Category Archives: Sexual Abuse

Comeuppance or Confession – A ‘Reckoning’ on Clerical Abuse?

Faced with apparently unending scandal – and dwindling credibility and authority in the societies it has scandalised – should Catholic church leadership look to scripture, especially the story of King David of Israel, for insight into a scenario for resolution?

In 2023, with the global tide of clerical sex abuse scandals still surging in places as far apart as Poland, Ireland and the US state of Illinois, Catholic church leadership seems as bereft as ever of a strategy for ‘getting ahead’ of such revelations.

In December 2022 Irish bishops agreed with the conclusion of Ireland’s national synodal synthesis of August 2022 – that a ‘reckoning’ on the disaster has still to be achieved 1Statement following the winter meeting of the Irish Bishops Conference, 7th December 2022 – but it is far from clear that the Universal Synod on Synodality, to culminate in Rome in the autumn of 2024, will rise to this challenge.

What ‘shape’ could such a reckoning take in any case? How, in particular, would the victims of clerical sexual abuse and their closest kin, picture that?

Comeuppances

Popular secular culture provides one obvious model for closure on high-level concealment of malfeasance. In the classic movie ‘All the President’s Men’ the final sequence is a montage of press headlines, culminating in President Nixon’s resignation announcement – on foot of the Washington Post’s remorseless investigation of the origins of the Watergate burglary of 1972. This was Nixon’s ‘comeuppance’ – the deserved consequence of his paranoid detestation of a critical media.

Similarly a fictional streaming TV epic, the HBO series ‘Succession’, ends with the rivalrous adult children of another ‘mogul’ visiting a variety of betrayals and indignities upon one another – including the takeover by an interloper of the media empire they had all plotted to inherit.

This ‘comeuppance’ scenario satisfies the natural human desire to see what TV readily provides in the form of ‘perp walks’ – the bitter experience of downfall by the highest conspirators, with merited suffering etched clearly on faces. Who can forget Richard Nixon’s grotesque attempts at facial denial of the defeat he had fought tooth-and-nail to prevent, or the fictional Kendall Roy’s final frozen stare into his own endless horizon of failure?

No such comeuppance is possible for the long-dead originators of the Catholic policy of secrecy on clerical sexual abuse.  There is as yet no official history of this cover-up but the best short unofficial account2A Very Short History of Clergy Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church, Thomas Doyle tells us that the decisive steps that affected living victims had already been taken by 1962. Already in 2023 the first decisive media revelations of the phenomenon – those relating to the abuser Gilbert Gauthe in Louisiana ­– are almost four decades old, and very few if any bishops have ever been criminally sanctioned by secular courts anywhere for a cover-up since then.  The secularising principles of distance between church and state, and freedom of the press, have exposed the dysfunctions of power as exercised by the Catholic hierarchy but new state laws cannot now be made against concealment of clerical child abuse in the past.

Would it ever be sufficient in any case to see only some individuals suffer for what is in essence a colossal global institutional failure, with ramifications that must utterly change the nature of our church relationships if they do not shatter the church altogether? Would it not be more satisfying – and redemptive – for the leaders of the affected institution to uncover and confess an utterly mistaken and sinful sequence of decisions that sacrificed the innocence and future of children to preserve the celibate reputation of the clerical institution itself – a sequence that can nowhere find justification in the texts that the church claims as foundational?

Cover Up and Betrayal in the Bible

Are not those texts – the books of the Old and New Testament, the Bible – replete instead with stories of betrayal, victimisation of the innocent and then concealment by those exercising power – including spiritual power? Why has it not yet happened that these scriptural patterns of misuse of power and of divine intolerance of injustice have been officially recognised in the Catholic clerical church’s mishandling of clerical sexual abuse of children and the scandalous revelations that still remorselessly follow?

Take, for example, the two Jewish elders in Babylon who tried to intimidate Susanna into yielding to their lust, well aware that just two elder testimonies to any woman’s adultery would usually be sufficient for a sentence of death by stoning. Those two were thwarted only by the inspired young Daniel’s stratagem for discerning their conspiracy. (Susanna and the Elders: Book of Daniel).

