Is unaccountable leadership worthy of the public’s respect?

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish News, Belfast   Jan 13th 2011

As the Apostolic Visitation to Armagh ordered by Pope Benedict XVI begins, Sean O’Conaill wonders if it will examine why it took state inquiries to expose deep problems within the Church.

It can be a fascinating exercise to trace the remote origins of current events, and this is especially true of the ongoing apostolic visitation, headed in Ulster by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.

At first sight the cause of this visitation is recent and obvious.  In his pastoral letter of March of last year Pope Benedict XVI promised such a visit ‘to assist the local Church on her path of renewal’. However, that pastoral letter was itself an unprecedented event, originating in the greatest public relations disaster the Catholic church has ever suffered in Ireland.  That disaster climaxed in 2009 with what are now known as the Ryan and Murphy reports – the results of exhaustive Irish state inquiries into the criminal abuse of children by Catholic clergy in recent times.  The detail of those reports shocked us all to the core. Certainly the Irish church is in need of renewal, but it is far less certain that this visitation can begin that process.

The central question crying out for an answer by all Catholic churchmen is why it required two Irish state inquiries to identify and describe such deep seated problems within the church.  Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor will leave Ireland under-informed if he does not hear that many of us are asking this question – and asking also why he and his brother cardinals show so far no inclination to address it.  Renewal of the Irish church, and of the western church generally is already being seriously delayed by the total failure of the Catholic church hierarchy to recognise the biggest elephant in the living room: our church is no longer self-regulating.  It obviously now requires secular state supervision and media vigilance to discipline errant bishops who have shown themselves totally  incapable of investigating and disciplining one another.

The reason for this is very simply.  Since the eighteenth century no pope has done what the brightest of earlier popes knew they were obliged to do – to take notice of advances in the understanding of administration and government in the secular world, and to adapt these to the church’s own needs.

In particular, modern popes have ignored a principle that is now part of the basic wisdom of secular administration:  to ensure that no individual is unaccountable, no individual should exercise undivided power.

That principle was observed in the Roman republic of ancient times.  It was overthrown to the detriment of Rome in Caesarian and imperial times.  It languished in the middle ages, but reappeared in the eighteenth century when it became known as the principle of the separation of powers.  It was most influentially propagated then by the French intellectual the Baron de Montesquieu, whose most brilliant works were placed on the Roman index in 1751.  Ironically they were avidly read in colonial America, and the principle of the separation of powers became the bedrock of the US constitution in 1787.

The irony lies in the fact that it was in the US in the 1980s that the revelation began of the universal policy of concealment of clerical child sex abuse by Catholic bishops.  To this day lawyers defending the papacy from litigation in US courts have been unable to point to a single instance of a Catholic bishop initiating a criminal investigation of a clerical abuser.  In all cases, perpetrators were first ‘outed’ by victims who took advantage of the fact that US secular courts were not under church control.

There is a further irony.  To the extent that Catholic children are now better protected from clerical predators, this is also entirely due to the secular principle of the separation of powers.  In Ireland as in the US and Britain, the Catholic hierarchy implemented no child-safeguarding measures until after the phenomenon of clerical child sex abuse had been revealed by secular processes.  The Irish hierarchy actually sought insurance protection from liability for injury caused by clerical sexual abuse in 1987 – a full eight years before they produced the first set of child protection guidelines in 1995.  And it was obviously the public revelation of the activities of Brendan Smyth in 1994 that finally precipitated these.  To this day there has been no acknowledgement or explanation of this astonishing and appalling sequence.

Nor has there been any acknowledgement that the ongoing visitation was precipitated also by the superiority of secular institutions.   The papal pastoral of March 2010 even partially attributed the abuse disaster to the ‘secularization of Irish society’ – without once mentioning that Catholic children were now safer because of events that had begun in secular courts.  There was no mention whatsoever of a fact that every educated person in Ireland now knows:  that the leadership of the church still operates a system of church government that did nothing to protect Catholic children until secular revelations left it no alternative.

Without an acknowledgement of this kind, the visitation seems short of both honesty and credibility.  How especially can the families of victims believe that these visiting bishops have some exalted expertise in child protection, when not one of them has had the candour and courage to acknowledge that Catholic bishops did not begin to prioritise child safety until secular processes had revealed that everywhere those bishops were doing the very opposite?

And how can Irish Catholics generally respect leaders who maintain without question the same archaic, self-indulgent and  unaccountable system of church government that has brought us global disgrace?

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