It were better for him, that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should scandalize one of these little ones. (Luke 17:2)
I must say, it’s a rum situation when Martin McGuinness is calling for Cardinal Brady to reflect on his position. Dr Brady may not have covered himself in glory over the Brendan Smyth affair, to put it mildly, but Martin McGuinness has much more on his conscience – assuming he has a conscience. You don’t need to be any sort of an anti-republican to think Martin is on very thin ice, morally speaking.
As for whether Brady can survive in his post – one noted quite a disconnect between the obvious affection of Mass-goers at Armagh on the one hand, and irate callers to Speak You’re Branes Talk Back on the other – that’s really between Dr Brady, his conscience and the Pope.
Speaking of whom, the HF’s pastoral letter on The Scandal has been published. It’s a good letter – thoughtful, sensitive, penitent, angry where it needs to be – and is very much in the spirit of his 2006 ad limina address to the Irish bishops. It’s worth reading the full text, but here are a few highlights with my emphases and interpolations:
In almost every family in Ireland, there has been someone – a son or a daughter, an aunt or an uncle – who has given his or her life to the Church. Irish families rightly esteem and cherish their loved ones who have dedicated their lives to Christ, sharing the gift of faith with others, and putting that faith into action in loving service of God and neighbour.
This is true. And it’s an important point to bear in mind when we think of the anger this has provoked. Clerical abusers are not only sinners or criminals, but have brought the institution of priesthood into disgrace.
Significant too was the tendency during this period, also on the part of priests and religious, to adopt ways of thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel. The programme of renewal proposed by the Second Vatican Council was sometimes misinterpreted and indeed, in the light of the profound social changes that were taking place, it was far from easy to know how best to implement it. In particular, there was a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations.
What this says, albeit in churchy language, is not that clerical abuse began in 1965, but that the Church’s resources for dealing with it were weakened. Beginning in the 1960s and carrying through into the 1980s – a lot of the credit for changing the atmosphere towards abuse in a less easygoing direction goes to Susan Brownmiller and Esther Rantzen, although it took a long time to filter through – there was a strong vogue in liberal society towards treating paedophilia as a therapeutic, not a criminal, problem. (And there were plenty of influential people who were in favour of destigmatising paedophilia. Oh yes there were.) This conflicts, of course, with Catholic teaching that child abuse is a grave sin, but it’s a way of thinking that did have some influence. Simultaneously, the Church’s internal judicial procedures were weakened – for decades, defrocking was almost never resorted to, and clerical discipline was far too lackadaisical.
On several occasions since my election to the See of Peter, I have met with victims of sexual abuse, as indeed I am ready to do in the future. I have sat with them, I have listened to their stories, I have acknowledged their suffering, and I have prayed with them and for them.
Benedict’s taking time out on his American visit to meet abuse victims was clearly the right thing to do. There are likely to be more initiatives along those lines.
Addressing the victims and their families:
You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. 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. Those of you who were abused in residential institutions must have felt that there was no escape from your sufferings. It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel.
If the late Cardinal Daly, or Cardinal Connell, or Cardinal Brady, or any of the Irish bishops (leaving aside Diarmuid Martin, who is a special case) had spoken in those terms years ago, it would have helped enormously.
To priests and religious who have been guilty of abuse:
You betrayed the trust that was placed in you by innocent young people and their parents, and you must answer for it before Almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals. You have forfeited the esteem of the people of Ireland and brought shame and dishonour upon your confreres. Those of you who are priests violated the sanctity of the sacrament of Holy Orders in which Christ makes himself present in us and in our actions.
Again, the abuse of minors not only brought the Church into disrepute, it was a severe violation of the duties and obligations of the clergy.
To the Irish bishops:
It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse. Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations. I recognize how difficult it was to grasp the extent and complexity of the problem, to obtain reliable information and to make the right decisions in the light of conflicting expert advice. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that grave errors of judgement were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness. I appreciate the efforts you have made to remedy past mistakes and to guarantee that they do not happen again. Besides fully implementing the norms of canon law in addressing cases of child abuse, continue to cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence. Clearly, religious superiors should do likewise.
