Category Archives: Secrecy

A Reckoning on Catholic Clerical Abuse? Seriously?

Are Irish bishops truly serious in echoing the view of Ireland’s National Synodal Synthesis – that a conclusive ‘reckoning’ on the issue of clerical sexual abuse of children has yet to happen in the church? If so will they now call upon the Pope and the Universal Synod of Bishops to remove the obvious barriers to such a reckoning that the hierarchical church has maintained since the abuse crisis began in 1984?
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In a December 2022 statement Irish bishops repeated the assertion of the Irish National Synodal Synthesis that a ‘reckoning’ on abuse in the church has still to happen. They quoted the following paragraph from the National Synthesis:

“There was a palpable sense that despite many efforts by the Church, a ‘reckoning’ had not yet taken place, and the synodal process generated a clear imperative to place this issue at the heart of any Church renewal and reform. A submission noted: We must pledge ourselves to journey with survivors, to meet with them, preferably in small groups where dialogue is possible and opens us to the presence of the Spirit.”

Who do Ireland’s church leaders suppose should initiate such a ‘reckoning’ after three decades of church scandal, when everywhere the hierarchical church has deliberately dealt with survivors individually – often imposing non-disclosure agreements on receivers of settlements – and failed to provide victims of abuse in the church – or the people of God – with any corporate representative structures?

No Irish diocese has ever even projected a full reckoning on the issue of abuse, to end the isolation of survivors with a view to final reconciliation. This effectively means that the Irish church remains divided into three separate bodies: first, clergy; second, clerical abuse survivors; third, the now radically declining body of church goers. 

Furthermore the Irish Catholic Church has never published any account of the current wellbeing or otherwise of the survivor community, leaving the wider church completely in the dark on the wellbeing and health status of survivors. It is for all the world as though they are all out of sight and out of mind, and deliberately so.  If a ‘reckoning’ is sincerely contemplated now, shouldn’t survivors be asked, openly, what exactly that would mean?  

The 2022 synodal process received only one distinctive survivor submission – from only seven Irish survivors – and their submission was an indictment of the ongoing typical treatment of survivors as adversaries – by church servants who too often showed an inclination ‘to sacrifice survivors for what they considered to be the good of the Church‘.

And no Irish diocese yet has a permanent forum where anyone could ask why this is still so.

This is the deliberate maintenance of an imbalance of power between survivors and Irish church leaders, and the isolation of survivors from the wider church-going community.

When and Why did Secrecy Begin?

Meanwhile there has never been even a hint of an in-house attempt to uncover and reveal the root of the ghastly mishandling of the issue via secrecy and recycling of malefactors. What reason do survivors have to believe that they will live to see such a reckoning?

Ad nauseam we have been assured that celibacy does not cause clerical child abuse – but what caused the cover up by bishops everywhere, which empowered abusers and protracted this disease for centuries? When and why did it become standard procedure for the hierarchical church to ignore what Jesus had said should happen to those who caused children to stumble (Matt 18:6) – and to hide, systematically, the fact that the ordained could ever do this?

Did the rule of celibacy and the elevation of celibate clergy as exemplary models of Christ truly have nothing to do with the intensification of the practice of secrecy since the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, and especially from c. 1869 – as outlined by Tom Doyle in his brief history of this issue?

Given that Rome has not ever offered even a hint of interest in discovering the roots of this malignant secrecy, the onus must surely rest with the hierarchical church to prove that this had nothing to do with the preservation of the myth of a celibate clergy.

The obvious block on the disclosure of the full historical record, at the highest level, is a barrier to belief that living survivors will ever see a full reckoning. Those at the local level who don’t control access to the full historical record can speak of a reckoning easily enough, as another pious thought –  just something for the historians of the 2100s to get into.

Given the imbalance between the Irish hierarchy and the sufferers of abuse, the former can defer to the notion of a ‘reckoning’, while knowing full well that in their own time everything is being done at the centre to block all means of getting there.

So if Irish bishops are serious about a full reckoning, will they now call for a full disclosure of the historical origins of the greatest mistake ever made by church servants – the hiding of a phenomenon that has plagued the church for centuries and will continue to paralyse it until the mistake of secrecy is traced to its poisonous source?

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St Mary’s, Dunboe on YouTube

Does the word ‘decrepit’ best describe the current state of Catholic Canon Law?

In what else could the Irish Church be ‘entrapped’ – to use the perfect word of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin – other than Catholic Canon Law?

And how else could the ‘We speak – you listen’ inertia of our Irish Catholic clerical culture have persisted – in a zombie state – for over half-a-century after Vatican II (1962-65)?

And how else could the dozy clericalism of the Down and Connor pastoral letter ‘To Follow Jesus Closely have found its way onto a leaflet to be read by adults at Easter 2019?

Then there had been an exploratory pilot study (EPS) of ‘lay involvement’ in Irish Catholic parishes, conducted by the steering group of the Association of Catholics in Ireland in the spring. Pending a more through professional report on this I could see three things right away from the returns:

First, ‘lay involvement’ can vary hugely from parish to parish – with the crucial factor always being the readiness of parish clergy to take time to develop that very thing. The reluctance of too many too-busy clergy simply to delegate parish development activities to lay people is crystal clear. The insistence of Pope Francis, that ‘making a mess‘ to begin with is OK, has fallen on far too many deaf ears.