Similarly Jezebel’s scheme for dispossessing Naboth of his vineyard, and then murdering him, was empowered by the divinely anointed status of Jezebel’s husband, the Israelite King Ahab -condemned later by the prophet Elijah for his connivance. (1 Kings 21)

The exposure of the crime of the brothers of Joseph, the most favoured son of Jacob, grandson of the founding patriarch Abraham, took much longer but was also implicitly a result of divine providence – the raising of Joseph to supreme favour in Egypt, where he had been taken when sold into slavery by those siblings. (Genesis 37-50)

Leaving aside the question of the historicity of these and other such narratives, the central focus of their authors follows always the same pattern: power is misused to satisfy the desires of power-wielders at the expense of victims who are innocent – and the God of Israel is revealed as wholly intolerant of this injustice.

Even if it can be argued that there was ignorance on the part of offending bishops of the likely effects of clerical abuse upon children, this raises its own questions as to the safety and wisdom of the church’s governing system – given especially Jesus’s most vehement warning against any adult misleading of a child (Matt 18: 6). Do we not need to know why the clerical church, with an experience of pederasty dating from the earliest centuries3See The Didache, had to look in the end to secular psychiatry for the truth of the impact of such abuse on the young?

Status Anxiety the Root of Secrecy

Another connection implicit in all of these biblical stories is that between the Status Anxiety of the conspirators and the secrecy they try to maintain over their own motivations and actions. By ‘Status Anxiety’ I mean fear of shame, of social condemnation and rejection, in consequence of revelation of the selfish exercise of power. These biblical stories surely reveal a pattern that should have warned against clerical secrecy over clerical abuse – especially because of the repeating pattern of divine intervention on the side of victims.

That this identical pattern has been replicated in the case of secrecy in Ireland must now be obvious. Not until the first criminal prosecutions for clerical sex abuse in 1994 did Irish bishops begin to act decisively in the cause of child safeguarding. Then it took the Murphy report of 2009 to precipitate the Irish bishops’ declaration that there had indeed been a widespread culture of cover-up, motivated by a desire to protect the reputations of individuals as well as that of the church4Statement following the winter meeting of the Irish Bishops Conference, 9th December 2009.

However, this same declaration, seemingly regretted by some Irish bishops at the time, now points to a future church document that builds upon scriptural examples of ‘reckoning’ – to admit that the great conspiratorial sins of Old Testament archetypes have had a near equivalent, with countless child victims, in our own time. That document will surely reference the greatest of all failures by an anointed leader of Israel – King David – and draw inspiration from his example of contrition.

King David’s Confession

Who cannot see that the most obvious reason for David’s betrayal of the Hittite elite soldier Uriah was also David’s Status Anxiety, his desire to conceal his self-indulgent seduction and impregnation of Uriah’s wife Bathsheba – while Uriah was himself away from home, fighting Israel’s enemies? At length the book of Samuel has previously extolled David’s youthful climb to celebrity, with the women of Israel chanting of his military exploits and his superiority to Israel’s first anointed king, Saul. The fall from grace that David faced in the matter of Bathsheba’s pregnancy was in direct proportion to this unparalleled status – and far too much for him to bear. His despicable betrayal and murder-by-proxy of Uriah then followed. (2 Samuel)

And yet, according to the same narrative, Israel itself was preserved in the Old Testament telling, by the courage of the prophet Nathan and by David’s reciprocal compunction and contrition. This too – the eventual victory of the truth, and not the celebration of any individual or caste – is the true glory of ancient Israel, and of our church’s foundational texts.

It is surely inevitable that the Catholic clerical leadership will someday admit that their institution sinned against children, their families and the Trinity by attempting to keep secret the hard and vitally important fact that a small but significant proportion of ordained Catholic priests could mislead and violate children.  They could also recognise that in making use of the inspired secular principle of a division of power to reveal this mistake the Trinity are not only vindicating all child victims but revealing the future of Catholic church governance.

In the meantime are we not all living in the Limbo of our church leadership’s inability to grasp decisively the nettle of compunction and contrition? We are surely in these days as ancient Israel was in the time between King David’s crimes and his heartfelt and full confession. This time of high-level hesitation and bitter revelation cannot end soon enough for a myriad of living victims, and for all of us.

