Belfast Telegraph

How the Pope lost the chance to renew Irish church

By Maurice Hayes

A fairly savage cartoon in a French regional newspaper depicted a crucifix shrouded in purple cloth for the Holy Week liturgy. A priest standing by explained the significance of the veiled cross: "There are things going on in the church that Christ would be better not seeing."

This, of course, is France, but the editorial extends the problem to the wider church, and specifically to Ireland.

There is in France, too, the tension between a younger generation of bishops and priests who recognise the need to report crime to the civil authorities, to have regard to the material and psychological needs of victims and their demand for justice, and the need for transparency, against those traditionalists who would still put the protection of the institution from exposure above the protection of children from abuse.

At least they can take comfort (as some do) in not being the target for a papal letter like their counterparts in the Irish church.

How much difference that would make is an open question - even in Ireland, where the letter is seen largely as a lost opportunity rather than a world-changing (or even church-changing) intervention.

It has faded into the background as new crises rock the hierarchy and new evidence of episcopal fallibility or failure leaks daily into the public domain.

It was not, perhaps, the happiest choice for the Pontiff to invoke the spirit of St Oliver Plunkett in his letter. Oliver Plunkett was indeed a martyr, and is to be revered as such, but a martyr as much to divisions in the Irish church at the time as to the Penal Laws.

On one plausible reading of history, he was sent back by Rome as an agent of reform with a mission to improve church governance in Ireland and to remove irregularities and questionable practices.

In doing so he ran up against clerical vested interests and their powerful friends who engineered his betrayal and eventual death. Not a very happy precedent for a curial inspectorate.

Most people will have been uncomfortable at the Pope's attribution of blame for clerical child abuse to growing secularisation. For them, disillusionment with the church has been as a result of such behaviour and the failure to manage the consequences rather than a contributory cause.

Where the Pope really gets it wrong in the public mind is in clinging to canon law and relegating the law of the land to "its own area of competence".

Had canon law been followed, he seems to say, the matter would have been dealt with. But it is because the church authorities followed canon law (encouraged to secrecy by the then Cardinal Ratzinger) that we now have a problem. The problem is not that canon law was imperfectly applied, but that it should have been invoked at all in what was clearly the province of the criminal law and the civil authorities. In a democracy, canon law has no more validity than the rules of a golf club in circumstances where children have been abused and a crime committed.

Apart from the diagnostics, it is the absence of any clear programme for change that is most disappointing. Apart from a Friday fast during Lent and an exhortation to pray harder, the Pope has little to offer.

Apart too from the enormity of the crimes and the suffering of the victims, the continuing failure to deal adequately with the situation is a cause of public anger and disillusioment. Where the Pope's letter fell short of the expectations of the faithful is in not prescribing total and immediate disclosure and radical changes in senior management and structures.

Reducing the number of dioceses by half and retiring a cadre of senior bishops would mark a break with the past. Allowing the promotion of younger men not associated with past practices would release latent energy and bring a new sense of mission to the church.

Cardinal Sean Brady is a decent, honourable and compassionate man who has laboured mightily to install effective procedures for the protection of children. Caught in a web of circumstances not entirely of his own making, his position is increasingly unsustainable.

It is not the failure to report Brendan Smyth (when the duty was by no means clear) or letting him stay free to offend (when the nature of paedophilia was poorly understood) or inflicting a gobbledegook oath of silence on frightened and abused teenagers that are most at issue, but simply in being at the head of a system that has failed and a management that is not fit for purpose, that most undermines the cardinal's position.

Easter, a time of hope and renewal, could have heralded a new beginning with a better lead from the Pope. After all, what is Easter without a rebellion?

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph