Category Archives: Safeguarding

What went wrong? Do Irish bishops want to know?

Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, Cork
Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, Cork

Vincent Twomey has called for Irish church leaders to launch an internal inquiry into Catholic failures in the last century. Will the ACP support that call, and could the Irish bishops respond?

On July 3rd 2014 Vincent Twomey, emeritus professor of moral theology at Maynooth, called in the Irish Catholic for Irish Church leaders ‘to appoint an expert panel to review what went wrong in Irish Catholicism to cause the prevalent culture of abuse’. This was in the context of the imminent state inquiry into ‘Mother and Baby’ homes in Ireland in the last century. (Click here to open this Irish Catholic report in another window.)

Two weeks later, in the wake of the announcement that this inquiry was to be led by Judge Yvonne Murphy, the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland called for this inquiry to take note of the findings of a study it had sponsored of the 2009 Murphy Report – to the effect that the latter had allegedly contained ‘significant deficiencies in terms of respecting the demands of natural and constitutional justice’. (Clicking here will also open this ACP page under another tab.)

My first reaction to this ACP statement was one of ‘more clerical circling of wagons’. I was struck by the apparent contrast between the priorities of the ACP and those of Vincent Twomey. Where the latter wants above all to know what went wrong when the political power and social clout of his church was at its zenith in the last century, the former emphasises the importance of doing full justice to the service given by Catholic clergy and religious when Irish society was immeasurably weaker economically.

I was struck also by the fact that the ACP had not reported Vincent Twomey’s initiative earlier in the month. Does this mean that the ACP is not also concerned to know what went wrong with Irish Catholicism in the last century when it must be obvious that something did, and to a deeply demoralising extent? Surely no one can question that by about 1951, when Archishop John Charles McQuaid could influence the fate of a government  ‘mother and child’ scheme, the suffering of the most unfortunate women and children, the Irish anawim, was also peaking?

Vincent Twomey is not alone in wanting above all to know why that was. In the wake of the Ryan report of May 2009 Bishop Noel Treanor eloquently expressed the same need: “We have to examine why this happened …. so that we have the best anthropological and scientific analysis available to try and understand”. It is still a mystery why the Irish Bishops’ Conference did not act on that suggestion five years ago.

How should we react to these apparently different priorities? On reflection my own inclination is to give them equal respect. Opinion is still obviously divided on whether the Murphy report did full justice to the clergy it named as failing in their duty of care to Catholic children in Dublin. Many of us are still so deeply angry about that failure that we see the naming of the church personnel concerned as a relatively minor matter. However, I can see no harm in Judge Murphy bearing in mind the ACP’s own study of that. The overriding purpose of the ‘Mother and Baby’ inquiry should be to serve both justice and understanding – not to strengthen a tendency towards excoriation, even scapegoating, of those who served the church in a very different time.

But will the ACP also accept that there is a need to understand exactly why it was that when our church was eventually released from centuries of subordination, and then given a status that verged on state establishment, it failed to stand squarely in the way of the social shaming of those defenceless women it judged most morally at fault, and too often participated in their social exclusion?

Don’t we all need to know why our church did not see the cross as an expression of divine solidarity with all who are shamed and excluded, and as a challenge to put that right?

For those interested I have asked that question of the ACP in a post to the above ACP page.  Pádraig McCarthy of the ACP has already responded there favourably, albeit with doubts as to whether such an inquiry can happen.  The discussion is ongoing.

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Was I uncharitable, scathing, lacking in compassion?

In the week beginning May 12th I was charged by Joseph O’Leary in the Irish Times with making a scathing commentary on the relationship of Fr Michael Cleary and Phyllis Hamilton – on the website of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) – and with showing scant sympathy or compassion for those involved in that relationship.

I append below a link to that whole discussion, and ask anyone (who has the time) to feed back to me their own conclusions.

I was responding on the ACP site to a thread that asked if Catholicism is now seen as more-or-less irrelevant in Ireland. I offered the opinion that, if this view is to be countered, we Catholics all need to find a deeper integrity and to avoid ‘bad religious theatre’.