Second, this sample of thirty-three different parishes was predicting that healthy parish pastoral councils are likely to be in a minority.

Third, some returnees expressed a fear of being known to have taken part in such a poll!

So, by July 2019, it was very clear to me that ‘things’ are very far from OK for the RCC on this island, and the Archbishop of Dublin is far from being the only Irish Catholic who feels ‘entrapped’.

But I wasn’t ‘entrapped’!

Not by lack of resources anyway. I hadn’t yet ever produced a video – but surely I could find someone who could help with that. And wasn’t there a perfect example of the very same ‘entrapment’ of a parish community on my own doorstep? By the system in which parish clergy are also ‘entrapped’.

And hadn’t I developed a bit of a ‘brass neck’ over the years, by just writing for public consumption? And wasn’t some persistent prayer for guidance on ‘entrapment’ making this neck brassier still?

And didn’t the example of the good ol’ Earl Bishop Frederick Hervey of Bristol in the 1780s and 1790s offer the perfect example of that proper respect for the good people of Dunboe that was so clearly missing from the canonical treatment of their community 2018-19?

Mind you, I had one detail of that story quite badly wrong, I am told. Since the voiceover for the video was recorded I have received the following from Jim Hunter of the Hervey Heritage Society, based in St Columb’s Cathedral, Derry.

Jim quotes Stephen Price as writing that:

Frederick [ the Earl Bishop ] stipulated in his will that Catholics living near Downhill should be allowed to hold a service in the Mussenden Temple every Sunday in the actual Temple itself and not in the less salubrious basement, as is more often recounted. He even laid aside a payment of £10 per year for the priest and decreed that he and his horse should be fed. The arrangement persisted until the 1850s, although a row over a missing book caused a priest to take his congregation into the basement, which was never the Earl Bishop’s intention.”

So that point in the video could have been made even more strongly!

What am I hoping for now?

First, that Catholics struck by this story would both pray and think about it – to clarify for themselves whether it seems important that this present state of affairs should be ended. Might everyone who does feel ‘entrapped’ ask themselves ‘Am I, really?’ and then decide on a course of action. It’s pointless to be complaining while doing nothing constructive oneself.

Not everyone can be, or needs to be, with myself and some friends, at the gateway of Maynooth College, Co. Kildare on October 1st, 2019 – when all Irish bishops next meet.

But those who cannot be there could instead write to their bishops on this matter, expressing an opinion.

And in the meantime you could be discussing this with some friends too.

Nothing will change without obvious and overwhelming momentum for change, an unstoppable ‘enough already’ tsunami of rejection of the non-accountable and non-transparent canonical clerical culture that keeps Irish Catholicism entrapped – in 2019 – in the legal detritus of the Middle Ages.

We’ll see – as my Mum used to say.

Views: 35

Consecrating the World?

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2003

In resisting the ‘clericalisation’ of the laity, Pope John Paul II has insisted in Christifideles Laici upon the quite separate and unique lay role of ‘consecrating the world to God’. In so doing he reiterated a central theme of Lumen Gentium. Dismissed by many as a mere stratagem for maintaining the clerical monopoly of power in the church, this verbal reinforcement of Vatican II needs to be taken far more seriously as an opportunity for freeing the Holy Spirit to enlighten and encourage both clergy and laity at a critical time.

But ‘the consecration of the world to God’ is a formula that needs teasing out. If we understand it simply as a ‘churching’ of the world, a matter of ‘ outdoor worship’ – of ostentatious religiosity in the form of mass processions and other grand liturgical events designed for media coverage – we are attempting something else, the recreation of that public power the clerical Catholic Church in Ireland and elsewhere sought to express in the pre-Vatican II era. Christendom and Christianity were never the same thing – and the distinction is critical if we are to communicate to lay people their own crucial and indispensable role in worldly consecration.

Nor can the consecration of the world be achieved by subterfuge, by inducting laity into clerically inspired and controlled pseudo-lay movements that seek to ‘infiltrate’ secular space. Conspiratorial Catholicism is one of the most powerful de-Christianising forces in history, because it proposes to seize by stealth what Christ aimed to transform by nothing more, or less, than unconditional and universal love. By now every Catholic – from Pope to first communicant – should know the fundamental equation proved by recent events: secrecy is – in itself – scandalous.

The fundamental values of the Gospel are not specifically Catholic, or in need of secret stratagems or movements, or alien to the secularised world, or out of place in any human relationship. They are the inalienable sacredness of every human person, and therefore also the sacredness of every human space – and the right of all persons to know and cherish their own dignity and freedom as dearly beloved of God. They have to do, centrally, with unconditional respect for one another, and for ourselves.

