If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball

Okay, by popular demand we’re going to turn our attention today to an ongoing story that isn’t getting an enormous amount of coverage on the blogs. Yes, it’s the Irish Apostolic Visitation, which has stepped up a gear these last couple of weeks, and which raises all sorts of fascinating issues.

First up, the context. The Visitation was of course announced by Pope Benedict in his open letter to the Irish faithful last March and, having taken the usual lengthy period of time to get organised, started work back in November. For those of you who aren’t well versed in Catholic jargon, a Visitation is effectively an inspection from head office. A team will arrive, do a root-and-branch inspection, and report back to Rome with recommendations. There are always a few of these ongoing at any given time – we’ve recently seen the conclusion of the Visitation into the notorious Legionaries of Christ, and there’s a long-running one into female religious orders in the US – and, like the mills of God, they grind somewhat slow but they grind exceeding fine. This is why the targets of Visitations tend to be a little nervous.

Thus the Irish Apostolic Visitation, on foot of the sexual abuse crisis, with an extremely high-powered delegation whose official remit involves assessing the Irish Church’s child protection norms, whether they are fit for purpose, and making sure that they’re being fully implemented. At the core of this are the visitators who have started work in the country’s four metropolitan archdioceses, from which they will radiate outward. These are Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, emeritus of Westminster, who is taking on Armagh; Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, who is dealing with Dublin; Archbishop Tom Collins of Toronto in Cashel and Emly; and Archbishop Terry Prendergast of Ottawa in Tuam. There are further teams dealing with seminaries, which we’ll come on to presently, and both male and female religious orders. Moreover, it’s not merely that the visitators are high-powered, but that they have specific expertise: +Cormac was deeply involved in the Nolan process in England and Wales, +Seán has had to clean up Bernie Law’s mess in Boston, and so on.

So that’s the basic scenario. If the visitators stuck to a minimalist interpretation of their official remit, they wouldn’t have much to do. The Irish Church does, after all, have very tough child protection norms monitored by an independent ombudsman who issues an annual report. But of course it’s not about that. The crimes of the past can’t be ignored, which is why the visitators have been making a point, early on, of holding meetings with abuse victims, as well as doing some rather pointed preaching at the cathedrals. And this is exactly as it should be. If there’s to be some sort of healing process, the outside inspectors should be taking the lead; at any rate, it will do the Visitation a power of good for them to hear victims’ stories at first hand.

This has also provoked something of a division in what we may term the victims’ community. There are those abuse victims, including a few of the most prominent, who are totally invested in the idea that the Church as a body can do no right – which may be entirely understandable from their individual point of view. Hence the statements that came out prior to the Visitation declaring it a whitewash in advance, and calling for a boycott. On the other hand, many have been going along to the meetings – though often expressing their distrust of official Church channels, they’ve been keen to have their face time with the visitators, tell their stories and make whatever contribution they can to preventing this happening again. I make no moral judgement here: the victims are a diverse group of people, and it’s up to each individual to do what feels right for him. From the other side, it’s an extremely delicate task, and it’s been requiring O’Malley et al to use all the diplomatic skills at their disposal.

But as ever in Church affairs, there is politics. In this case, watching the spin tells you a lot. About a year ago, following the publication of the Ryan and Murphy reports, when the reputation of the Irish hierarchy was squarely in the toilet, a very curious thing happened. All of a sudden, the Dublin media went all Ultramontanist, practically arguing for an imperial papacy. One would not have been entirely shocking in that period to have opened up the Irish Times of a morning and found Tintin O’Foole calling on the Pope to dispatch a crack squad of Swiss Guards to gun down malfeasant Irish bishops.

And then the Apostolic Visitation was announced, and all of a sudden, the trenchant critics of the discredited Irish hierarchy were suddenly demanding, er, that Rome keep its hands off our discredited Irish hierarchy. Not only that, but they were using phrases like “retrograde ecclesiology” that may have caused some cynics to suspect that the discredited Irish hierarchy was actually briefing against the Visitation.

Such cynics will have had their case strengthened by the leaking of the Storero letter just as the Visitation was entering its busiest phase. Two things are worth bearing in mind here. First, while the Holy See leaks, it leaks to the Italian media or well-connected parts of the international Catholic press; it doesn’t leak to RTÉ. This leads one to suspect that the leak came from within il circolo magico irlandese. Second, whilst one can say a lot about the current crop of Irish bishops, nobody can accuse them of being stupid. It doesn’t matter that the Storero letter, while embarrassing, is not the smoking gun being claimed (see John Allen and Jimmy Akin for analysis); whoever leaked the letter, at that strategic time, would have been able to predict exactly how it would have been received by the media, that there would have been some pretty big claims made about it by SNAP, and that it would serve to shift the blame from Dublin to Rome. Since at least some people tried to push that exact line with Judge Murphy… yes, it looks suspiciously like an attempt to derail the investigation.

This leads us to the question of why, when the Irish hierarchy is so completely discredited, there should be any motivation in trying to derail a Visitation process that offers at least the possibility of a fresh start. I put this down to the standard reflex of any bureaucracy trying to protect itself, especially since the visitators’ report to Rome will undoubtedly lead to some shakeup of Church structures in Ireland.

Most immediately, there’s the issue of Cardinal Brady’s retirement. Brady himself has asked Rome for a coadjutor archbishop, which indicates that he’s amenable to allowing himself to become a figurehead, before perhaps retiring on health grounds. But of course, as Hosni Mubarak could tell us, it isn’t simply a matter of an orderly transition. Who exactly gets the Armagh job is likely to be an area of much contention. It also impacts on Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s chances of getting that red hat, or the plum job at the Holy See that his supporters have long been briefing the Dublin press their man is in line for. In any case, a vacancy at the top stokes factionalism.