As an example of the latter I referred to ‘the Michael Cleary phenomenon’.  I meant by this the obvious contradiction between Fr Michael Cleary’s high media profile as a proponent of official church teaching on sexuality, and  his private life.  (It is surely obvious now that had Ireland known in 1979 what it came to know about Fr Cleary in 1993, he would not have featured on global media in 1979 as part of Ireland’s official welcome in Galway for Pope John Paul II.)

The issue for me was not Fr Cleary’s character, still less that of his partner, Phyllis Hamilton. It was the impossibility of reconciling his public message and posture with his private life – an issue not of private individual morality but of institutional credibility.

In the discussion that followed on that ACP thread, the question arose of the beginnings of Fr Cleary’s relationship with Phyllis Hamilton (aged 17 when they met), and with it the question of the behavioural guidelines to be followed by clergy in such situations today.  As this is an ongoing matter of real concern, and as Joseph O’Leary seemed to me to underestimate the problematic nature of a sexual relationship developing out of such an encounter (especially with one so obviously vulnerable as the 17-year-old Phyllis Hamilton), serious alarm bells rang for me.  The absence of a far more guarded clerical view on that issue on this ACP discussion raised for me the question:  what’s the ACP’s position on that issue anyway?

My alarm deepened when that request was simply blanked by the ACP leadership – even when it was made directly to the ACP’s Contact email address.  Would an acknowledgement, at least, not have been warranted?

For the record, I think it very possible that Fr Michael Cleary was also a ‘vulnerable adult’ in 1968 when, aged 34, he met Phyllis Hamilton, and that he probably also deserves compassion for the misfortune that befell.  (Phyllis was then emerging from psychiatric care following childhood abuse.)

However, it is for that very reason – that a double vulnerability is likely to exist in such situations – that explicit guidelines are needed for clergy in such encounters – and are in fact under development in Northern Ireland at this time.

Unfortunately the remit of the church’s safeguarding body, the NBSCCC, does not permit it to develop such guidelines for clergy throughout Ireland.  But that would not prevent the ACP from producing and publishing its own guidelines for its reported 1,000 plus members.  (It could very easily do that in consultation with, for example, Ian Elliott – now freed from his commitment to the NBSCCC.)

However, I must leave it to others to tell me if I need to revise my view of this whole exchange.  The entire discussion involving Michael Cleary on the ACP website can be found at the following link:

Is Catholicism now deemed to be old-fashioned, irrational, and unacceptable? Brendan Hoban asks in his weekly Western People column.

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Trusting the Gifts of the Spirit among the People of God

Sean O’Conaill  ©  Doctrine and Life  May/June 2012

FOR WHAT exactly is the Holy Spirit supposed to be waiting, to move the Irish Church into vibrant and visible recovery and renewal? This question seems to me to be critical to any response we might make to the predicament that so many find themselves in just now in Ireland. This is related above all to two problems: frustration with the current governing system of the Church, and a still-appalled reflection on a series of Irish government-led reports on child abuse within the Irish Church, beginning in 2006.

Seeking to guide us in our response to those reports the Holy Father issued a pastoral letter in March 2010, and in April 2012 we received the summary report of the apostolic visitation to Ireland that had followed that pastoral.1Summary of the Findings of the Apostolic Visitation in Ireland, March 2012

It is largely my frustration with this summary report that leads me to ask the question posed at the start. In a previous article here I offered the conclusion that Catholic authoritarianism had been a key factor in the moral failure of Catholic officials in Irish state and Church to protest most vehemently against the abuse and endangerment of children.2S. O’Conaill, ‘Authoritarianism and Moral Cowardice’, Doctrine & Life, May-June 2010

Elsewhere I later argued that the Church’s governing system has been thoroughly disgraced not just by the scale of the abuse crisis, but by the fact that the initial revelation of this horror had been a product of secular structures and processes arising historically out of the Protestant Reformation and the European ‘Enlightenment’ of the eighteenth century.3S. O’Conaill, ‘The Disgracing of Catholic Monarchism’, in The Dublin/Murphy Report: A Watershed for Irish Catholicism?, eds. John Littleton and Eamon Maher, Columba Press, Dublin, 2010

I simply cannot get my head fully around the clear fact that my Church was finally moved to protect children not by the watchfulness, love and courage of its own leaders but by policemen, journalists, judges and jury members who often owed no debt of loyalty whatsoever to the Catholic Church. And that this process began in one of the most secularised societies on the planet: the USA.