When Benedict talks about the “frank and constructive” discussions he had with the Irish bishops last month, it looks very much like a euphemism for the Irish bishops leaving Rome with their ears burning, and so they should have.
There’s much more to say about the clerical child abuse scandal than can be said in a single post, so there are several tangents that may be followed up later. I’m not, however, going to go in for moral tubthumping – which is not, I stress, because I’m trying to minimise what happened. Let me make this perfectly clear – what happened was unconscionable and any perpetrators who can be pursued through the criminal justice system, should be. If you haven’t already, and you have the time and the stomach, it’s worthwhile reading the Ryan and Murphy reports in full, rather than relying on third-hand accounts of the executive summaries. But what I want to look at here is what can be done going forward, and also the political aspect.
Because there is a strong political aspect. Cardinal Brady’s involvement in the case of Brendan Smyth back in 1975 may have been tangential – he carried out investigative interviews and reported back to Bishop McKiernan – but that’s not the point. Nor, though it’s odd that this has been in the public domain since 1997 and is only exploding now, will it do to talk about how long ago this all was. What is wrong now was wrong then; and, unfortunately for Brady, what Brendan Smyth did was so unspeakable, and the response of church and state authorities so shockingly bad, that even a tangential connection to Smyth is toxic.
In all this, I have very little sympathy for the Irish bishops, good men though some of them are. One may point out the serial failures of successive governments, the judicial system and the gardaí, but the Church authorities had both an administrative and a moral responsibility, and fell down very badly. This included both sins of omission (failing to take action that might reasonably have been expected) and commission (as in, shuffling off offenders onto unsuspecting parishes). Now, we know that the levels of rape and sexual abuse in Irish society are shockingly high, and that most of it takes place in families, but there are very good reasons why clerical abuse attracts especial odium. It’s to do with the abuse of trust involved, because clergy are rightly held to a higher standard, and also because of the institutional aspect. It’s very hard to reform families, but you can reform an institution. I’ll get onto that presently.
(Parenthetically, it’s hard to know why Ireland has a particularly severe problem with sexual abuse. This isn’t exclusively a Catholic thing by any means – there’s been a particular issue with the Church’s virtual monopoly on childcare, but it’s not as if the Protestant churches, or secular state childcare services in the north, haven’t had their share of problems. I do have the distinct impression, though, that quite a few clerical abuse scandals abroad have involved Irish priests.)
Anyway, as I say, I don’t have much sympathy for the hierarchy, and this despite the deafening sound of grinding axes. I stress here that I make no criticism whatsoever of victims’ groups, who have an absolute entitlement to make their anger heard. No, I’m thinking of the rather disturbing enthusiasm – glee might not be too strong a word – in some quarters. Most of it is perfectly understandable, if not always edifying. Journalists understandably love a scandal, preferably one with uncomplicatedly sympathetic victims. Our legal practitioners will have a professional interest. Senile anticlericals, of the type you often find on the Irish Times letters page, will have their enthusiasm for a Civil Constitution of the Clergy rekindled. And you’ve got the pretend Catholic groups of the Wir sind Kirche variety, who always come out of the woodwork at times like this when they think they can press home an advantage. I don’t blame them – when you have an advantage, there’s no reason not to press it home. It comes with the territory.
And the Church authorities will just have to suck it up. They’ve made their bed of nails and will have to lie on it. Because, not only have they handled the abuse issue incredibly badly in terms of concrete cases, they’ve proved absolutely useless at the politics of the situation, even when (as I believe Brady has) they’ve caught on to just how serious the situation is. There are a number of aspects to this. For starters, Irish Catholicism has always had a strong anti-intellectual bent. In a country like France, while most of the intelligentsia are anticlerical, there’s always been what you might call an anti-anticlerical tendency that could act as a counterweight. In Ireland, it’s hard to think of any serious Catholic intellectual outside the hierarchy, and not many in it. Further, most senior clergy are men in their fifties, sixties and seventies – that is, they were formed by the era of McQuaidism, when the Church was so powerful it didn’t need to explain itself. Hence the long tradition of bishops throwing their weight about like cassock-wearing mafia dons, without even bothering to try to win anyone over to their way of thinking. Basic communication skills, never mind openness and transparency, are not going to flourish in that sort of atmosphere.