On a more structural level, I draw your attention to the distinguished moral theologian Prof Fr Vincent Twomey. Twomey has got a reputation for being outspoken about the deficiencies of the Irish Church, due not least to him being too old to hope for advancement in the hierarchy. What is more, Twomey’s doctoral supervisor was one Prof Joseph Ratzinger, and the two remain close enough for Irish bishops to get a nervous twinge whenever Twomey does his outspoken thing. One of Twomey’s themes of late has been that 26 dioceses are far too many for a country like Ireland, when Germany gets by with a mere 27 serving far more Catholics. He suggests a more rational number might be, say, eight. I think this may be too radical – and the enormous German dioceses have their own problems of bureaucracy – but let’s allow that there are lots of depopulated rural dioceses that aren’t really sustainable. With three currently sede vacante, and three or four more due to become vacant in the near future, there’s certainly scope to knock it down to, say, fifteen. One also notices that some retiring auxiliaries have not been replaced. That’s certainly a possibility to watch out for.

But our local hierarchs seem especially unnerved by this guy:

This is Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who is heading up the visitation of seminaries. This last week, +Tim has been in Maynooth, having previously dropped in at the Pontifical Irish College in Rome. Why has Dolan got people so jittery?

I would suggest that the abuse crisis tells us there has been something badly wrong with priestly formation in Ireland for a long time. Certainly, the great vocations boom of the 1950s and 60s was taken as an uncomplicated sign of the Church’s strength, without much attention being paid to quality. This meant that a lot of people were ordained who should never have been allowed near the priesthood. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the brightest young priests joined the orders – the Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits – and were no sooner ordained than they were put on the boat to Ayacucho or Zamboanga. That’s without even getting into our long list of Irish bishops who should never have risen above monsignor.

So, formation is evidently an issue, and demands serious attention. I would point out here that not only does Dolan have the invaluable experience of having picked up the pieces of the Milwaukee archdiocese after the debacle that was Rembert Weakland’s reign, he is being assisted by Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of Baltimore, who ran a visitation of US seminaries a few years ago. Get that: the Archbishop of Baltimore is the assistant. That, I think, counts as taking the matter seriously.

But this is where we encounter not only bureaucratic but also ideological resistance. I know I have this occasional argument with Shane over the importance of Irish Jansenism – I think it’s still a significant cultural factor – but the fact is that, today, Maynooth has a well-earned reputation as a stronghold of hardline Modernism. It’s the sort of place where seminarians caught reading Balthasar or Ratzinger are sent off to be interrogated by a Modernist star chamber on their ideological deviations; and if you don’t satisfy them, you’ll be questioned by a feminist psychologist about your sexual preferences. The result is a generation of priests who are much more au fait with the thought of Wilhelm Reich or Immanuel Velikovsky than marginal, eccentric thinkers such as, um, the Pope.

And this is why the spinning against Dolan’s part of the Visitation has been the most intense. Even such a publication as the Phoenix, not known for being a partisan of the Irish hierarchy, has been fulminating against Dolan, cast as B16’s hatchet man imposing a narrow theological worldview on those poor Maynooth seminarians. Dolan’s presence has also aroused the ire of the “Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland”, an organisation of flared-trousered hippies currently waging a battle for gender-neutral language in the new Missal. This, after all, is not merely a matter of pushing a few elderly bishops into retirement; it’s about the future direction of the priesthood in this country.

Personally, even if attitudes in Irish society have changed, I think a more rigorous and orthodox priesthood would be no bad thing, certainly in comparison to the free-for-all that developed in the 1970s. And the Irish hierarchy have so disgraced themselves that, really, a serious investigation followed by reorganisation is long overdue. We’ll have to wait for some time to get a sense of what’s going to come out of the Visitation but, if it’s annoying the ecclesiastical bureaucrats, it must be doing something right.

Knives out on the North West Frontier

Biffo Cowen’s announcement this evening that he won’t be contesting the forthcoming southern election is interesting in a couple of respects. The first is that this brings to thirty-seven (37) the number of outgoing deputies who won’t be running again, including both taoisigh from the last Oireachtas term. In a Dáil that, taking vacancies into account, only has a membership of 163, that must be unprecedented, and bespeaks something of the raw fear in the Fianna Fáil ranks, for that is the party that’s providing the majority of the retirements, and not all of deputies of pensionable age either.

The aspect, though, that will detain us a moment is that of Mickey Martin’s newly minted leadership of the Soldiers of Fortune. Well, it makes a sort of sense, for a party of desperate men. Of the other contenders, Brian Lenihan was too compromised, Mary Hanafin not much less so, and the spectacle of Éamon Ó Cuív, the living embodiment of Old Fianna Fáil, trying to position himself as the socialist candidate for the FF leadership is the sort of thing that makes you wish Myles was still with us. Martin, being a relatively plausible TV performer and having finally grown a pair and challenged Biffo, ends up leader by default. And if he arrests the FF decline he may yet succeed in turning a total meltdown into a mere catastrophe. After all, he could hardly do worse than Cowen – for that to happen, they’d have had to elect Willie O’Dea leader.