It follows that instead of lamenting the half-emptiness of the glass of secularisation, Catholicism should be celebrating its half-fullness – the fact that it emphasises some rights that are implicit in the Gospels, and provides a peaceful neutral space in which all can freely discuss their own spiritual journeys and dilemmas. Victimisation and oppression are also anathema to ideological secularism – and this is a victory for the cross as well, even though we must point to the obvious anomaly of abortion and the drift towards a degrading separation of sexuality from binding relationships.

We Catholics cherish our sacraments as signs of divine love – but we have also forcibly baptised conquered peoples, and therefore made baptism also – for some – a contradictory sign of oppression. Religious freedom was a goal of secularism before it was a principle of our Church – so secularism is for many a more convincing sign of their own liberation, and therefore, to that extent, in that respect – and for those people – more sacramental than the church.

It follows inexorably that there are secular sacraments as well as Catholic ones – sacraments that point nevertheless to the same truths. It follows that they too are worthy of Catholic respect. This discovery was fundamental to the work of Fr John Courtney Murray whose respect for separation of church and state in his own country guided the Vatican II affirmation of the principle of religious liberty.

Which means in turn that we must believe that whenever the Church fails in its assigned role of mediating liberation and salvation to the world, God will find other means. We must therefore learn to recognise them – rather than to condemn them because they are not Catholic. Karl Rahner’s ‘anonymous Christians’ are no mere theoretical possibility: they exist wherever human beings idealise human equality and freedom – even if they mis-recognise Christ as a God of oppression through our fault.

This perspective is very different to the one currently taught in our schools. Although we have abandoned the formula ‘no salvation outside the Church’ we have nevertheless supposed and taught that somehow sometime our Church will be vindicated as the central vehicle of human salvation, and that divine grace must sometime be mediated to all through its sacraments. We are also taught to fear secularism, rather than to celebrate the freedoms it provides.

The lives of people such as Nelson Mandela, Andrey Sakharov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and George Mitchell prove that our God is always greater than we are, and has other strings to his bow. And that he does not wait for our Church to get its act together.

What the Gospels centrally reveal is the existence of a divine force for good, concerned for the fulfilment of every human person. That does not mean that we must suppose God wants everyone to be like us.

In fact, to be truly Catholic, we must be ready to acknowledge that many are Godly who are very unlike us – and celebrate that difference. As Richard Rohr and Ronald Rohlheiser have emphasised, Jesus never told us to be right, to be sure of our own religious and intellectual superiority. Becoming wise is a matter of letting go the need to be right – and it is far more important for the Church to be wise than dominant.

If this seems to be a capitulation to ‘ relativism’, the mistake is in supposing that our God is confined to revealing himself through us. We write and speak of a hierarchy of truth, and so oblige ourselves to identify what lies at the summit of that hierarchy. We need to be very sure that we do not place ourselves there, by deifying our Church.

For me the summit of that hierarchy is the inalienable dignity of every person – including those who differ from me. Their right to differ is therefore in itself sacred – so that I cannot claim the last word. This seems to me to be at the centre of the Word I worship.

And that is very close to the Enlightenment principle of intellectual freedom – one of the keystones of secular modernism.

It follows inexorably that Catholicism needs to re-evaluate its performance vis-a-vis the Enlightenment and Christendom – and this amounts to a revolution in Catholic thought. To consecrate the world to God we are called to co-operate with – rather than to convert – all who centre themselves upon principles of equality, freedom, community and inclusion.

Just as the domination of the secular world today cannot be considered the manifest destiny of any secular superpower, neither can the spiritual domination of the world be considered the manifest destiny of Catholicism. To be truly a great sacrament of human spiritual liberation it must let go of the need to be recognised by all as right, while maintaining its own right to adhere to its own faith. If its mandate is to liberate the world – the central meaning of salvation – it must unequivocally affirm that its own core values include the right of others to remain forever outside.

It follows from all of this that the role of laity in consecrating the world to God must not be seen as one of simply following the instructions of the clerical church, or of reversing secularisation. Clerical paternalism has already placed faithful Catholic laity in the obnoxious position of appearing to be simply forelock-tugging ‘yes’ people with no intellectual autonomy, a kind of ‘Catholic Mafia’ still wedded to the cause of re-clericalising secular space.

We Catholics must all become far more aware of the degree to which fundamental Christian and Catholic values are already out there in the world, informing the best of secular culture. Previous articles on the Harry Potter and Star Wars phenomena have pointed to the central Christian ideas of self-sacrifice for the good of others, and there are many more examples of the same. The very real example that now dominates the imagination of the west was that of the policemen and firemen who raced into terrifying danger, with no violent intent, on September 11th 2001.

What made the priesthood of Christ quite unique was that it had both a secular and a religious significance. Traditional priestly animal sacrifice was essentially the deflection onto a non-human creature of violence that must otherwise fall upon the sacrificing community, or upon at least one of its members. There was, on the part of the priest, an inevitable element of substitution and evasion. Sacred violence in the ancient world was therefore inevitably morally compromised – the fundamental reason for the obsession with ritual cleanliness. Furthermore, the spheres of the sacred and the profane were inevitably divorced and almost antagonistic to one another, as the priest had to be apart from the rest of men.