Why did the church not uncover the problem itself?

The problem now for me is this. The summary report makes no allusion to the failure of the governing system of the Church to reveal to its leaders the scale of the abuse horror, and to act spontaneously long ago as it began to act in Ireland in 1994. Nor does it clearly explain the moral failure of so many Catholic officials, many of them ordained. In its references to the incompatibility of renewal and dissent it also seems me to seek to clamp down on the free expression of honest opinion within the Church in Ireland. So, as I began this article I was not even sure that it could be published.

Praying about all of this has led me somehow back to a reflection on my Confirmation at the age of about ten or eleven in 1953/54, when, as I distinctly remember, I was told the sacrament conferred upon me the dignity of becoming a ‘Temple of the Holy Spirit’. That sense of my own dignity within the Church has never completely left me, mainly because it was further reinforced by the mentoring I received at University College Dublin in the 1960s, by clergy heavily influenced by Vatican II. I caught the excitement of the time. The expectation of reform has heavily influenced my life ever since, especially since 1994, when the abuse crisis first emerged.

Learning from Scripture

It is strange how prayerful meditation on what life was like as a child of ten or eleven can somehow recover for us the hopes, dreams and vulnerability of childhood. Doing this in Lent in 2012 led me frequently into tears, and into recovered memory of matters long suppressed, such as my late mother’s strange illness that was not finally named for me until I was in my fifties. It led me also, by a process too circuitous to need tracing here, to a reflection on my early experiences of the Bible.

One of these in particular stands out: the story of Susanna and the Elders in the Book of Daniel.

Briefly, this story tells us that during the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, beautiful Susanna was lusted after by two Jewish judge elders. They conspired to tell her that they would publicly allege that they had seen her in adulterous intimacy with a fourth party if she did not satisfy their lust. When Susanna even so resisted their joint intimidation, they proceeded with their plan publicly to accuse her of adultery. As two witnesses were all that were required by Jewish law to satisfy their assembly, their accusation was accepted as true by that assembly. Susanna was being led away to die when she passionately declared her innocence. Then, according to the text, this happened:

The Lord heard her cry and as she was being led away to die, he roused the Holy Spirit in a young boy called Daniel who began to shout, ‘I am innocent of this woman’s death!’ At this all the people turned to him and asked ‘what do you mean by that?’ Standing in the middle of the crowd he replied , ‘ Are you so stupid, children of Israel, as to condemn a daughter of Israel unheard, and without troubling to find out the truth? Go back to the scene of the trial: these men have given false evidence against her. (Daniel 13: 46-49)

We are told then that the other judge elders of the assembly not only acted on the young Daniel’s advice, but asked him to sit with them and advise them further. He suggested separating the two accusers, and questioning them as to the precise circumstances in which they had seen Susanna committing adultery. When this was done the conspirators gave different accounts, proving Susanna’s innocence. (Everyone has seen much the same thing happen today in TV police procedural dramas.)

Rousing the spirit of youth!

Remembering this in the aftermath of the apostolic visitation summary report, I was prompted to explore in my mind precisely what could have been involved in the Lord ‘rousing’ the Holy Spirit in a young boy, to the extent that he could stand alone in an assembly dominated by elderly judges and shout ‘stop’?

Could it be any of these, the virtues that can arise out of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as listed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord?4Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1845
And could it be also be the fruit of the Great Commandment: to love God above all, and our neighbour as ourselves?

