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What's happening in the Irish Catholic Church?
2 dicembre 2011

Riportiamo anche nella lingua originale inglese l'articolo del gesuita Brian Lennon (nella foto) pubblicato nel numero di dicembre di Popoli.

Andrew Madden was sexually abused as an 11 year old boy by Fr Ivan Payne. He reported this to the Archdiocese of Dublin in 1981. He is still angry that Fr Payne was left in a position to subsequently abuse at least seven other boys. The experience left Andrew with a long battle with interior demons which pushed him towards alcoholism. It was many years before he recovered. He has now left the Church.

He is one of many whose suffering was exposed in graphic detail in the Ryan and Murphy Reports of 2009. These showed also the appalling response of many church leaders: often protecting the perpetrators, moving them from place to place where they could continue abuse, denying that any abuse took place, minimising it, and putting the aim of protecting the good name of the church above that of protecting children.

The public response to the Reports was one of deep anger, not only in the media but also among many loyal Catholics who were horrified at the abuse but who were even more appalled at the response to it by church authorities. Their anger was compounded when the Cloyne Report was published in July 2011 showing that the Bishop of Cloyne had failed to report suspected abusers to the authorities.

In response the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, a practising Catholic, described the Vatican’s alleged refusal to cooperate with the investigation into Cloyne as ”absolutely disgraceful” and he referred to “the narcissism that dominates the culture of the Vatican to this day”. Eamon Gilmore, Minister for Foreign Affairs, officially called in the Papal Nuncio and underlined the Report’s finding that – in his words – “Vatican authorities undermined the Irish Church’s own efforts to deal with clerical child sexual abuse by describing the [1996] framework document adopted by the Bishops’ Conference as a mere ‘study document’…

Frankly, it is unacceptable to the Irish Government that the Vatican intervened to effectively have priests believe they could in conscience evade their responsibilities under Irish law”. In fact the Government confused their timeline: it was in 1998 that Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos, head of the Congregation of Clergy, had told the Irish bishops that Vatican policy was to protect clergy when they were accused. The Government’s statement implied that this had happened within the last three years. While such an inaccuracy in an important government statement is regrettable, the Minister was probably reflecting the general public’s anger at what Cloyne revealed.

The Government has now decided to close its embassy in the Vatican. This is a symptom of deep change in relations between Ireland and the Vatican. In the past the Church had great influence in Irish society. Priests and bishops were treated with respect and were able to influence the moral legislation of the government. After the publication of the Reports a clerical collar is now seen by many as a stigma which sometimes attracts public insults in the street.

One issue arising from the crisis is that many priests and religious feel blamed for the crisis even though they are innocent since they have not abused any and have not held positions of authority. This raises the issue of corporate connections: to what extent should members of the Church who are personally innocent take on a degree of liability for what the organisation to which they belong has done? It is a common issue in commercial law and conflict situations: for example, should young Germans born after 1945 be required to pay taxes as part of the German state’s restitution to the people of Israel because of the Holocaust against the Jews, even though they were not born until after World War II?

A second issue raised by the crisis is the structures by which the Church is now governed. The Bishop of Cloyne was able to ignore the 1996 Framework Document because this was a document of the Irish Bishops’ Conference. Individual bishops are not answerable to bishops’ conferences. Nor are they accountable to any lay persons. They are accountable only to the pope. So the Bishops’ Conference could impose the Framework Document on individual bishops. This is a weakness in the governance of the Church. Yet it should also be remembered that the situation has improved since 1996: it was the Church’s own Child Protection Officer, acting on behalf of the Irish Bishops’ Conference, who alerted secular authorities to concerns about child protection in Cloyne. So although he had no direct authority under Church law he was still able to make an impact on the situation. This is one ray of light in a bad situation.

A third issue is that of Vatican liability. In his letter to the Catholics of Ireland Pope Benedict outlined many valid criticisms of the Irish Church but at no stage did he accept any responsibility on behalf of the Vatican. The financial reasons for this stance are obvious. The moral reasons are not. The Vatican appointed all the bishops of Ireland and each is accountable to the Pope. The Vatican needs to accept an appropriate level of responsibility.

A fourth issue is that of child protection world wide. The crisis in Ireland was preceded by similar events in Canada and the US, and followed by other abuse crises elsewhere. The Vatican is the only Church body in a position to influence Church law and practise world wide. It is important that efforts are made to ensure openness about the past and the implementation of proper protection protocols in countries where this has not already happened, especially in places where there is great deference to clergy. Without such action there is a strong likelihood that children will continue to be abused. That is the direct opposite of the task of the Church which is to image the presence of the God of love in our world.

It is not clear how the Irish church will move forward. There are calls for a gathering of the whole church and something of this sort is likely to happen next year. In my own book in response to the crisis (Can I Stay in the Catholic Church, Dublin: Columba, forthcoming 2012), I suggested that the Pope should visit Ireland and repent on his knees in silence on behalf of the whole Church. I also suggested that there was a connection between the structures of patriarchy, clericalism, deference and lack of accountability that we have in the Church today and the Church's bad response to the crisis. Until we move seriously to change these structures we cannot claim to have begun to repent properly. Perhaps an immediate focus for action should be efforts to change Canon 129 of the Church's law which excludes lay people from the exercise of governance: doing so would at least reduce clericalism.

Brian Lennon S.I.
© FCSF – Popoli