Notes

  1. Statement following the winter meeting of the Irish Bishops Conference, 7th December 2022
  2. A Very Short History of Clergy Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church, Thomas Doyle
  3. See The Didache
  4. Statement following the winter meeting of the Irish Bishops Conference, 9th December 2009

Sean O’Conaill
June 2023


This article appeared first in La Croix International on June 7th, 2023.

Views: 198

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?

Views: 129

The Frustrated Potential of the Alienated Church

“I no longer have any trust in the Catholic Church but I have my own faith and belief in God. I believe that Martin Ridge and his investigation stopped me from committing suicide and I owe him everything.”

This was Martin Gallagher – Donegal victim of the ordained abuser Eugene Greene in the Catholic diocese of Raphoe – speaking to the Donegal Daily (October 24th, 2019).

Martin Ridge was one of two Garda officers who painstakingly took the testimony of Martin Gallagher and twenty-five other victims of Greene, resulting in a successful prosecution in 2000, and a twelve-year prison sentence. Greene died in November 2018.

Martin Ridge d. Jan 6th, 2022

Martin Ridge, also raised a Catholic and still a firm Christian believer, sees the clerical Catholic church in Donegal as still in denial – his reason for calling for a ‘cold case’ forensic review of the mystery of Greene’s three-decade invisibility to church authorities before he came to the attention of the police in 1997.

Nothing could be clearer from Martin Gallagher’s testimony than that the Garda officers who took up this cause were also ministers of grace to himself and his fellow-sufferers – so why, more than half-a-century after Vatican II, can that not be fully acknowledged by our Catholic bishops – to begin a healing of the chasms that have opened up in the Irish Church over the past quarter-century?

And just how many others are there in Ireland who have been alienated from the church’s clerical superstructure precisely because they identify, as did Jesus of Nazareth, with victims of institutional injustice and have nowhere to go in their church to express their revulsion?

And just when will the Irish Catholic clerical institution begin to research this very question?

On October 1st 2019 Irish Catholic bishops were presented with the case for making the common priesthood of all baptised Catholics in Ireland the lynch-pin of a strategy for the recovery of the church. This would solve another pressing problem – the failure of the clerical church to address the problem of deference to clergy that lay at the root of the institutional abuse recorded by the Ryan report of 2009.

The Church of Christ the King, Gortahork, Co Donegal – one of the chapels in which Eugene Greene ministered

Despite that report, our Irish church has still heard nothing from the Irish bishops’ conference on the problem of clericalism – despite the many allusions to that problem by Pope Francis since 2013.

For example, on August 20th 2018 Pope Francis described clericalism as “an approach that not only nullifies the character of Christians, but also tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people. Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.

When will all of those harmed by and alienated from the clerical church by Irish Catholic clericalism hear that emphatic ‘no’ to clericalism from their own bishops’ conference, and hear their own baptismal priestly role recognised?

Martin Gallagher, Martin Ridge – and far too many others – have already waited far too long for that to happen.

Postscript: Martin Ridge died in the Donegal Hospice, 6th February 2022 – without seeing the closure he hoped for – a full and honest accounting for the toll of secrecy and denial of true ‘synodality’ in the Irish Church, in the early decades of the 21st century – when transparency and honest communion could have made such a difference for himself and countless others. Personally suffering the memories of his years of investigation of an unspeakable evil he exemplified the common priesthood of service of others to which all baptised Christians are called.

Views: 278

A Priesthood of All Believers?

Archbishop Charles Brown , Papal Nuncio to Ireland 2011-17

“We have a lot of priests in Ireland who are in their seventies who are working right now. Some are in their eighties… We’re at the edge of an actuarial cliff here, and we’re going to start into a free fall.”

So said the Pope’s representative in Ireland, Archbishop Charles Brown, in March 2017. Back then it was still possible to believe that Irish bishops could reappraise a clericalised Church system that has scandalised most Irish people – and left many unanswered questions for those who still go to Church.

By the summer of 2019, however, it seems that not even a majority of Irish bishops has absorbed the most important lessons of the scandals that began in Ireland in 1992.