My mind fastens particularly on the words ‘fortitude’, ‘understanding’ and ‘love’. Does the Catholic magisterium, and its method of exercising authority, nourish these virtues? Does it allow for the possibility that prayerful young people especially might ever be gifted with an understanding and an insight that might lead them to ask difficult questions, and with the courage to stand up and ask them, no matter what? Especially all of the questions that arise out of the leadership catastrophe we have suffered?

I have to say that my experience of the magisterium since about 1968 is that it seems to have a fearful attitude to the creation of circumstances within the Church that could encourage young people especially, but lay people in general, to ask difficult questions of itself, and of those in ordained ministry. Many of those difficult questions pertain to the issue of sexuality. It is true that individual bishops have been an exception to this rule, and that some have held open and honest forums in the aftermath of the Irish state abuse reports. But there is still no sign that such assemblies will become embedded in the regular and normal life of the Church.

‘Bishops are accountable to the people’

And that brings me back to what I see as the enormous gaps in the summary report:

First, its failure to address the question of widespread moral cowardice among so many Catholic adults, and especially among those who carried the full weight of the magisterium’s expectation that they would be loyal to it, and would avoid scandalous revelations.

Second, its failure to explain why it was that it is to Irish secular agencies that we owe both the revelation of the abuse horror in Ireland, and the momentum that led to Catholic bishops becoming for the first time ostentatious in the cause of child protection.

Third, its failure to predict that the mooted reorganisation of the Irish Church will include structural reforms that will mandate a principle stated by Monsignor Charles Scicluna earlier this year at a clerical child abuse forum in Rome: ‘Bishops are accountable to the Lord, but also to their people.’’5Monsignor Charles Scicluna, as reported by the National Catholic Reporter on February 8, 2012.

As the apostolic visitation and its summary report also arose out of a secular process of discovery, I am prompted to ask then also how the Holy Spirit might be moving Irish Catholics today to respond to the crisis that now still weighs on us. Could one of those ways be a questioning why the elimination of dissent among Irish Catholic clergy loyal to Vatican II should be a priority of the magisterium at this time – when it has so many questions still to answer about its own failures? And when there is still no promise of structural reform?

Committed to Justice

I also ask, finally, whether the unwillingness of the magisterium to encourage questioning from lay people at every age from Confirmation on might be a key factor in the continuing inertia of the Irish Church, and especially the departure of young people from it. The forgetting that as early as ten our Church has given to all of us the dignity of being Temples of the Holy Spirit is widespread in Ireland, especially among young men. Isn’t it time to remind all of the Irish three million plus who claim to be Catholics that this privilege is still theirs? And to ask them to pray to the Holy Spirit, above all for the gifts of insight, love, wisdom and fortitude? And to provide church structures as worthy of the People of God as those that allowed the Holy Spirit to prompt an honest young man to ask, in open assembly, life-saving questions of his elders long before the time of Christ?

Apropos the latter, according to the Vatican’s own website, ‘Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna is the “promoter of justice” of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.’6Vatican website: www.vatican.va : type ‘Monsignor Charles Scicluna’ into the site’s ‘Search’ option
Isn’t justice also a gift of the Holy Spirit? Wasn’t justice precisely what was involved in the case of Daniel and Susanna, and wasn’t it precisely justice that was lacking in so many cases when the parents of victims of clerical abuse came to the administrators of Catholic dioceses and religious congregation? How are we to encourage young Daniels in Ireland, and to ensure that our child protection is not again subverted by clericalism, if our Church structures continue to patronise and exclude all lay people, and especially young people?

I am entirely convinced that the continued holding back on Church structural reform by the magisterium, and in the meantime its encouragement of unjust and covert delating of those who do ask difficult questions, subverts the work of the Holy Spirit and delays the recovery of our Church.