Right so, the last little spate of retirements looks suspiciously like Mickey strong-arming some colleagues into stepping down so as to have a more rational slate of candidates – it may look defeatist for FF to be running a mere two candidates in five-seat Cavan-Monaghan, for instance, but running three or four as in the past would have verged on the foolhardy. On the same sort of theme, Éamon Gilmore must be ruing his strategy of imposing running mates on sitting Labour TDs – it may have made sense with Labour over 30% in the polls, but with a slide back down to the lower 20s there are going to be a whole lot of constituencies where two Labour candidates are chasing one seat, with possible consequences we can all foresee under STV.

One suspects, though, that Biffo’s withdrawal in Laois-Offaly is more to do with the national than the local picture. Back in 2007, he pulled in a whopping 56.4% of first preferences for FF in the constituency and therewith three seats out of five. Given that sort of cushion, Laois-Offaly is just about the only constituency in the state where it’s possible to imagine FF taking a second seat. On the other hand, Biffo is such an albatross nationally that shunting him out of the way might – just might – win Martin a precious point or two in the polls.

There are, though, a couple of other retirements over the last day or two that are indicative of FF’s constituency problems. One is the termination of Noel O’Flynn in Cork North Central, leaving FF with only one candidate (Billy Kelleher TD) in a constituency where it currently holds two of the four seats. Yet, while it may mean a loss of face for FF, it’s the only sane option when there’s a maximum of one seat available to the party. In 2007 FF took two seats with 1.79 quotas – if it’s at or below the one quota mark this time, which is entirely likely, and has become profoundly transfer toxic as well, running two candidates would come close to assuring no seats at all. Fine Gael would certainly hope to bring in a second here, and though Labour running two candidates looks optimistic with the present polls, Sinn Féin’s Jonathan O’Brien is a dark horse worth a punt. The one predictable thing is that it’ll be an almighty scrap for transfers at the end, so yes, the only way to go is to dump the surplus candidate, even if he’s an actual sitting deputy.

Things get yet more intriguing though way up in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Donegal North East), where Niall Blaney TD has just announced his retirement at the grand old age of, er, 37. This is not just a matter of the opinion polls, but also ties into a long-running saga of banjo-twanging Donegal vendettas.

We could, if we liked, go back to the 1970 Arms Crisis and Uncle Neil’s subsequent departure from FF ranks. We could even, if so minded, go further back. But it’s better to start off from the historic merger young Niall brokered with Bertie Ahern (remember him?) in 2006 to reunify the Blaney clan’s Provisional Fianna Fáil with the main party. Like many of Bertie’s bright ideas, this has come back to bite FF in the arse. Even initially, the merger was not universally popular in Donegal North East. It wasn’t popular with a sizeable chunk of the republican-minded Blaney organisation and electorate, which decamped en masse to Sinn Féin. It wasn’t even popular with the Blaney family, some of whom were moved to openly denounce Niall for his deviation from Orthodox Blaneyism.

The merger also proved to be not universally popular with the pre-existing FF organisation in Donegal North East and in particular with Dr Jimmy McDaid TD, who almost immediately launched himself into a fight to the death with the Blaneyite blow-ins. After much rural factionalising, the Blaneyites came out on top and Niall firmly established himself as the local party baron. Which would have been a nice ending had it not been for the continued presence in the Dáil of an increasingly pissed-off Jimmy McDaid who, though always a mercurial character, now went into overdrive with losing the FF whip, threatening independent candidacies and eventually, back in November, resigning his Dáil seat altogether, at just about the most unhelpful time imaginable for the government.

And so it is that, in a quintessentially loyal Fianna Fáil constituency where the party polled 50.3% of the vote in 2007 – and indeed, where prior to that election it had three seats out of three – Micheál Martin can look at a Donegal North East where there should be certain seats for FG’s Joe McHugh and SF’s Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, with FF scrabbling for the third. And while one finds it almost impossible to imagine Donegal North East without any FF TDs, all bets are off this year. Again, a one-candidate strategy beckons. Moreover, Blaney’s USP – the rural republican appeal of the Blaney name – has largely been gazumped by the Shinners, while the party baron still has to deal with a legacy of bad blood from McDaid supporters in Letterkenny. So, not only imperative to have one candidate, but imperative that that candidate should not be Niall Blaney. Step forward, Inishowen councillor Charlie McConalogue, whilst the hapless Blaney, who was campaigning most vigorously in Letterkenny just last week, suddenly finds his political career at an end.

They do play rough in Donegal, you know. Even if Micheál Martin didn’t want a night of the long knives, they wouldn’t need much encouragement. And, with FF in every-man-for-himself mode, there will be more and more of this in constituencies across the state.

Valerie Hayes’ speech at Workers’ Party Bodenstown commemoration

Comrades and friends,

When we gather here to commemorate the life and ideals of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, we also celebrate the entire radical, republican, and socialist tradition from which our party has sprung.

When we look at those who inspire us individually and as a movement they all have certain things in common. From Tone to Cathal Goulding and Tomás Mac Giolla; from Paine to Martin Luther King the people who inspire us as socialists all had fire in their bellies, all had a willingness to step forward and be in the forefront no matter what the danger to themselves; and all shared a deep love of humanity.

But these men and women over the last two centuries shared one other common feature from which we must learn. We must learn from their power to analyse, their power and willingness to identify the guilty in society no matter how great or how powerful. We must learn from their power to propagandise – using every method available in their time. But above all else we must learn that these people offered solutions, practical solutions; solutions that cut through the guff, solutions that made sense to the working man, the peasant, the tenant, the landless labourer. And because they offered solutions which made sense, they offered hope. They provided inspiration and leadership and built their movements from that solid basis.

We must therefore learn that it is not enough to analyse, it is not enough to criticise – we too must provide solutions and offer hope.

Read the rest here.

