that the church is willing to put an end to the suffering and let the healing begin."
The mass absolution is being hailed by church scholars as one of the Vatican's most progressive acts since the Second Vatican Council in 1962.
"One cannot overstate the break from tradition this represents," said lay administrator Bruce McConnachie of the Los Angeles archdiocese. "After all, under church doctrine, the act of seducing a priest is considered a grave sin against the laws of God, punishable by condemnation to Hell for all eternity. But the pope has put all of that aside. He has let bygones be bygones. For this, all of those misbehaving, sexy little guys should feel grateful. By showing such willingness to forgive and forget, the pope has sent a clear message: Even though these boys have done much to undermine and subvert the priestly vows of celibacy, they are still deserving of God's love."
Margaret Leahy, 39, a Somerville, MA, homemaker and mother of one of the alleged seducers, expressed relief over the pope's announcement.
"For months, I feared that my boy—and the dozens of others who committed sinful acts with Father Halloran before he was moved to the safety of another parish to protect him from further temptation at their pre-pubescent hands—was going to Hell for what he'd done," Leahy said. "It's the worst feeling a mother can know. But thanks to the forgiveness of the pope, my long nightmare is finally over. He was just a boy of 8 at the time. He didn't know any better. Thank you, your Holiness, for giving my poor little Timothy a second chance at redemption."
However, not everyone within the Catholic church is so supportive of the pope's actions.
"What kind of a message is the pope sending today's children? That it's okay to seduce priests?" said one concerned Baltimore priest who asked to remain anonymous due to a pending court case. "With the pope's announcement, the church is essentially telling its youngest members, 'Go ahead and let Father So-And-So reach into your swim trunks at the church-youth-group pool party. It's okay, the pope will forgive you in the end.' Without fear of eternal damnation, how are these provocative young lotharios ever going to learn?"
"As the creep of secular humanism continues to chip away at our most sacred institutions, the Vatican has established a dangerous precedent," the priest continued. "We look to the church's authority for justice and righteousness, not politically convenient solutions that maintain the status quo. These nubile sinners should be held accountable for the damage they've done."