Notes

  1. Summary of the Findings of the Apostolic Visitation in Ireland, March 2012
  2. S. O’Conaill, ‘Authoritarianism and Moral Cowardice’, Doctrine & Life, May-June 2010
  3. S. O’Conaill, ‘The Disgracing of Catholic Monarchism’, in The Dublin/Murphy Report: A Watershed for Irish Catholicism?, eds. John Littleton and Eamon Maher, Columba Press, Dublin, 2010
  4. Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1845
  5. Monsignor Charles Scicluna, as reported by the National Catholic Reporter on February 8, 2012.
  6. Vatican website: www.vatican.va : type ‘Monsignor Charles Scicluna’ into the site’s ‘Search’ option

Views: 51

The Church needs structural reform

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  March 2011

It’s clear that our church cannot renew itself unless radical structural change takes place.

“Renewal and reform of the Church …. will only come from within the Church, that is from within a community of men and women who listen to the word of God, who come together to pray, who celebrate the Eucharist and are called to share in the very life of Christ himself … Renewal of the Church is not about … structural reform.”

These were the words of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin on November 20th, 2010. Fervently in agreement with the first sentence, I was stunned by the last. I simply could not understand why the archbishop seemed to believe at that time that our church could renew itself without radical structural reform.

To begin with, he himself has had to grapple with the consequences of church structures that give conflicting and irreconcilable responsibilities to bishops. The reputation of his four predecessors will forever be tarnished by the events related in the Murphy report. This clearly showed that until 1994 Dublin’s archbishops were unable to reconcile their obligation to care for the church’s most vulnerable members – children – with their other obligation to safeguard the clerical institution from scandal.

Hundreds of children suffered horrifically as a consequence, and this then became the greatest scandal of all. And this scandal was revealed not by church structures but by secular structures. The latter are far from perfect, but they are in one respect superior to the governing structures of the church: they allow for transparency and a separation of powers and responsibilities. This prevents the secrecy and concentration of power that gave us the abuse crisis – the organisational culture that the church still clings to.

The archbishop could of course argue in response that the independent National Board for the Safeguarding of Children in the Catholic Church (NBSCCC) will prevent the events of 1975-2004 ever recurring. But the NBSCCC itself believes that further church reform is necessary. In its second annual report of April 30th, 2010, its chairman, John Morgan declared that a period of reflection is needed that should (in his words) “extend to trying to understand and examine what Church structures brought about the situation that has unfolded before us and how such structures must be changed”.

Almost certainly the NBSCCC is concerned about the culture of clericalism fostered by current church structures – a culture that conditions clergy to be in control and also conditions Catholic lay people to defer to that arrangement. This will remain a threat to the principle upon which all child safeguarding in the church must rest – the principle of the paramount interests of children. The hundreds of child protection personnel currently being trained by the NBSCCCC cannot do their job effectively until that principle is embedded in the church’s own organisational blueprint – canon law. And until lay people participate as of right in the governance of the church.

Furthermore, the widespread confidence that the NBSC has managed to create in its own integrity and independence could still easily be lost. If church structures are not changed to make them far more transparent, clericalism could dictate that the bishops who appoint the executive board of the NBSCCC would appoint compliant lay people who would be prepared to ditch the paramountcy principle for the sake of ‘harmony’ – taking us back to the era of the cover-up.

A key weakness in the church’s governing structures is the total absence of a canonical mechanism for removing a dysfunctional bishop. Of the four Irish bishops who have resigned in the wake of the abuse crisis, none was removed by an internal church process. Bishops Comiskey, Magee and Murray resigned in the wake of the public revelation of their failures, and the outcry that followed. Bishop Moriarty resigned because in his own view he had failed to challenge the culture of cover-up that had failed the children of Dublin. In all cases it is clear that had it not been for factors external to the church’s governing system those bishops would still be in place.

Dublin is currently fortunate to have Dr Martin in charge. But what would happen to the reforms he has introduced in Dublin if he were replaced by someone far less committed to them? Without changes to canon law, and to diocesan church structures, everything he has achieved would be entirely reversible.

To be fair to Dr Martin, he was entirely right to stress that renewal of the church will also depend upon a renewal of faith, sourced in the Gospels. But does he really appreciate how the faith of the Irish Catholic people has been challenged by church structures that have let them down so badly? There is a very real danger that seeking now to retain their faith in the current awful crisis, many more Irish people will conclude that their native church is irreformable, and that they must detach themselves completely from it. Many have already done so.