This evasion and separation was obliterated by the cross. Jesus sacrificed himself alone for the cause of a forgiving and peaceful world. As Paul noted in Ephesians, every Christian can emulate this sacrifice of Christ in his own body, to some degree, for the benefit of others. This real self-sacrifice incarnates the mercy of God, and the sacrifice of Christ, in a manner that is in no way inferior to the liturgical sacrifice of the Mass. Indeed, to the degree that sacrifice remains a merely liturgical phenomenon, Catholicism has failed.

Which means in turn that there should not be any difference in dignity between the lay Catholic and the Catholic priest in the church’s own internal structures. I have remarked here before on the fact that lay Catholics recently wronged by their clergy have found in secular structures a personal dignity and a vindication they could not discover in their Church. This is a scandal that must be righted urgently if the Church superstructure is to recover any of the prestige it once had in secular Ireland, and among its own laity.

Autonomy is an essential sign of dignity, and the lack of autonomy that lay people suffer in the church is the essential cause of the spiritual diffidence, resentment and intellectual immaturity that characterise so many of us. The ‘consecration of the world to God’ requires therefore the creation of autonomous lay structures within which lay men and women can develop their own special and irreplaceable vocations.

These structures are needed not for radical theological innovation, but for the empowering of laity to incarnate the values of the gospel that belong especially to lay people – the values of sacrifice and service that presently lie largely dormant because the Church remains an essentially clerical apparatus. For centuries that apparatus has called laity to worship without freeing laity to serve – for fear of losing clerical control. It still hangs fearfully unready to free the Holy Spirit that now calls so many lay people. It is that fear above all that now retards the development of the whole church as an instrument of worldly consecration.

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“No donations without representation!”

Following the sex abuse scandals that broke out in the Archdiocese of Boston earlier this year (2002), a movement called Voice of the Faithful was founded to campaign for a real say for lay people in governing and guiding the church. Sean O’Conaill looks at a movement that attracted more than 4000 people to its first major conference in July, 2002, and interviews founding member, Dr Jim Muller.

Voice of the Irish faithful raised in Boston

Reilly, Sweeney, Burke, Coakley, Conley, Keating – a litany of Irish names rolls out in the story of Boston attorneys and judges who earlier this year compelled the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston to hand over to civil legal authorities all of its files on the handling of clerical child abuse over four decades.

As ordinary Bostonians read the correspondence on the handling of cases involving three priests in particular who were abusing children into the 1990s, a storm of anger broke in the only major US city with a Catholic majority.

Although US bishops had adopted guidelines in the mid-1980s which should have protected all Catholic children, these seemed not to have been observed in the Boston archdiocese – the most important in the US – with grim consequences for some Catholic families.

Abused victims then came forward to report the indifference of the archdiocesan office to their plight. In one case, a victim had been given to understand that he could not be received by a diocesan official in case he, the victim, tried to seduce the official as he had earlier allegedly seduced Fr Paul Shanley – a Priest abuser who had publicly advocated ‘man-boy love’ decades earlier.

Stories such as these shocked Boston Catholics into a realisation that their trust in their Archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, had left children vulnerable to shameful abuse. Generations of deferential certainty that church leaders would give the highest priority to the protection of Catholic children were suddenly part of the past. In at least one case, Cardinal Law had written encouragingly to an abusing priest, while aiding his transfer without forewarning to another diocese in which other children were then abused.

Crisis of faith

Jim Muller, a medic whose mother was a Courtney from Cork, found himself in a personal crisis of faith. The church had always been part of his life, yet one Sunday in January this year he found he could not go to Mass. After a painful day, he decided that he could not leave his church without trying to better it.

Next Sunday, he saw a long-time friend and his wife, and they discussed the problem. The three of them then spoke with the pastor of St. John the Evangelist church in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Jim suggested there was a need for the laity to have their own meeting during the week to discuss their reactions to the crisis. Father Powers consulted with other parishioners, and suggested that in addition to the lay meeting, it would be good to let the people speak in church after each mass, with a lay facilitator. This was done for two consecutive Sundays. More than 600 spoke from the pews of their love of the church, and their anguish over the crimes and cover-up. They soon found they had a simple programme: to change the church they loved while keeping the faith they shared.

This became the banner of ‘Voice of the Faithful’ (VOTF), a grassroots parish-based movement that was soon using the Internet to spread its simple objectives throughout the state of Massachusetts, and beyond. They stated their mission: “To provide a prayerful voice, attentive to the Spirit, through which the faithful can actively participate in the governance and guidance of the Catholic Church.” They set themselves three goals: to support those who had been abused; to support priests of integrity; and to shape structural change within the church.

Misgivings allayed

Early misgivings among some about their authority to act in this way were soon allayed by church legal and theological experts. Church Canon No. 215 declares that, “The Christian faithful are at liberty freely to found and direct associations for purposes of charity or piety or for the promotion of the Christian vocation in the world and to hold meetings for the common pursuit of these purposes.” None was in any doubt that they had indeed been called by the Holy Spirit to help renew church structures that had failed to protect Catholic children, and that had shamed their church throughout the United States.