The vaulting ambition of Vincent Browne

The latest Phoenix [subs required] turns once again to its bête noire Vincent Browne, apropos of his involvement in discussions to lash together a far-left electoral slate for the next southern elections. Some of us may point out that these discussions have been happening periodically for a dozen or more years with underwhelming results, but evidently Vinnie is a desperate man. Take it away, Goldhawk:

The born again Blueshirt/Trotskyist developed cold feet at the slight whiff of sulphur arising from that “Right to Work” kerfuffle outside the Dáil (elevated to the status of riot by some media) in May [this was some excitable SWP types deciding to “do a Greece” and storm parliament, only to be anticlimactically turned back by ten unarmed guards] and his enthusiasm for the new Bolshevik Party waned simultaneously. Browne had been approached by various media friends who advised him that he was damaging his profile (specifically, that he looked a little foolish rather than dangerous) by associating with Trots and other malcontents…

Browne has now used the inability of the NGO community types to relate to the more hardline SWP Trotskyists such as Kieran Allen and Richard Boyd Barrett as an excuse to bow out from the putative new movement. All of which means that Browne’s long time ambition to make it into the Dáil – with any party, be it Blueshirt, Trotskyist or the Monster Raving Loony Party – has once again been thwarted.

I would only add that those Vinnie has left in the lurch may like to ponder the predilection of Swiss Toni and his acolytes for celebrity politics, especially when the celeb is as politically promiscuous as Vincent Browne. This may be a point worth addressing before you find Gráinne Seoige or Eamon Dunphy being unveiled as People Before Profit candidates on the principle that you can’t beat the marquee factor.

The dry heaves

I’ve been meaning to post something more about the Blueshirt putsch, but there’s already been plenty of good commentary over at the place where the cool kids hang out. It’s hard to imagine a worse scenario for Fine Gael, who have never learned from their FF rivals the fine art of despatching a leader quickly. So there’s now the scenario where Kenny survives in charge with a slim majority, the precise size of which is a secret but which may not be unadjacent to six (in a parliamentary party of 70). Therefore Enda is in a position where he knows, and everybody else knows, that half of his party has no confidence in his leadership, and if you consider his strong support from party senators and MEPs, he probably has the majority of his TDs against him. The words “lame” and “duck” spring to mind, and all that will keep Enda in charge for the time being is a mixture of inertia and the Bruton camp’s making a complete balls of their heave.

Anyway, the thing I wanted to remark on was the geographical spread. Let’s take as a reasonable estimate of support the Irish Times breakdown that showed 33 for Kenny, 30 for Bruton and 7 fence-sitters. This may not be entirely right, so caveat emptor, but it’s unlikely to be wildly inaccurate. Some commentators have remarked on the east-west split, which is true, but it’s slightly more complicated than that. Breaking down the IT list by constituency, we arrive with the following stats:

The 33 for Kenny breaks down as Dublin 6; Leinster 6; Munster 10; Connacht-Ulster 11.

The 30 for Bruton breaks down as Dublin 7; Leinster 9; Munster 11; Connacht-Ulster 3.

And, for what it’s worth, the seven others were Dublin 1, Leinster 1, Munster 2, Connacht-Ulster 3.

You see the Bruton camp, then, having a lead in Dublin and the commuter belt, and Kenny having a near-complete stranglehold on the Connacht organisation, which would probably be crucial. The near-even split in Munster results from Bruton pulling in strong support from around Cork, which would be a Coveney faction rather than a Bruton one, Coveney having medium-term leadership aspirations of his own. There are anomalies, but they are mostly explicable, with Noonan down in Limerick having his own beefs with Kenny, Deasy in Waterford being a serial malcontent and Joe McHugh of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Donegal North East) being married to Brutonite siren Olwyn Enright. Conversely, Electric Enda does have some support on the east coast, but much of that can be identified as people who owe him for patronage reasons.

However, the fact that the anomalies are explicable tends to strengthen the overall picture of a Kennyite faction based firmly in the party’s country-and-western tendency, while the Brutonites huddle around the east coast, with opportunistic support from the Coveneyites in Cork plus scattered malcontents. You will notice the marked resemblance to geographically-based factionalism in Fianna Fáil.

And, as with the FF factionalism, we can pose the question – is there anything political in this? Well, there is and there isn’t.

As is well known, neither of our two main parties is very ideological, and both are what we might politely term broad churches, or impolitely term masses of contradictions. FG’s protean nature through its history borders on the bizarre. Starting out as the pro-Treaty faction of Sinn Féin, by the end of the 1920s it had become a halfway house for disenfranchised Redmondites and unionists; in the 1930s it was fascist; in the 1950s it was vocationalist; in the 1980s it aspired to be social democratic; and these days nobody quite knows what it stands for.

The southern Irish political system being what it is but, nobody knowing what a party stands for is not necessarily a disadvantage. FF for decades refused to produce party manifestos on the grounds that the government should run on its record; the Boss attempted to bring back that culture following the disastrous 1977 manifesto. Under the Irish system, you can be an ideological party and occupy a niche, or you can be a vague amorphous party and have large-scale support. Nobody has ever figured out how to do both.

In fact, political culture, often handed down through families, is usually more important than ideology. Most observers don’t realise – and perhaps Enda Kenny doesn’t realise – how peculiar are the roots of Fine Gael in Connacht and the border counties. Back in the 1940s, FG was virtually extinct west of the Shannon, and only managed to regain a serious base in the 50s and 60s by cannibalising the votes of independent TDs, Clann na Talmhan and, weirdly enough, Clann na Poblachta. (Specifically, the strong FG vote in Cavan derives directly from the old CnaP base there.) Western Blueshirts therefore can be somewhat more economically populist and socially conservative and even republican than their counterparts in and around the capital; but it’s not so much an ideological division as one of culture. With FG having a support base that tends towards the elderly and rural, that’s an important thing, and it lies behind much of the idea that Kenny, hailing from the badlands of Mayo, couldn’t connect with the Dublin voter.