Others, however, refuse to give up on the idea of structural reform of their own church. Evidence of this came following the December meeting of the Irish Bishops’ Conference. A press release on December 14th revealed that over 2,500 respondents to a consultation on the papal pastoral letter of March 2010 had focused on the following core themes: ‘Spiritual Renewal; Structural Renewal; Role of Women and on the Church of Community and Communion’.

Further information on these responses soon came from the bishops’ ‘Council for Pastoral Renewal and Adult Faith Development’. In a report that is available on the website for the Irish Bishops’ Conference it was revealed that:

“There was widespread disappointment among respondents that in the Pope’s Letter child sex abuse is not seen as a symptom of shortcomings in structure and function in the Church. In addition, there is no critique of the role of the Vatican. There is little or no acknowledgement of the exclusion of lay people from roles where they can make significant contribution.”

For most of those who took part in this consultation it must have been heartening to find that they were not alone in calling for structural change. Disappointingly, the Irish bishops’ conference has so far failed to comment at length in reply. Bishop Seamus Freeman in his own letter of response merely referred everyone to the papal document ‘Verbum Domini’ of 2008. As this is a complex exhortation by Pope Benedict to read and reflect on the scriptures it is difficult to see how it is especially helpful in illuminating the question of structural change.

At the most basic level an organisation’s structure convenes its members to meet regularly, to enable them to interact to their mutual benefit and to come to a common understanding. Even to do what Dr Martin and the Pope advocate, to come together to pray and to listen to the word of God, we need to ‘structure’ this into the habitual life of the church.

Instead, our habitual way of ‘interacting’ – the Sunday Mass – has undergone no substantial change in this awful crisis that would allow us to interact at the deepest possible level. It observes the traditional rigid apartheid between priests and people, and requires the latter to open our mouths only for scripted responses and the occasional hymn. No wonder our young people are wondering why we go on mindlessly like this – meeting weekly without communicating. There is a deep dysfunction in the Irish church at present – the kind of dysfunction that prevents a troubled family from meeting in one place to come to a new understanding of how its members are to love one another again.

The newly formed Irish Association of Catholic Priests seems to be well aware of this. Welcoming Bishop Freeman’s publication of the results of the 2010 consultation in the Irish Times, it too called for structural reform and declared that the time might be right for the calling of a national assembly or synod of the Irish church.

At Christmas it seemed that Archbishop Martin had also been paying close attention. Whereas in November he had insisted that renewal was ‘not about structural reform’, on December 24th he said in his Christmas homily “Renewal in the Church is not
simply about structures and organization, no matter how important these can be.” Just a small shift, certainly, but a potentially very significant one.

The absence of structures that will require clergy and people to interact respectfully, thoughtfully and regularly will prove fatal if it continues. Since Vatican II we have never had an opportunity to come to a fruitful understanding of our complementary roles. It is this above all that has given us a ‘two-tier’ church in Ireland, and attitudes that devolve all church responsibility onto clergy in the first instance. Embedded in our church structures at the deepest level – actually institutionalised in them – is the heresy of clericalism.

It is important to say this because Dr Martin has many times identified clericalism as a major obstacle to renewal. It cannot be confronted or eradicated without structural reform.

In the end, of course, events may prove Dr Martin correct in one sense. Oppressed by the multiple crises of the moment more and more Irish people may indeed come together spontaneously to reflect upon the Gospels and to pray. That was exactly what happened in the 16th century when to many people the church of popes and bishops had become corrupt. This led to the fragmentation of north-European Christianity and to the multitude of varieties of Christian witness that we see today. It is now far from certain that the Catholic church in Ireland will avoid a similar fate.

If it is to do so, structural reform must be on its near horizon. We need to be convened as regularly for renewal as we are for Mass. It is an insult to the Mass, and to God, to go on as we are going. If the Irish Bishops’ Conference is at last to show real leadership it must face this issue squarely in 2011.

Views: 12

“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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