One trivial but telling example. When the Irish bishops went to Rome for their crisis summit, there was TV footage of them lining up to kiss the Pope’s ring. For this – an entirely normal bit of protocol – they were derided by yahoos on the phone-ins. So you end up with bishops not even bothering to explain the protocol, but finding it less hassle to issue media apologies for following Church protocol when meeting the Pope. It really is pathetic. Sometimes I think this blog does a better job of explaining the Catholic position than the actual Catholic bishops – it couldn’t do much worse. These, remember, are the same guys who disbanded their press office, then moaned about all the bad press they were getting. A clearing out of the dead wood is long overdue.
So, let us move on to the question of what comes next. There is no doubt that a major project of Church reform is required, but it remains to be seen what that will be. The victims, of course, want some sort of vindication and quite right too, but I’m not certain that Colm O’Gorman has a reform programme. Even if Cardinal Brady falls, that doesn’t really solve anything. Pope Benedict does have a reform programme, though I suspect his liberal critics won’t like it. And those liberal critics of course have their own programme, which involves (a) getting rid of the whole hierarchy of bishops, cardinals and pope and replacing it with a congregational structure, and (b) getting rid of those bits of Catholic doctrine they don’t like, mostly the bits concerning sexual morality. Honestly, I don’t know why they don’t just decamp to one of the many Protestant denominations that will do all that for you wholesale.
The first thing that comes to mind is that, just as every phone-in punter has his own idea of what the law says, some of the thoughts that have been voiced about the way forward are not going to fly. Think of Tony Blair, about five minutes after he had become a Catholic (and I still think it was a scandal he was accepted), declaring that the Pope had to modernise and get with the zeitgeist. This overlooks the rather obvious point that Catholicism is of its very nature resistant to the zeitgeist, in that it stands for the maintenance of Tradition. This is a problem for those who think that democracy and human rights are the solution. The Pope won’t give you democracy and human rights – he’ll give you subsidiarity and natural law, which is often just as good (and better suited to a Tradition-based Church) but is not the same thing.
One obvious problem is that while you can mitigate the problem – and for the last fifteen years, the Catholic Church internationally has been adopting extremely strict child protection procedures – it’s a problem that’s impossible to eliminate entirely. There will always be miscreants, and a devious miscreant (such as Brendan Smyth was) will always know how to work the system. The real question will be whether the procedures are sufficient in dealing with miscreants as and when they arise, so that you couldn’t have a situation where Brendan Smyth went on abusing children for decades, and nobody in the Church bureaucracy seemed to be able to deal with him.
For instance, how you deal with the sacrament of confession is a problem. If priests come across information outside of confession, there shouldn’t be a problem. Now, it is possible to lay down that the confidentiality of confession should not apply to allegations of child abuse, but then you have the question of whether confidentiality should apply to other crimes. To take this out of the religious realm for a second, it’s comparable to the confidentiality expected of doctors, lawyers or journalists. If a journalist has a source in the Real IRA who feeds her stories, should she be obliged to disclose her sources to the police? The Irish journalistic profession felt very strongly that Suzanne Breen should not be obliged to do so. I make no judgement here, I just want to point out that it’s a tricky area.
On a wider scale, there will have to be a major change in the Church’s internal culture. Irish Catholicism’s besetting sins of Jansenism, ultramontanism and clericalism will have to be dealt with. There needs to be a radical break with the culture of silence; there also needs to be a war on the concept of mental reservation. For instance, the now notorious motu proprio of 2001 ordering bishops to notify Rome of all abuse cases did not (contrary to what’s popularly believed) prohibit cooperation with secular authorities. Nor, on the other hand, did it instruct cooperation with secular authorities. That is something that shouldn’t have needed to be said, but evidently did. The Irish bishops, masters of mental reservation, have certainly been delinquent on a massive scale.