The problem, though, is whether the Brutonites have a solution to that. Observers will have noticed the presence in the Bruton camp of the noisy rightwing faction of Brian Hayes, Leo Varadkar (who, terrifyingly, seems to aspire to being a young Brian Hayes) and the Unbearable Lightness of Lucinda. These people do have an idea of what FG should stand for; it involves FG becoming, to all intents and purposes, the Progressive Democrats Mark Two. If you’re really serious about that, then you should be prepared for Desocrat levels of support, for the Irish electorate remains resolutely resistant to ideology. Further, if FG’s problem in Dublin is that formerly FF-supporting public sector workers are switching en masse to Labour, you want to consider whether you actually want to deepen those guys’ antagonism to FG. It may well be – in fact, I’d take it as a given – that Labour will do frig all for the public sector, but there’s a difference between that and an FG front bench positively promising to screw the public sector.

Garret FitzGerald was so good at winning over the Dublin middle class not because of the detail of what he said – his pronouncements on the PSBR went over most voters’ heads – but because of who he was. He was the sort of politician middle-class voters liked, because he reflected well on the electorate, and he was brilliant at mood music. Gilmore is also great at mood music. I doubt many people could tell you what Gilmore’s policies are, but at the moment he’s more popular than Nelson Mandela. I submit that the two things are not unconnected.

Rud eile: just a passing thought on That Poll. It’s often said that FG needs Labour more than Labour needs FG, because Labour has two options for coalition. The FG preferred scenario, I suppose, would be FG on 70-plus seats and Labour on 15-20, just like it used to be. That would mean a clearly Fine Gael-led government with Labour making up the numbers. But, since FG-SF is not an option (yet), FG could be faced with the appalling vista of coalition on parity terms, and no other option. On the other hand… it’s assumed that FF is so electorally toxic Labour couldn’t possibly prop the Soldiers of Fortune up for another term. But what about the prospect of a Labour-led government with FF as the junior partner? Might Gilmore see that as an opportunity worth considering?

Is Enda Kenny the new John Major, or is it more hopeless than that?

Tonight we take one of our occasional trips south of the border, to ask the question that’s on everybody’s lips. Which is, of course, what in the wide world of sports does Enda Kenny think he’s playing at?

Sacking your deputy leader looks bad. When your deputy leader is also your finance spokesman, in the midst of an enormous economic crisis, and a finance spokesman with a high reputation for competence forbye, it looks worse. To then proclaim that you’re going to your parliamentary party with a motion of confidence in your leadership looks like one almighty balls-up.

It reminds me of John Major. Remember when Major got so pissed off with his right wing that he resigned as leader and announced a back-me-or-sack-me ballot of the parliamentary party? He did survive, but had to suffer the humiliation of a third of the parliamentary party voting for the Deadwood Sage. And, in comparative terms, Richard Bruton is a much bigger cheese than John Redwood.

It’s no secret, of course, that there have been rumblings from within Blueshirt ranks about Electric Enda’s leadership. There have been, of course, throughout his leadership. Enda may have fantastic hair, but you can’t get away from the fact that he has been in the Dáil a very long time – indeed, he’s the longest-serving Fine Gael TD – without making a great impact. It’s no secret either that there are those in the party who might have an idea who might be a better leader. When Coveney starts issuing appeals for party unity, one suspects this vision of unity does not include Enda in the top job.

If the RTÉ report is anything to go by, Blueshirt high command seems to have been seriously spooked by that poll showing Labour in the lead. To me that poll screams outlier, and it would surprise me massively were Labour to perform that well, or Fianna Fáil that badly, in a real election. But it is clear that there has been a collapse in FF support of historic proportions, and that the beneficiary of said collapse has not been FG but Labour. WorldbyStorm explains why:

Many FF voters would be – and this is to put it politely – disinclined to vote for Fine Gael. Acculturation operates in many and wondrous ways. Then there’s the small matter that Fine Gael doesn’t present or promote a programme that’s fundamentally different on many of the key issues from Fianna Fáil. Oh, I don’t doubt it would be a cleaner operation and with some good and useful policies, even from a left perspective. But it’s not a fundamental break with the ancien regime to vote FG. Whereas Labour is a break, and arguably more congenial to those who have hitherto voted FF.

Quite so, and I’d argue this is particularly the case in Dublin. A social-democratic Fine Gael in the mode of FitzGerald, or even God help us Dukes, may have done the business, especially if that social-democratic profile had been strong in the metrop. As it is, the Labour leadership do a better job of channelling the spirit of Sir Garret. Gilmore comes across as a reassuring figure, very slightly left of centre but not so much as to frighten the horses, and is good at giving the impression that he has a plan even if he won’t tell us what it is; Burton is often mocked for her grating delivery – and I’m far from finding her an inspiring figure – but she does ask good questions, and seems to have some mystifying appeal to the sort of public sector workers who used to vote FF. In a sense, it doesn’t matter what Labour stand for, it’s more that they don’t look like more of the same, while FG do.

