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Knives will be out for the Irish government soon enough

The reaction of the Irish government to the Vatican's 1997 letter to the Irish bishops as outlined in the Cloyne Report has been one of almost complete hysteria.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny's statement to the Dail on Wednesday was delivered against this background.

In the sort of language normally associated with a Richard Dawkins or Ian Paisley, he accused the Vatican of "dysfunction, disconnection, elitism . . . narcissism" and effectively of not caring about the "rape and torture of children".

Among other things, Kenny's speechwriters included a wildly out-of-context quote from the then Cardinal Ratzinger.

There is a difference between necessary and valid criticism of the church on the one hand, and unrestrained church-bashing on the other.

In a similar vein, Kenny added his voice last week to those who believe the breaking of the seal of confession should be required by law.

Kenny is obviously no anti-Catholic, but he needs to realise that, historically, only the most anti-Catholic societies have ever done such a thing.

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I was going to write this week about the need for the church in Ireland to do something very dramatic in order to categorically demonstrate it is deadly serious about child protection.

I was going to suggest that the bishops do something along the lines of what Fr Vincent Twomey proposed on 'Today with Pat Kenny' on Tuesday, namely that most of them resign, that there should be a swingeing reduction in the number of dioceses and a new generation of bishops should be appointed to lead the church here.

Something along these lines is badly needed, but the sheer intensity and irrationality of the attacks on the Vatican demands a response.

Essentially, the Vatican is accused of interfering in the laws of the Irish State in order to protect the reputation of the church.

When that letter was sent to the Irish bishops in 1997, the Vatican was without doubt excessively concerned about the rights of accused priests. However, that is a far cry from it interfering in the laws of the land.

The letter did not forbid the Irish bishops from passing on abuse allegations to the civil authorities as many people seem to think. Had it done so, then it would be justifiable to send the Papal Nuncio packing.

What it did have was a reservation about mandatory reporting, but this reservation was shared by the Irish state. Let us remember that back in 1996, when the Irish bishops produced their first child-protection guidelines, the Rainbow coalition was in power.

That government consisted of several ministers who are also in the current cabinet, including the Taoiseach himself and ministers Michael Noonan and Ruairi Quinn.

They had a chance to introduce mandatory reporting back then and didn't. Nor did successive Fianna Fail governments.

So if the Vatican deserves condemnation over its attitude to mandatory reporting, then so does the Irish state.

That letter of 1997 was issued by the Congregation for the Clergy then headed by Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, who was notoriously biased in favour of accused clerics.

Hoyos is now retired and recently criticised by Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi over his excessively protective attitude towards priests.

I wonder how many of our cabinet ministers know this?

Or how many know that in 2001 the present Pope, then Cardinal Ratzinger, won a decisive battle with Hoyos which meant that the rights of accused priests were to be given far less weight?

How many know that this Pope has repeatedly urged bishops to co-operate with the civil authorities?

How many know that when there isn't enough evidence to convict an accused priest in a court of criminal law, often it is only under the much-maligned canon law that action can be taken against him?

In its overheated response to the Vatican, the Irish government has made two mistakes. Firstly, it has misrepresented the 1997 letter as interfering in the laws of the land when it did not. Secondly, it has utterly failed to recognise that the letter, which was biased in favour of the rights of accused priests, does not represent the attitude of the Vatican today.

The present mood of public anger is understandable, but the Irish government should know how easy it is to whip up that anger to the point where rational debate becomes impossible. The Vatican is on the receiving end of it today and the government is stoking it up.

But the government will be on the receiving end of it plenty of times in the days ahead and it will have no cause for complaint when that happens. What goes around comes around.

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