Furthermore, the lay obligation stated by Canon 222 – to promote social justice – seemed likely to be frustrated by the mounting financial claims of those who had been abused through the negligence of pastors.

Theologians reminded VOTF members of Lumen Gentium, the great Vatican II document on the church. Article 37 declares the obligation of the laity “to disclose their needs and desires with that liberty and confidence which befits children of God and brothers of Christ.” It continues: “By reason of the knowledge, competence or pre-eminence which they have, the laity are empowered – indeed sometimes obliged to manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the Church.” Thus reassured, VOTF discussions proceeded apace.

The danger of fragmentation through the setting of specific goals sought by left and right in the church – such as the ordination of women or the exclusion from ministry of anyone of homosexual orientation – was avoided by sticking to the simple programme already agreed. The details of structural reform could be discussed and debated as part of the process of self-education, while the movement widened its base across the broad centre ground of the church.

First major conference

By July 2002 – just five months after the movement had started – it was possible for VOTF to hold its first major conference in Boston. Four thousand two hundred people from 36 US states and seven countries enjoyed a day of prayer, education and organisation centred on honouring those who had either suffered abuse or who had tried at an early stage to mobilise the church leadership against it.

Chief among the latter was Fr Tom Doyle, who had been joint author of a report on the child abuse problem in the mid-1980s, and who had tried to warn the US hierarchy of the catastrophe that would inevitably follow any failure to deal with it. They had not heeded the warning. Now, however, Fr Tom’s efforts were recognised by Voice of the Faithful as he became the first recipient of their `Priest of Integrity’ award.

Attendees also signed a VOTF pledge upholding their duties and responsibilities as lay people as defined in Vatican II, and asking the Pope to “hold accountable any bishop who reassigned an abusive priest or concealed his crimes.” This pledge and request will be sent to Rome.

The point of the request is that despite acknowledging publicly his own failures in the handling of abusive priests – failures which had proved catastrophic for further victims – Cardinal Law has refused to resign from his post as Archbishop of Boston. This decision is believed to have the support of the Vatican, which is anxious to resist the impression that media pressure can determine the fate of those it has appointed to high office.

But Cardinal Law’s continuance in office is now hurting donations to the various Catholic charities in the archdiocese, normally channelled through the Archbishop’s office, as lay people use the only sanction left to them – the withdrawal of financial support. To help offset the losses to these charities, VOTF has established a separate charitable fund, called “Voice of Compassion”, now fully operational. Donations from this fund will be available for the archdiocese to channel to the charities worst hit by the crisis, although Cardinal Law is so far resisting this offer.

Interview with President of ‘Voice of the Faithful’, Jim Muller

You’re already a joint Nobel Peace Prize winner. How did that come about?

With influence from Thomas Merton’s writings, the University of Notre Dame, and Pacem in Terris, I used my experience as a medical exchange student in Russia to build a movement of Russian, American and other physicians against nuclear weapons. It was a grass roots movement of 150,000 that expressed the will of the people against the power of the governments. It was not unlike Voice of the Faithful in giving a collective expression to the wishes of many. The group, International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (ippnw.org) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

“Keep the Faith: Change the Church” – that’s the VOTF slogan. Mightn’t you destroy the faith by dividing the church?

At present the church has terrible divisions between the faithful and the hierarchy in many areas, and between traditional and progressive activists. We hope to contribute to unity between the progressive, moderate and liberal laity, and between the laity and the hierarchy. This can happen when the laity have a forum to discuss their differences, and then present their areas of agreement to the hierarchy.

How would you answer those who say that the church will split apart if lay people start `advising’ priests and bishops on how to run it?

Our goal is that laity and hierarchy work together for the good of the church. The hierarchy should have a predominant role in preservation of the core dogma of the church. The laity, on the other hand, have more experience in many areas of the life of the church in the world that can help the church.

Clearly many of those at the summit of the church miscalculated the impact this scandal would have on laity. Could this be because they are not themselves parents with children to look out for?

Yes.

Why haven’t you put a married clergy at the top of your programme?

We have not taken stands on any specific issues other than a voice for the laity. Once that forum is established, we expect that married clergy will be discussed, as will many other issues. I will introduce a resolution calling for more Gregorian chant in services. In U. S. political terms, we are creating the equivalent of a Congress for the Catholic laity, not the Democratic or Republican party, nor are we starting to promote individual issues before we have built a World organisation.

‘Voice of the Faithful’ started up because there were priests in parishes who trusted laity to use their anger constructively when they met to discuss this crisis. What do laity do in parishes where priests are afraid that things might get out of hand if they allow such meetings?

They went to other parishes, and they continued dialogue with their reluctant pastor. Many pastors who were reluctant at first are now cooperative. Collections are up in parishes with Voice of the Faithful activity.

Are there places where VOTF parish groups are running without the approval of parish clergy?

Such groups are meeting in libraries and catacombs. (The last comment is a weak attempt to prove I’m Irish!)

You argue that VOTF is a genuine grassroots movement. Is that because it’s based upon parish groups that have formed themselves?

It started with the laity, and it springs up in the parish.

At the VOTF conference you were cheered when you declared the principle: “No donations without representation!” How would you answer those who might say that looking for some kind of control of church finance is an attempt to blackmail the leadership?

This is a leadership that has demonstrated the danger of absolute power. We do not seek to dominate the hierarchy – we seek to have a collaborative relationship in which both sides have influence and power.

What about the argument that since democracy is all about politics, it has no place in the church, which should be all about prayer, worship and the sacraments?

The church is primarily prayer, worship and sacraments, but it also interacts with the world in many ways that are not fixed by scripture, tradition, and the teaching of Christ. The laity have great knowledge of these issues. They need a democracy for themselves in order to express that knowledge in a collective manner, and to fulfil the mandates of Vatican II.

Many Bostonians – yourself included – are ethnically Irish. Is this significant in explaining the rise of VOTF in Catholic Boston?

Yes, the spirit of Ireland in resisting oppression has helped us all.

What role do you think lay Catholics in Ireland should be looking to play in the development of the church?

We hope that VOTF will have a chapter in every parish in the world. At present, I do not believe we have a single chapter in Ireland, nor did we have a representative from Ireland at our conference (I may be wrong since there was much chaos). My hope is that the people of Ireland will decide that VOTF might give them a way to revive the Irish Catholic Church, and contribute to the world growth of VOTF.

How do you personally keep a balance between the spiritual side of being a Catholic, and this new activism?

The new activism has introduced me to the most wonderful group of Catholics I have ever met. In itself it has been a spiritual experience.

Let’s look ahead maybe 10 years from now. What needs to happen between now and then to allow you to say “VOTF has had a good decade”?

Ten years from now, when I’m 69, I hope that VOTF has a chapter in every parish, a council in each diocese, a council for each nation, and a world council. I hope these lay organisations have thoroughly debated most of the relevant issues, and made the lay view known to their partners in the hierarchy, who have responded appropriately. I hope that the church is stronger, has a more powerful spiritual voice in a world that needs it, and that I will be able to give thanks for these wonderful changes while playing golf in Ireland.

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Scandals in the Church

Sean O’Conaill : Studies 1995

I was a schoolboy in the 1950s, when Fr Brendan Smyth’s clerical and poisonous career began, and have been trying since October 1994 to absorb the meaning of recent events. Unnameable, incomprehensible sexual predilections and practices now have a name that even children know, and are now therefore far less dangerous. Things that could not be discussed may now be discussed, and must be discussed. They are a matter of public record, and they implicate a small minority of Catholic clergy in a sphere of moral evil which, in the 1950s, was still top of the clerical agenda – sexual evil. (This was, after all, the decade when ‘mixed bathing’ at Salthill was the subject, for a time, of episcopal disfavour!)

Three questions, it seems to me, are most important now. First, how did it happen that these matters could, over such a long period, remain both known about and secret? Second, how exactly did it come about that this long, diseased silence was broken? Third, what can we learn from this about the essential features of a healthy church – one which identifies its own imperfections, makes them openly a matter of record, and resolves them with least injury to all concerned?

The long silence

Paedophilia did not originate in the 1950s, or in the church. It is, we know, part of the broad spectrum of human sexual behaviour, and was practised openly by the ancient Greeks. It is therefore likely that throughout human history, and the history of the Church, it has occurred. Presumably, historians of moral theology will now uncover literature extending back into the middle ages which mentions these practices as morally dangerous for the practitioners, if not emotionally and psychologically dangerous for the victims, and devastating for the Church. Given the indefatigable nature of moral theologians, and their long-standing fixation with sexual morality, it is not remotely likely that paedophilia is a vice new to the Church. Since Latin and Greek have been part of a clerical education since the middle ages, it cannot be alleged that the Church has lacked a vocabulary for discussing paedophilia. Why then has the phenomenon not been part of the overt moral education of all Catholics, a matter they would be both explicitly warned about, and prepared to speak about?

That it wasn’t in the 1950s I can bear witness. Like many of my classmates in one school I was subjected to mild tactile intimacies by a cleric which did me absolutely no harm, but this still remains vividly in my memory as part of the folklore attaching to the cleric and the school concerned. The most vivid memories of my religious education then are that (a) ‘Catholic apologetics has nothing to do with apologising to anybody’ (RE class), (b) that a past pupil had recently been spotted going into a communist meeting in Dublin (consigning himself inexorably to Hell) and (c) the most effective Christian educators were those (the majority) who showed an innate kindliness and humanity, when they weren’t even trying. Had RE class ever mentioned events like those which occurred when this erring cleric was present, I would remember it just as vividly.

Why, then, this reticence? I believe it has to do with two interlocking problems. First, clerical celibacy, and second, clerical authority. They interlock simply because, in our church, authority is exercised exclusively by celibate clerics. Whatever blessings celibacy may give the church, an ability to talk about sex without embarrassment has not been one of them. And since it is the same celibates who control the Church’s explicit educational program, this embarrassment has been an essential feature of Catholic education on sexuality. Clerics do not communicate well about sex, and so, as a consequence Catholic parents do not communicate well about it either.

I am a product of Irish Catholic schools and a very Irish Catholic home, and am now stuck with the same tongue-tied head-scratching embarrassment as an Irish Catholic parent. Ben Elton has probably taught my children more about sex than I have. At the age of fifty- one, I am still learning that an inability to talk openly about this matter is actually a greater evil than sexual sins themselves – and the Smyth affair confirms this. Had the children first exposed to Fr Smyth known what was happening to them, and belonged to a family culture in which the proper reactions had been rehearsed, that name would long ago have been erased from Ireland’s clerical directory, and would not even have caused a scandal at the time. Most important, the deep, intimate psychological harm to the victims would have been externalised and removed from that internal balance sheet we all keep on our own behaviour and experience – while the children concerned were still children, and could still be assured, lovingly, that the wrong was not theirs.

Instead, the evil to which the child (if not the priest) could give no name, continued – the Catholic priest, the primary source of moral authority, was also the perpetrator, so this behaviour had to be suffered and suppressed. This became a psychological time bomb under the individuals concerned, and a devastating depth-charge under the clerical Church. This secret sin was known at first only to the perpetrator and the victim, and the perpetrator was consciously empowered by the fact that the child was disempowered by a lack of knowledge and the absence of an open family culture on sexuality. This matter would not be spoken about to the child as part of the child’s education. It therefore would not necessarily have to be accounted for. If it did, sure one would only have to account for it to another priest – and the church would be far too scared of the publicity to make a song and dance about it! Whatever happened, the thing would not become public. It would be contained within the professional culture of which the perpetrator was a part.

We do not yet know precisely when the first accounting of this kind took place. We do, however, know that Abbot Kevin Smith was aware that Smyth had a problem before some of the families deeply affected by his behaviour had even been formed. It is at this point that the link between celibacy and authority again prevented the reaction which now seems so necessary. Yes, ignorance about the psychological harm for the victim played a part, but the sense of inviolability which Fr Brendan Smyth could feel must also have helped to paralyse the Abbot morally. The family, or families concerned, would probably not make the matter public, neither would Brendan Smyth, so why should the Abbot either? What good would it do?

What good would it do? We will probably never know how many people asked themselves this question in the years that followed. Yet we are all now convinced that the matter should have been, and could have been confronted then, both for the sake of the children and of the Church, for the very best of Christian reasons. And it wasn’t confronted not just because of the lack of knowledge of the psychiatric harm to the victims, but because those who held this knowledge would not be required to share it – because the clergy do not have to account for their stewardship to the faithful.

The Revelation

Whatever else may be obscure about the Brendan Smyth affair, one thing isn’t. Its revelation was an achievement of the secular world, not of the church. When I was a student in the 1960s the clerical church was turning its baleful gaze away from communism and mixed bathing in Salthill to that dreadful moral Cyclops, Television, and, of course, to what would happen if we accepted the Permissive Society that TV would inevitably reveal. How strange and salutary it now is to reflect that it is to these awful manifestations of a broader evil, secularism, that we owe our deliverance from the Brendan Smyths and the culture of secrecy (at least in this area)!

Freud has also played a part, of course. Without him, the sciences of psychology and psychiatry would be even more primitive than they still are. Clerics on the defensive now often join in a refrain of ‘but nobody knew about paedophiles and the damage they could do until just recently’. Do they understand how devastatingly damaging this is for a clerical Church which claimed, until this event, that it knew everything, especially about sex and the human soul? The universe of knowledge has throughout our lives been divided into two spheres – on one side the things the church knew about and approved of, and (far larger) the things, including Freud, it knew about and disapproved of. My head is stuffed full still of ‘isms’ from liberalism to ‘naturalism’ and communism and materialism and modernism that the church condemned, and only one it fully approved of – Catholicism.

Secularism was a kind of hold-all for all the world’s evil ‘isms’. It would turn your gaze away from the next world to this one, damning your eternal soul. With eyes focussed firmly on the next world, the eyes of the church were closed to the secular world, and to Brendan Smyth. Until the secular world revealed him.

Secularism as an ideology originated in the eighteenth century. The French philosophes were agreed on very little, but did agree upon at least two things – freedom of expression and anti-clericalism. Fixated by the success of Newton in discovering universal natural laws (e.g. the laws of gravitation) they believed that science, without the church, could create a perfect world. One of them, Montesquieu, studied the contemporary British constitution, admired the intellectual freedom it provided, and reached the conclusion that power must be divided to protect the citizen, with no single agency controlling legislative, executive and judicial power. This central idea of the enlightenment – the separation of powers – is a cornerstone of modern liberal and secular society.

It was these principles – the separation of powers and the freedom of information, together with a corollary of both – separation of church and state – which brought an end to the shameful career of Fr Brendan Smyth after thirty years of complicity within the clerical church. Probably the principle of intellectual freedom was most important. Although the media were beset from the 1960s by a clerical campaign to ban sexual matters from public discourse, the problem of where exactly to draw the line baffled and divided and ridiculed the censors (c.c. discussion of honeymoon nighties on the Late Late Show), so that by the 1980s the broad range of human sexual practice became a matter of public knowledge and even popular childish humour.