And, remaining on the Dublin aspect, there’s not just the issue of how a leader from the wilds of Mayo can connect (or not) with the capital, but also what sort of profile the urban FG organisation presents to those defecting FF supporters. I am thinking in particular of the Leos and Lucindas of this world – and, even had George Lee stuck it out (he must be kicking himself now), it’s uncertain how broad his appeal would genuinely have been outside the wealthiest part of the state. Let us return momentarily to 1985 and the formation of the Progressive Democrats. Nobody knew what they stood for except for being against Charlie (it’s telling that O’Malley had been so long in politics with nobody knowing what he stood for); they had an air of freshness and newness and positive media coverage; and they had a great name, in that nobody didn’t want to be progressive or democratic. No surprise that the Desocrats rocketed to 26% in the polls. And no surprise that once they unveiled some actual policies – Thatcherite economics, total political correctness and a neo-unionist line on the north – they sank back to the 4% or so that was their natural level.

The point being, I suppose, that while the southern Irish electorate has never been leftist, it’s never really been rightist in an ideological sense either. Sub-Thatcherite ideology has always been a niche market. If Labour is to soak up the “down with this sort of thing” vote, it helps that it doesn’t really stand for much distinctive except in its branding. To the extent that FG does stand for something, that something is pretty rightwing. And Gilmore’s steady persona compares well with Kenny’s liking for dopey stunts like promising to abolish the Seanad. (Itself unpopular within a party that currently has a record number of county councillors, and therefore is poised to elect a record number of senators.)

And now Richard Bruton, the man who could easily have defenestrated Enda long ago had he had the killer instinct, is now placed outside the tent thanks to his belated refusal to respect Enda’s authority. At times like this one wonders whether Enda is actively seeking to join Dukes and Noonan in that circle of hell reserved for failed Blueshirt leaders. He’s surely going the right way about it.

And much more, of course, at Cedar Lounge.

Prepare to receive your visitors

As you’ll recall, a couple of months back Pope Benedict issued his pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland, addressing the sex abuse crisis. Of course, this has a broader application than just Ireland, which is why the letter is on the Vatican website in multiple languages, but as the epicentre of The Scandal, what happens here – specifically, what is done to clean up what Benedict calls “the filth” – should be taken as being exemplary for the universal Church. To put it bluntly, the situation here is so bad, the Emerald Isle gets to be the test case.

Which leads us to B16’s three-point action plan outlined at the end of his letter. The first point here was the year of prayer and penance, which should be the starting point for a spiritual organisation that’s gone so far astray. It’s a good idea, as far as it goes, although some very public acts of penance on the part of the clergy and particularly the hierarchy would be most welcome.

The second point was the proposal for a National Mission, in other words a boot camp for clergy. This is causing some elements of the Irish priesthood to go apeshit, and given the abysmal liturgical level here that’s not surprising. You don’t have to spend too long hanging around clerical circles to find reactions like

My God, have you seen what Benedict wants us to do? Prayer! Penance! Adoration of the Eucharist! What is this, the 1950s? We were trained to be social workers, not to waste time on all this sacramental guff! Whatever happened to the spirit of Vatican II?

I exaggerate a little, but not too much. This, remember, is the country where a priest can with impunity offer busy commuters a 15-minute Mass (what is he leaving out?) but where the Extraordinary Form remains effectively underground. This may only seem tangentially related to the abuse issue, but one of B16’s basic premises is that a renewal of Catholic identity can play an enormous role in fighting internal corruption.

Finally, there’s the apostolic visitation. This, for the uninitiated, is an in-depth inspection from head office which then reports back to the Pope with recommendations for change; and it’s this which has sent a shiver up the collective spine of the tainted Irish hierarchy. By way of comparison, there’s recently been a visitation concluded into the creepy Legionaries of Christ, the powerful and wealthy movement founded by the charismatic Mexican paedophile priest Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado. The current situation is that the Legionaries are on what Animal House aficionados would recognise as double secret probation, administered by a Vatican-appointed receiver, until Maciel’s old nemesis Ratzinger decides what to do with them. One option is to suppress the Legionaries altogether, although that would mean a huge headache in disposing of their €25bn assets. (As well as being monstrous in his personal life, Maciel was an incredible fundraiser. But then, what with paying off his victims and the mothers of his several children, he needed to be.) The other option is to thoroughly purge the Legionaries (most of the leadership having been as corrupt as Maciel) and reconstitute them as effectively a new organisation, minus the Maciel personality cult. That carries with it its own headaches.

But that is by the by, and mainly meant to illustrate what a big deal an apostolic visitation is. So we’ve been waiting for some time to find out the details of the Irish visitation, and who’ll be leading it. As it happens, the Holy See has chosen today, the Feast of the Visitation, to announce the five prelates who are being sent in as the crack cleanup squad. All are of Irish descent, and oddly enough, no fewer than three of them are bloggers. Here’s the statement from VIS:

Following the Holy Father’s Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, the Apostolic Visitation of certain Irish dioceses, seminaries and religious congregations will begin in autumn of this year.

Through this Visitation, the Holy See intends to offer assistance to the Bishops, clergy, religious and lay faithful as they seek to respond adequately to the situation caused by the tragic cases of abuse perpetrated by priests and religious upon minors. It is also intended to contribute to the desired spiritual and moral renewal that is already being vigorously pursued by the Church in Ireland.

The Apostolic Visitors will set out to explore more deeply questions concerning the handling of cases of abuse and the assistance owed to the victims; they will monitor the effectiveness of and seek possible improvements to the current procedures for preventing abuse, taking as their points of reference the Pontifical Motu ProprioSacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela” and the norms contained in Safeguarding Children: Standards and Guidance Document for the Catholic Church in Ireland, commissioned and produced by the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church.

The Visitation will begin in the four Metropolitan Archdioceses of Ireland (Armagh, Dublin, Cashel and Emly, and Tuam) and will then be extended to some other dioceses.

The Visitors named by the Holy Father for the dioceses are: His Eminence Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Emeritus Archbishop of Westminster, for the Archdiocese of Armagh; His Eminence Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, for the Archdiocese of Dublin; the Most Reverend Thomas Christopher Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, for the Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly; the Most Reverend Terrence Thomas Prendergast, Archbishop of Ottawa, for the Archdiocese of Tuam.

In its desire to accompany the process of renewal of houses of formation for the future priests of the Church in Ireland, the Congregation for Catholic Education will coordinate the visitation of the Irish seminaries, including the Pontifical Irish College in Rome. While special attention will be given to the matters that occasioned the Apostolic Visitation, in the case of the seminaries it will cover all aspects of priestly formation. The Most Reverend Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, has been named Apostolic Visitor.

For its part, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life will organize the visitation of religious houses in two phases. Firstly it will conduct an enquiry by means of a questionnaire to be sent to all the Superiors of religious institutes present in Ireland, with a view to providing an accurate picture of the current situation and formulating plans for the observance and improvement of the norms contained in the “guidelines”. In the second phase, the Apostolic Visitors will be: the Reverend Joseph Tobin, CSsR and the Reverend Gero McLaughlin SJ for institutes of men; Sister Sharon Holland IHM and Sister Mairin McDonagh RJM for institutes of women. They will carry out a careful study, evaluating the results obtained from the questionnaire and the possible steps to be taken in the future in order to usher in a season of spiritual rebirth for religious life on the Island.

His Holiness invites all the members of the Irish Catholic community to support this fraternal initiative with their prayers. He invokes God’s blessings upon the Visitors, and upon all the Bishops, clergy, religious and lay faithful of Ireland, that the Visitation may be for them an occasion of renewed fervour in the Christian life, and that it may deepen their faith and strengthen their hope in Christ our Saviour.

All five are pretty high-profile figures, too, and there’s some specific expertise there, which demonstrates a bit of seriousness. I’m pleased about the two Americans, both of whom I rate highly. Cardinal Seán O’Malley, who’ll be taking charge of the Dublin end, is the guy who was drafted into the Boston archdiocese to clean up Bernard Law’s mess and has done a pretty good job of it. Meanwhile, Archbishop Tim Dolan of New York is one of the Church’s best communicators and would be one of the people I would immediately think of in terms of Catholic prelates who actually get how bad the abuse crisis is. He’ll be taking on seminaries and priestly formation – for a few clues as to his thoughts on the matter, check out his recent lecture at Maynooth. While he’s about it, Maynooth could do with a beady eye trained on it.

The two Canadians I know less about. Terry Prendergast is quite an eminent theologian, a pillar of the SJ, and also took part in an apostolic visitation of Canadian seminaries in the early 1990s, which may be useful. Tom Collins is well thought of as a quiet, prayerful and understated figure, which is just as well since he took over the Toronto gig from the (ahem) colourful Cardinal Alojzij Ambrožič. Interesting point about episcopal politics – since Ambrožič turned eighty at the start of the year, Anglophone Canada has been minus a cardinal elector, and it would be surprising if one or other of these two didn’t get a red hat at the next consistory. They’re prelates on the up, at any rate.

Finally, we have Val Doonican Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. I must be honest, I’m not so thrilled about this. Yes, +Cormac is a distinguished prince of the Church, and yes, he does have the background of presiding over the implementation of the post-Nolan child protection norms in England and Wales. And yet, he exemplifies the backslapping old-boys’-club school of ecclesial politics that’s done so much damage here. CMOC is taking the primatial see, which raises the question of whether Brady can be gently persuaded to get out of the way. Which, however, can’t be separated from the issue of who might replace Brady, and watch out for Noel Treanor angling for position.

That’s your cast of characters. What substance they’ll come up with as a result of the visitation is another matter. There is, as I’ve mentioned previously, the musing of B16’s friend and former student Fr Vincent Twomey on cutting down the number of Irish dioceses from the current twenty-six to something like eight. With quite a lot of episcopal retirements and resignations coming up, it’s entirely possible that vacancies will be left vacant. And, while the decline in vocations lessens the old problem of people getting into the priesthood who should never have been ordained, there’s still a big issue surrounding formation that Dolan will have to give some serious thought to.

I stick by my view that what’s needed is a cultural revolution in Irish Catholicism, possibly in tune with what B16 used to talk about when he was just Cardinal Ratzinger – a Church that may be smaller and leaner, but would be more rigorous and more faithful. Better fewer but better, as someone once said. But that’s a reflection for another day.

Electric Enda in “well thought-out scheme” shock

Yes, the one guaranteed conversation-killer in an Irish pub is “So what do you think about Seanad reform?” But unperturbed, our quote of the day is from the current Phoenix:

Parallel to this concern about Kenny’s basic conservatism as he waits for power to be simply handed to him, is a distinct coolness about the would be crusade to reform Irish political structures. There are several reasons for this, but a big, unifying reason is that just at a time when FG has a record number of councillors (the guys who actually vote for senators round the country), meaning that it is on the verge of electing a record number of senators, Kenny decides to abolish the Senate.

Not, of course, that this blog has any objection to reform of the Seanad, though as the political system goes it’s mostly harmless. De Valera once abolished the Senate, and it was a good day’s work. But Enda… you know, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a brilliant stroke and a dopey stunt… and sometimes it isn’t…

CPI: SF at the crossroads

An interesting article on the recent PSF Ard Fheis here, from the Communist Party – and you could do worse than have a look at Socialist Voice (or Unity if you’re in the north) regularly. Personally, I think Gerry and the guys have been through quite a few crossroads, but the points raised here are valid ones.