Finally, much as it may distress what remains of Irish liberalism, the reform will have to be driven from Rome. The Irish Church doesn’t have the resources to deal with The Scandal effectively on its own. And indeed, to the extent there has been reform up until now, it’s been driven from Rome. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has been rightly praised for his heroic role in handling the crisis with compassion, sensitivity and firmness; what’s not as often remarked on is where he came from. It would suit the liberal narrative if he’d been a crusading parish priest; as it was, he came from the Holy See diplomatic service, whence he was headhunted both for his personal qualities and because he came from outside the discredited Irish hierarchy.
It’s also providential that Benedict is in charge at the moment. Poor old JP2 always seemed to be a bit lost and bewildered by these abuse scandals, but what’s needed now is firmness of purpose. Benedict, in his previous role as prefect of the CDF, has the background to deal with the crisis. As is well known, he was so profoundly shocked by the Maciel atrocities that, not only did he require every abuse allegation to be referred to the CDF, but he personally read every file that came in. Having waded through all this filth, he is probably more knowledgeable than anyone in the Roman Curia about the extent of the abuse and how serious it is. He also needs to take on those elements – even in the Vatican – who think they can get away with business as usual. Beefing up the CDF’s judicial system is a start, not an end.
The crucial thing in practical terms will be the upcoming Apostolic Visitation, which will certainly have sent a shiver up the collective spine of the Irish Episcopal Conference. Some bishops may be looking at the recently concluded Visitation into the Legionaries of Christ, and what the outcome of that will be. The Vatican would be well within its rights to suppress the Legionaries altogether; if they’re allowed to continue, it will probably be on condition of a thoroughgoing purge of Macielism and a serious reorganisation. It is unlikely in the extreme that the Legionaries will simply be able to carry on as before.
What might happen as a result of the Visitation here? You could do worse than pay close attention to Fr Vincent Twomey, who is not only one of our leading moral theologians but also a former student of one Joseph Ratzinger. The two are still close enough that Vincent makes an annual trip to Rome to discuss theology with his old mate and, while it would be wrong to interpret what Vincent says as His Master’s Voice, it’s unlikely that he and Benedict have not discussed the Irish situation. One interesting thing Vincent has been saying is to wonder aloud why Ireland needs no less than 26 dioceses, when Germany has 27 dioceses catering for eight times as many Catholics. Vincent suggests that the number be cut to something more rational, like eight. This would have the desirable effect of allowing Rome to clear out a lot of the dead wood, but as you might expect it isn’t a very popular idea in the Episcopal Conference. (This might also have implications for the 23 bishops of England and Wales, serving a similar number of faithful to the Irish.)
Another angle, and I throw this out simply as a suggestion, is implied by Summorum Pontificum. At this point you will ask what exactly a motu proprio on the rehabilitation of the Latin Mass has to do with child protection. But one key element of Summorum Pontificum is its provision that, when a group of the faithful petition their bishop for the Extraordinary Form, the bishop is obliged to respond. It strengthens subsidiarity and episcopal accountability, which is one reason why bishops don’t like it.
What we do know is that this will be a long, tough process. We really need an Ignatius Loyola for our times, with the righteous zeal and the ability to definitively clean up the corruption that has dragged down a great institution. Whether we get one is another matter.
 There’s a parallel here with the outbreak of abuse allegations in republican Belfast. Although the abuse was known to have taken place in families, the fire was directed at an institution, namely Sinn Féin, for having responded inadequately. Was this unfair? Possibly, but it was understandable.
 This is a sneaky means of lying by omission without committing the sin of false witness. For example, if the priest sees a particularly annoying parishioner coming to the door, he may send the curate to answer the door. “The priest is not in,” says the curate, while adding in his mind the qualification “not in to you”. You find something similar in Trotskyist groups.
 The diocesan division of territory, based on ancient tribal boundaries, was established by the Synod of Rathbreasail in 1111. It’s taken almost 900 years to rationalise it down to just 26 dioceses.