It was, I am certain, the new freedom this gave to discourse on such matters that allowed the children concerned, now young adults, to speak out, and their parents to act on that knowledge. The enlightenment and the permissive society had finally rounded upon its clerical critics and proved them bankrupt of wisdom and, it seems, in some cases, of integrity as well. The appeal to voluntary lay Catholic agencies followed, and from there the matter moved inexorably within the ambit of the secular state. Insofar as justice has been done, belatedly, to these children, and a process of healing initiated, this has been done therefore by secularists, not by the church.

In the context of the clergy’s long-expressed idealisation of the family as the most vital social unit, the revelation that these families were not protected by the church, were instead its victims, has been shattering. Far more than the Bishop Casey1Eamonn Casey, Bishop of Galway, Ireland, who resigned in 1992 on the revelation that he had fathered a child 17 years before. scandal it has damaged visibly the moral integrity of the church as an institution.

The Lessons

Thus the clerical church must now record for all time that it has no monopoly of wisdom, still less of integrity. Always in its own mind the guardian of the faithful from the most appalling evils, particularly sexual ones, it always found those evils meticulously and ridiculously outside its own ranks, and outside its own control. It has now discovered that it has both harboured the greatest evil its children could suffer within its own ranks, and made it impossible for them to break free by its own clerically-dominated culture – until they were delivered by those evil agencies the clerical church had been attacking all along! The irony is total, and the lesson is inescapable.

Many questions about this matter remain unanswered. I am certain that all can be answered truthfully in ways which do far less damage to the church than the present embargo on the truth. Secrecy about matters of grave public concern is destroying the church, because it has only one final justification, the concealment of information that should be known. It fuels only the wildest rumours and is therefore the father and mother of scandal and despair. It vitiates the whole of Catholic education, because for a child an ocean of theology will drain through a fault in the integrity of those who deliver it. The facts adduced above are a matter of public record, part of a vast reservoir of scorn for the world’s secular media, as well as another scandal to the laity.

Doesn’t this affair prove that the secular principle of freedom of information is merely a corollary of the older principle of the sacredness of truth? There could not be a better time for revelation and healing. If the bishops want to know why the church lacks credibility, why so many young people are disillusioned with it, why so many of its educated members, clerical and lay, are despondent, let them reflect on issues such as these.

And when (and if) the church looks at models for radical structural reform, it should examine the political and administrative science of the past three hundred years with minds as open as those now focused upon modern psychology – another fruit of the enlightenment. It could learn from the separation of powers, and realise that even without the current scandals a church exclusively controlled by an oligarchy of male celibates is doomed. Starkly revealed as less effective than secular agencies in delivering justice to its most innocent and vulnerable members – its children – what claim does the church have left on the loyalty of any Catholic family if it does not commit itself to radical institutional change?

At last – An Open Church?

These recent scandals in the church come from a culture of secrecy and oligarchy which lies also at the heart of the Church’s failure to appeal to a modern, secular society. They involve the exercise of power in a way which harms individuals, and so raise the question of how power and authority in the Church should be exercised. For that reason, although they create enormous shock and suffering for the Church, they create also an opportunity for reshaping its culture. For the church’s authority in the world springs not from Popes, bishops and priests but from its response as an entire community to a moral challenge laid down by Jesus Christ. Insofar as the church becomes identified with any minority within it, such as the clergy, (and more especially the hierarchy and central bureaucracy), its witness is compromised if their witness is inadequate.

Furthermore, any such identification reduces the dignity of the broad mass of believers, makes their witness less important, and focuses the attention of the media upon spectacular failure, rather than upon undramatic, but far more frequent, success. This is why the Church today is on the defensive, its enormous potential for good half paralysed by scandal and structural weaknesses. But our salvation as always lies ready to hand. There is in the gospels still a crystal clear moral vision, and also a vision of ideal relationships. Those relationships are characterised by a discourse which is, to use a modern idiom, entirely ‘up front’ and informal. Jesus never in his life had to write a single pastoral letter – his text and his agenda were decided by the world in which he lived, and the people, friend or foe, whom he met. He responded magnificently, without recourse to canon law, but with total integrity. Could we all now, me included, aspire to the same thing?

And since most secular liberals aspire to that also, could we maybe stop regarding them as agents of perdition? In rejecting the church they are rejecting especially all empty sanctimony.

But, lastly, let it be said I am conscious of a vast personal debt to the priests who have helped to shape my own mind and heart, and beyond that of a debt owed by our Irish society in general to their entire corps. Had I no affection or respect for the priesthood, or the church, I would not have been half so indignant over these events: I would merely have joined the many cynics in asking ‘what else do you expect?’. In truth the betrayal of innocence has been inflicted upon most of the priesthood too by these recent catastrophic failures of our closed authority system. It is their pain also that now cries out for an open church.

Notes:

  1. Eamonn Casey, Bishop of Galway, Ireland, who resigned in 1992 on the revelation that he had fathered a child 17 years before.

(© Studies 1995)

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