The recent ard-fheis of Sinn Féin was a somewhat quiet affair, with not a lot on the agenda to stir interest other than two motions, from Waterford and from Drimnagh, Dublin, dealing with possible participation in a coalition Government after the next general election in the Republic.

The motion from the Drimnagh cumann stated: “This Ard Fheis calls on Sinn Féin not to go into power with other parties in government such as Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, as this would be incompatible with our politics and would damage the party.” But the Ard-Chomhairle put forward an amendment that effectually leaves the door open for participation in a future Government, and this was overwhelmingly carried.

The arguments made by those supporting the two motions drew on experience from previous coalition Governments and the consequences for the junior parties in those Governments. Underlying the debate—not mentioned during it but certainly part of the subtext—was the fact that many members in the Republic are greatly concerned that if the Sinn Féin leadership get an opportunity to join a coalition Government they will do so. The experience of the dumping of central policies just before the last general election is still a painful memory for a large number of Southern members.

The position of the Ard-Chomhairle was that any decision in relation to joining a Government would be taken by a special party conference. Given that Sinn Féin is in effect a Northern party, controlled from Belfast, its priorities are shaped by political developments and the priorities surrounding the Northern situation. The majority of delegates to the recent ard-fheis, as with previous ard-fheiseanna, were from the North. If the opportunity arises to enter government in the Republic, the likelihood of their joining a coalition is very high—simply because the political priorities are determined by that relationship.

What is also obvious from the speeches during the ard-fheis and in media interviews afterwards is that the Northern leadership has little more than a superficial understanding of the political, economic and social situation in the Republic. When it comes to the nitty-gritty of the political and economic questions, they flounder—which is quite understandable, given the nature of the conflict in the North over such a prolonged period and the preoccupation with the peace process.

If the opportunity arises of entering a Dublin Government, a majority at any special conference for taking that decision will be Northern delegates, who will approach such participation from an entirely different set of political priorities.

Yet the agenda of the ard-fheis shows that the majority of motions down for discussion came from branches in the Republic, while those dealing with the Northern situation came mainly from the Ard-Chomhairle, with very few from individual cumainn in the North. There were no significant motions dealing with the social and economic situation in the North, and those that there were were devoid of any real depth.

This reveals a number of possibilities: that there is complete unity on the economic and social strategy of the national leadership; or they have no clear idea of an alternative strategy; or the leadership brooks no criticism of its attitude to government; or if there is criticism it is muted or corralled, in the interest of sustaining the unity of the organisation and a united front against unionism.

Another area that shows how far Sinn Féin has shifted politically was the section dealing with “European affairs.” Motions 11, 12 and 13, all again from the Ard-Chomhairle, show a further diminution of opposition to the European Union. There was no indication of the nature of the European Union and what it represents; there was no challenge to the view presented by the media or assessment of the effect of the Lisbon Treaty. All three motions were full of woolly thinking and pious aspiration. “Bring information on the EU back to different sectors and local communities in Ireland through a programme of outreach . . . Engage on the basis of our progressive policy positions on issues within EU’s competences . . . Promoting democratic change in the EU.”

What is ignored is the fact that the policies of the European Union itself have contributed to the crisis and have a major bearing on the measures that member-states can introduce to overcome the crisis.

The question is, How can you call yourself a republican and support the European Union? Republicanism is about democracy and the sovereignty of states, equality between states as well as equality between peoples, and the centrality of the people in democratic and economic policy and decision-making.

The European Union has been deliberately constructed and is treaty-based to ensure the very opposite, by removing the people from the whole process and actively discouraging their involvement, undermining national democracy and national accountability, making all political and economic decisions subservient to the needs of transnational corporations, and all this backed up and imposed by the main imperialist states at the heart of the European Union.

There is a token throwing in of the idea of using the European Union to “raise the issue of Irish Unity, and other issues related to the peace-process.” It is not clear what “Irish unity” would mean, considering our inability to change or do anything independently of what the European Union will allow and what is possible within an imperialist superstate.

A revelation of the pretence at being some sort of radical party while hiding this from some of those it believes are allies in the struggle for Irish unity is the fact that there was no criticism and no indication of their understanding of the role of the United States in global politics, or its central role in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In relation to the coup in Honduras, the motion from the Ard-Chomhairle “condemns the coup d’état in Honduras which resulted in President Zelaya, who was democratically elected, being removed at gunpoint. This act undermines democracy in the region.”

The coup in Honduras was planned, organised and supervised by the CIA and the US State Department. No calls for President Zelaya to be allowed back; no expression of support or solidarity with the democratic forces now engaged in an intense struggle with the puppet government; no acknowledgement that a number of leaders of the democratic opposition have been assassinated.

From reading the motions and the speeches of leading figures in Sinn Féin one cannot help seeing that it is a party moving steadily to the centre. It is caught up in electoral politics and is prepared to make whatever compromises are required to secure participation in government. It will surely end up in government but with nothing radical to bring to the table.

At this stage, what separates Sinn Féin from the Labour Party is that it still has a commitment to Irish unity; but its attitude to other central questions makes the achievement of that goal unrealisable. As for the rest, the establishment can rest easy.

The question now is, Where will those in Sinn Féin who believe in a radical republicanism go from here?

Benedict addresses The Scandal… and what might come next

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.[1] 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.[2] 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,[3] 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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

« Older entries