Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

How the Catholic Church has mocked its own pastoral rules

In 1975, when two children were sworn to an oath of secrecy by senior members of the Catholic Church about the sexual violation which they had endured from the serial rapist priest Brendan Smyth, the Republic was essentially a Catholic state.

The institutions of government imposed a Catholic interpretation upon the rule of law. Contraceptives were not lawfully available. Divorce was impossible. Abortion was not remotely discussable in the Dail.

Within the body-politic of state, there was simply no appetite for a confrontation with the Catholic Church. Film censorship laws were essentially a civil application of the then current Catholic teaching. (See Kevin Rockett's wonderful, deeply sobering book Irish Film Censorship.)

Roman Polanski’s Rosemary's Baby, which was banned in 1969 because it was offensive to Catholic teaching, was then rebanned in 1977. As late as 1979, the film censor Frank Hall was cutting all references to condoms from films. In 1980, Hall banned The Life of Brian simply on the grounds that it was blasphemous according to the canons of Catholic teaching.

Three years later, he banned Monty Python's Meaning of Life, again because it would offend the Catholic Church. He had already cut a line from a Bette Midler film on the same grounds, viz: “The Virgin Mary's coming off the bench to fill in for us.”

I could go on. This was the Ireland that existed then, a strange and demented country, in which a cast of virginal clerics wielded enormous power, with little resistance from the political classes.

In 1973, an attempt by the new coalition government to legalise contraception foundered on the vehement opposition of Fianna Fail and of the then Taoiseach Liam Cosgrove, who actually voted against his own government's bill. The Labour Party — the voice, such as it was, of secular Ireland — obediently stayed in government.

The position of the Catholic Church in this island was so sensitive that when a local priest organised the bombing of the town of Claudy in 1972, killing nine people, both the British and Irish governments agreed, with the Catholic hierarchy, to hush the entire affair up.

The priest was posted to a parish where he could be reasonably relied on not to blow any more of his parishioners to pieces.

Politicians then made it their trademark to profess that they were Catholics first and Irish second. A declaration of loyalty to the church was the sine qua non of Irish political life.

As late as 1990, the presidential candidate Mary Robinson was routinely being barracked by mob-Catholics as ‘the abortionist’.

This was a strange, demented country, with strange and demented mores — one in which the IRA army council were allowed to sleep safely in their beds.

Any garda inspector, attorney general or minister for justice who had gone after the child-raping priest Smyth would have seen his (and the word is emphatically ‘his’) career terminated there and then.

There was no conspiracy, as such; there did not need to be. Seawater does not conspire to exclude air. We cannot impose today's standards on yesterday. And it was in the nature of Irish society to protect the institutions of the Catholic Church and its members.

Indeed, the only major conflict between the Irish state in 1975 and the Catholic Church concerned the State's acceptance of the Children's Act of 1908, which set the age of criminal responsibility for a child at seven.

A Catholic bishop took a district justice to task for applying that law. According to Catholic teaching, a child under the age of 10 does not have ‘the self-possession' to sin gravely, a precept first propounded by St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century.

Yet two children that we know of were, in 1975, being made to swear an oath of secrecy about the vile acts of sexual depravity that had been perpetrated on them at such ages by this evil creature Smyth.

Was a threat held over these youngsters by church officials in the administration of this grisly oath? To what degree were they voluntary participants? And what punishment was held over them — and their immortal souls — if they had refused to participate?

Excommunication, perhaps? Hell? Ostracism by the very same church that was busy covering up for Smyth, then and for all the years to come?

I do not like mobs, such as those that once pursued Mary Robinson and that are now baying after the career of Cardinal Sean Brady. But right is right.

Was the young Fr Brady a participant in a coercive ceremony which did further wrong to the already blighted lives of two young victims of clerical sex abuse? And did not the pastoral rules of the Catholic Church apply then, as now?

The word bishop is ultimately derived from the Greek ‘epi' and ‘skop'. ‘Epi' means ‘above, over' and ‘skop' (as in ‘tele-scope') means ‘watch' — a bishop, like a shepherd, watches over his flock.

If a bishop — or his ministers — ever turns on members of their flock, or damages them in the least degree, or fails to protect them from the wolf that is attacking them, then that is, and always was, and ever shall be, a violation of the pastoral duties of those who have been honoured by any ecclesiastical preferment.

And that, really, is that.

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