Belfast Telegraph

Friday 24 October 2014

Why clerical sex abuse probe must recognise no boundaries

It was in the 1970s that the Irish bishops of the Roman Catholic Church were having one of their regular meetings in St Patrick's College, Maynooth. On these occasions they were provided with an ample luncheon.

After lunch on that day, the Bishop of Galway, Dr Michael Browne, a formidable character known to many of his people as 'Cross Michael', was still enjoying a post-prandial cigar when he strolled into the adjacent library of the college to collect a book.

The official at the desk mentioned to the bishop that, regrettably, there was a no-smoking rule in the library. But the bishop continued on his way unabashed and duly rejoined his colleagues.

Some time later, though, he had cause to re-enter the library. He was still smoking. "Second offence," he said jauntily to the attendant at the desk, waving the cigar in his fingers. In an era like our own, when the church has its back to the wall, facing public onslaught over the misdeeds of its clergy, this little cameo is not only interesting: it is significant.

It displays perfectly the extent to which the Irish Catholic bishops regarded themselves in those days as the ultimate arbiters, a race apart. Concurrence with petty rules, in the mind of the bishop, was for lesser breeds.

His behaviour - can one call it anything other than arrogant? - points to the supremacy of the church in Ireland: something socially and politically unique in a state claiming to be democratic and which today's youth would find quite inconceivable; including those at Trinity College, which Dr Browne once condemned as a "centre for atheist and communist propaganda".

Today's crashing downfall, amid the shocking disclosures of sexual crime by priests against children and the shameless attempts by the bishops to ignore the victims and cover up the crime, is sensational, not only for its nature; it is also sensational because of the bishops' old, unquestioned authority. When they issued a fiat they expected to be obeyed - and usually were.

In 1966, Bishop Browne rang up RTE to complain about an incident on the Late Late Show when Gay Byrne asked a young woman what colour of nightie she had worn on her wedding night and she answered that she might not have worn one. In Dr Browne's lexicon, this was "filthy" and he obviously expected the producers to take note. It was in the mid-1990s that the key change in public attitudes occurred. When Bertie Ahern became Taoiseach in 1997, he felt able to come clean about his relationship with Celia Larkin (below) and his failed marriage.

Four years later there followed the uncomfortable episode of the reception at Dublin Castle for Cardinal Connell, returned from Rome after receiving his red hat. The invitations went out from Mr Ahern and Ms Larkin; but, although Cardinal Connell appeared, none of the other invited bishops from the 25 dioceses outside Dublin turned up.

In the meantime, practising homosexuals had been decriminalised and the constitutional ban on divorce swept away. In the first, the church was not consulted; in the second, a vigorous campaign for a 'No' vote by the bishops failed - though they succeeded in reducing the 'Yes' majority to a very narrow margin.

But if the church's old role as the unchallenged arbiter of society has crumbled, what can replace it?

As we ponder the answer, a moral vacuum is opening. The recently-formed Sex Workers' Alliance of Ireland, representing prostitutes and others concerned with the industry, has just held its first conference - in Dublin Castle.

Cynicism about the new libertarianism is strongest among the young; and two-thirds of the population of the Republic is under 44. These are the victims of the drug-pushers, with queues for treatment in most provincial towns.

In the prisons, drugs are beyond control. In Dublin, one gang is suspected of 12 murders, six of them since the start of this year.

Meantime, the young sneer at their elders in the Dail, where the speaker, a passionate follower of the turf, was found to have made two official trips to Paris, where the hotel cost €1,000 a night - both visits happening to coincide with the Prix de L'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamps. He subsequently resigned.

The process of disillusionment has not yet run its course. Northern Ireland so far has not been included in the diocesan investigations.

But there is now a demand for a full-scale inquiry into priests' sex abuse in every Irish Catholic diocese. Victims are pressing for action by the Executive to ascertain the facts north of the border and legal action is being considered against named religious orders and the Government agencies then responsible for child welfare here.

On no account may northerners look smugly southwards: victims here live with the problem and society at large shares the symptoms of an increasingly sceptical age.

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