April Epiphanies

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life  June 2002

April 2002 was another riveting month in the gathering crisis of our Church. At Maynooth and Rome high level conferences occurred whose subject matter was the problem of clerical child abuse. In the statements that emerged from both there were abject apologies and firm assurances that leaders who had been remiss in the past would do better in future.

Unmentioned in these was a far greater scandal that future church historians must record. It was not the pain of sexual abuse itself that had prompted these conferences – for this had occurred long before – but media exposure of subsequent administrative abuse by bishops – abuse which had caused additional, unnecessary and even graver suffering.

Church historians must therefore record also that in April 2002 the leaderships of the Irish and American churches – and even the Papacy itself – lost their moral authority. For if it is to the secular media we must look to make our leaders even partially accountable, what does this say about their own unforced sense of moral obligation to their own flock? What does it say also about the church system under which these leaders have received and exercise their responsibilities, and to which they still resist any change?

The point needs to be made with absolute clarity. In April 2002 the whole population of this planet saw the highest leaders of the Catholic Church respond not to the accumulated wrongs of Catholic lambs – but to secular media exposure of these.

All of the facts the media revealed were already known to at least some of the highest administrators in the Irish and US churches: it was public presentation of those facts – sometimes by the victims themselves – that precipitated public expressions of remorse and atonement from those bishops, and galvanised the papacy. Their public remorse, scandalously, did not precede their public exposure. It followed it, and was therefore wholly unconvincing. Further, that exposure was achieved not by some internal Catholic checking mechanism, but by the BBC and the Boston Globe, entirely secular agencies.

Until those facts are recorded and addressed by the church at the highest level it follows inexorably that we Catholics must expect to continue to see our church’s accumulated dirty linen washed periodically in the full glare of the global media. Eight years ago, following another BBC documentary on Brendan Smyth, another Irish churchman resigned, the Abbot of Kilnacrott, Kevin Smyth. In that case too it was the secular world that had belatedly taught basic Christianity to leaders of the Irish church – but that fact and its significance went unrecorded by the Irish hierarchy. If it passes unobserved this time we Catholics can expect to see, by about 2010, the next great Irish Catholic embarrassment.

No improved set of rules and guidelines on any specific issue can affect this, because the basic flaw of the system that pertained in 1994 is still there today, and still has not been even mentioned by the leadership – that to the bishop alone all responsibility for following any guidelines on any matter are still entrusted. Every bishop remains his own sole guardian, so a flawed bishop still has the very same power to be unjust – and the only recourse of the lay person for protection and vindication in that event will be to secular agencies still. The Church as a community can still guarantee the wronged lay person no protection or vindication by his own church: we must look still to the secular world for these.

It follows from this in turn that the sense of our church as a moral community has been dealt a damaging blow by the current church leadership. For if secular structures are a better guarantee of justice from one’s own church – and its leadership shows no sign of noticing this – how is it possible to argue that God walks with them, guiding and advising them?

Another deeply counter-evangelical conclusion has been drawn from April’s events by many supposedly unsophisticated Catholics: that the status and dignity of the lay person in the eyes of the Catholic hierarchy generally is inferior to the status the lay person enjoys as a member of his secular community. And there is very good reason for this conclusion.

Why otherwise would Marie Collins have had to wait for a media furore in April 2002 to win for her the apology she was clearly due years earlier, and certainly no later than 2001, when she had presented the very same facts? Why otherwise would Colm O’Gorman and the other young men whose story precipitated the BBC program of March 2002 have had to wait until then for the resignation of the Bishop of Ferns, and for the Maynooth conference that followed? Why else would the rest of the Irish Catholic laity still lack an opportunity to put, as members of the same church community, their own questions about this and other vital matters to their own bishops?

To put it bluntly, why must an Irish Catholic, in almost all dioceses in Ireland, become a media person to put a public question to a Catholic bishop?

The answer seems to be that many of our bishops see us as persons of equal dignity only after the media have established that status for us. Until then we are simply ‘the simple faithful’ whose obligation is silent loyalty – mere faces in the applauding crowd.

Convinced as I am that my church does indeed stand for the equal dignity of all – and that it must say so not just verbally, but in the way it administers itself, I say, again, that the aristocratic structures and style of the hierarchy, which allow no internal check against hierarchical malfeasance and arrogance, must change. Pope, cardinals and bishops must stop and ask themselves why it is that the secularism many of them detest offers a better prospect of justice, and dignity, to a Catholic lay person than the structures of the church itself.

It would be entirely naïve to suppose that this has anything to do with a higher secular morality. It results from the simple fact that power in the secular world is distributed, not concentrated. Although secular Ireland is, in fact, very corrupt (as we were also reminded in April by a report from the British Rowntree Foundation), there are mechanisms for discovering this, and media independent of government flourish by this discovery. As we also saw in April, a politician who trespasses on the independence of a judge can be called to account, publicly, by the judge in question, with final consequences for his career.

But no such separation, and no such freedom of information, is possible in a church whose hierarchical culture still owes most to the European ancien regime, very little to the Gospels, and nothing at all to the past three centuries of administrative and political science. Even after the Vatican conference of April it was clear that the Pope considers renewed holiness to be the only solution to clerical malfeasance. But if divine grace did not prevent the most appalling injustice being done by priests and bishops in the past, and if the small justice eventually done is owed to the separation of powers in the secular world, hasn’t God now clearly spoken? Mustn’t there be a separation of powers (which does not mean a separation of doctrine also) – and freedom of information – in the Catholic Church?

How this might be arranged without imperilling the unity of the church is a matter for serious thought and prayer by the whole church. At the very least it demands the existence in every diocese of an independent body, with lay membership elected by and therefore answerable only to, the laity. This body’s remit should include the posing of questions for the bishop from any member of the laity, and, where appropriate, the publication of those answers to the whole diocese. It should include also oversight of clerical appointments and financial administration. Its membership should include also people of expertise in matters such as education, law and psychology, co-opted by the elected membership, in an advisory role for the whole diocese.

To argue that any such arrangement would damage the church is to close one’s eyes completely to the appalling damage already done by the concentration of power and responsibility in the hands of one person. The church’s present system of governance is a global scandal that makes the very idea of an apostolic succession seem ridiculous. True, we do not yet know what the findings of the state inquiry into the events in Ferns will be. However, there is already more than enough evidence from events throughout the world to convince any balanced observer that the day of the aristocratic bishop, monarch of what little he now surveys, must pass into history.

Catholic self-respect, justice, communication, participation and renewal, now demand that responsibility in the church be shared by, and discussed by, the whole church – including those entrusted by Lumen Gentium with the consecration of the secular world to God – the laity. Otherwise the proposal that our church can play any part in re-evangelising Ireland and the West will continue to receive, and to deserve, a hollow laugh – not just from the secular world, but from all Catholics also.

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