The Greatest Scandal

Sean O’Conaill © Reality June 2002

How do Irish Catholic bishops understand the Catholic Church?  As the whole people of God under their care, or as essentially the ordained ministry, whose public prestige must be paramount?

This question lies at the root not just of the recent resignation of Bishop Comiskey, but of the settled deportment of the leadership of the Irish Church since the onset of a series of scandals a decade ago.  All of these scandals have had a common theme: the discovery and investigation by secular institutions – police, courts and media – of abuses of power and trust within the clerical Church.  This common theme – and the sufferings of hundreds of ordinary Catholic young people at the hands of their own clergy – points to an obvious dysfunction in the Church itself – its inability to give its own most vulnerable members the protection, care, attention and justice they must then seek from the secular state and the media.  Scandalously it declares the moral superiority – even from a Christian perspective, and at a time when some of the bishops have been lamenting the secularisation of Ireland – of secularism itself.

For a Church now being called by the papacy to re-evangelise the West this surely must be the greatest scandal of all.

Modern secularism originated in the ‘Enlightenment’ of the eighteenth century, when intellectuals dazzled by Newtonian science jumped to the conclusion that science, rather than faith, was the only reliable source of knowledge and social improvement.  Their scorning of the intellectual claims of Christian clergy put the Catholic clergy in opposition to modernity – a posture that the Irish church especially relished.  This opposition now haunts the church, as its own internal shortcomings continue to feed the incessant hunger of the secular media.

Freedom of the press was a primary principle of the Enlightenment, and of the secular liberalism the hierarchical Church came to detest.  So was the principle of a separation of state powers.  The US constitution, in which power is distributed between the Presidency, Congress and Supreme Court, was the great triumph of the Enlightenment, as US constitution makers in the period after 1783 borrowed freely from the ideas of Montesquieu and other Enlightenment thinkers.  While Montesquieu’s principle made US presidents accountable to Congress and the Supreme Court, the Catholic Church put Montesquieu’s works on its list of demonic literature, the Roman Index.

The reason this happened was that the Catholic hierarchy of the time was dominated by the younger sons of the European landed aristocracy, whose older brothers were most threatened by democratic principles.  Attributing the democratic wave, the French revolution and secular liberalism to Freemasonry, the hierarchical Church went onto the defensive against modernity.  The Church, we were assured, is not a democracy.  And this meant that in an era of growing accountability for all institutions, the Church became unique in preventing the accountability of its own leadership.

The Second Vatican Council of the 1960s might well have ended this anomaly, defining the church as it did – as the whole people of God.  Yet Humanae Vitae of 1968, representing the priority of the principle of papal absolutism in the Church, put an end to this hope.  Support for Humanae Vitae became the litmus test of loyalty and a sine qua non for episcopal appointment and promotion in the long papacy of John Paul II.  This in turn guaranteed that the Irish church would remain a heavily paternalistic and secretive institution at its summit, increasingly out of touch with a rapidly modernising society.  Accountability of clergy to the people of God was never on the programme, and this is an entirely sufficient explanation for the state of affairs we now have.

And this is the greatest scandal now facing the Church in Ireland – that it still cannot prove itself to be an open and caring and adult institution, fully capable of protecting its own weakest members without external pressure.  Where the church in the Middle Ages could be seen as a sanctuary that would protect the lay person from secular violence and injustice, Irish victims of clerical violation today flee in the opposite direction –  to find sanctuary instead in secular institutions – while Irish bishops allow secular lawyers to determine their pastoral response to these victims.  As I write, the survivors of Fr Sean Fortune’s depredations are calling for a public enquiry into the handling of the abuse issue in the diocese of Ferns.  Such an enquiry would represent in Ireland the final  victory of secularism over Catholicism in the matter of vindicating the Church’s own victims.  No greater disgrace could befall our church leadership.

When the Brendan Smyth case hit the news in 1994 I felt sure that this scandal must finally establish principles of openness and accountability for the Irish church, and called for this in an article in Studies.  It never crossed my mind that eight years later we would still be suffering the scandal of paternalistic non-accountability, media pressure – and a serious shortfall in the matter of basic justice to violated young people.

Those wasted eight years will remain the most visible historical monument of the Church’s present leadership – unless they make an unprecedented effort to grasp the meaning of what is happening.  Why should Irish Catholics respect their own leaders, or their own church, if they must look to a state enquiry to explain what went wrong in Ferns – rather than to an enquiry freely and openly initiated by the Church itself?  What would prevent this – other than the failed policy of indicting secularism for all that is wrong with Ireland now?  If it is true that the state cannot constitutionally inquire into the manner in which the church conducts its own disciplinary business, the church leadership must be in no doubt that as members of the church, with families to protect,  Irish lay Catholics (and especially those damaged by this appalling tragedy) are owed such an investigation.

Secularism alone cannot, in fact, heal the wounds in the Irish church.  But the full truth could begin to do so, especially if the Church leadership were to seize this moment for a total revealing of what went wrong – open to full public and expert independent legal scrutiny.  There is at least one precedent for this.   Following the revelation of child abuse in Newfoundland in 1988 the Winter Commission, established by the Catholic Church, investigated abuse at Mount Cashel orphanage in the Newfoundland diocese of St John’s.  Chaired by a highly respected and independent former Lieutenant-Governor of Newfoundland, the Winter Commission proceeded with such scrupulous concern for the truth that its findings won almost universal acceptance when published in 1990.  (Ironically, these included the conclusions that the traditional non-accountability of Catholic clergy, and the emphasis placed upon the unquestionable authority of clergy, placed Catholic children at unacceptable risk.)

Must Irish Catholics wait yet again for our Church leadership to catch up, in terms of structural reform, with the times, with the demands of elementary justice to our own children, and with the pastoral needs of the church at a time of collapsing vocations to the ordained ministry?

This would make us all complicit in scandal.  Oddly enough, the full meaning of that word – scandal – is ‘stumbling block’, something that trips us up, something we would prefer to remain hidden.  That secular institutions should be still in advance of the church leadership in bringing to light matters of injustice within the church – eight years after the first such revelations – is itself a scandal too far for Irish Catholicism.  It is still within the power of our Church leaders to put an end to it, but their time is rapidly running out.

In the longer term Breda O’Brien’s idea of a Church ombudsman would be a step in the right direction, but given the other major problems of the Church just now, nothing less than a comprehensive structural reform of the church is likely to meet the situation, involving some kind of separation of administrative and pastoral functions.  The safety of Catholic children, and even the continuity of the faith, also demand formal and permanent lay parish structures, together with rights of regular assembly for all the faithful, at parish, diocesan and (eventually) national level.

Will this generation of Church leaders be able to forgive themselves if this opportunity too is missed, and the Irish Catholic Church remains a prime target for secular sensation and criticism?  Dr Comiskey’s resignation turns the media spotlight on the rest of the Irish conference of bishops.  They have little time left to prove they really do believe that the church is the whole people of God, and that they can run the Irish church justly and competently, without the supervision and pressure of the secular media and the secular state.

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