Though Pope Francis is allowing Brazil’s bishops to consider the ordination of mature married men, most Irish bishops still apparently believe that Irish Catholic families must somehow be persuaded to encourage their young people to head for seminaries and convents and celibate lives.

Consider, for example, To Follow Jesus Closely, a pastoral letter published in the Diocese of Down and Connor in April 2019.

It tells us that young people cannot do without the ordained celibate priest to “reassure them that life does make sense, that there is a God who loves them, and that in the end, all will be well”.

Given that this is basic Christian wisdom – and that ordained priests can also suffer from depression, addiction and loss of faith – what does this assert about the Christian competence, gifts and potential of Irish Catholic lay people, parents especially!

In all but one instance the word “priest” is used in this document to denote solely the ordained priest. Only once are we reminded that by baptism all Christians – including all teenagers – also have a priestly calling; but here again, according to the pastoral letter, only the seminary-trained priest can explain this to us.

Otherwise we would never know how to exercise ‘faithfully and fully the common priesthood received in baptism’.

Nowhere in this document is the role of this “common priesthood” – the priesthood of all of the faithful – explained.

This does not surprise me. In more than seven decades of Mass-going I have never heard an Irish diocesan priest express the slightest interest in it.

The word ‘priest’ derives from the Latin ‘pontus’ – a bridge – so a ‘priest’ in the religious sense is one whose calling is to bridge for others the distance between themselves and God.

The priesthood of Jesus was unique in the ancient world. He not only initiated the sacred Christian sacrificial ritual – the Eucharist – he was also himself the sacrificial gift, in his surrender to judgement and crucifixion.

According to the Gospels, Jesus had provoked his own crucifixion by challenging an abusive religious system that privileged the well-to-do and therefore distanced the poorest from God.

It follows that all of us Catholics are called not only to attend Mass but to offer ourselves in that same cause – the closing of the distance between the poorest and God, a distance obviously growing in Ireland.

Members of the St Vincent de Paul and of other Catholic charities are therefore faithfully exercising their priestly calling, as are all who answer the call to social justice and to service of the needy.

And so were those Catholic parents who blew the whistle on the most devastating spiritual abuse ever perpetrated against Irish Catholic children – sexual abuse by professedly celibate Catholic ordained clergy.

In exercising the most elemental duty of a Christian parent – the protection of the child’s right to believe in their own sacred dignity – those parents were protesting against the abuse of that right by ordained men, a possibility they had never been warned about by their bishops.

In many cases those parents then suffered what Jesus suffered – isolation within their own communities. Have the bishops taken time to consider what ‘help’ those parents had ever received from ordained clergy in understanding and exercising their Christian duty – their priesthood – in that way?

Do they remember that Irish bishops first gave priority to the cause of protecting Catholic children from clerical abuse only in 1994 – at precisely the moment that the whole island first learned, from those injured parents – that Irish bishops had until that very moment given a higher priority to the sheltering of abusive priests?

Other obvious questions follow:

  • Why should a religious life deliberately sundered from any parental role continue to have higher status in the Church than the witness of married lives of integrity – especially those of mothers whose self-sacrificing love, as Pope Francis has observed, is indeed often the best witness a child will ever have of the Father’s unconditional love?
  • If the ordained priest is indeed best placed to help lay people to understand their common priesthood, why has Catholic social teaching always been a closed book for most diocesan clergy in Ireland?
  • From Confirmation on, why can young people expect to be bored rigid at Mass, instead of reminded of their own priesthood and challenged to pray to the Holy Spirit for the courage, wisdom and whatever other spiritual gifts are needed to meet together the dangers of their young lives – everything from schoolyard bullying, substance abuse, Internet trolling and climatic collapse to media celebrity culture, institutional corruption, sexual harassment and white supremacist ideology?
  • Why have Irish bishops not yet initiated and published reliable research into the reasons for the widescale abandonment of religious practice here, especially among the young, by the Irish majority that still Identifies as Catholic?
  • Why are there still no regular opportunities to raise such questions openly in Irish Catholic parishes and dioceses, when they could be asked by any alert teenager contemplating a life calling?
  • If seminaries are truly the best places to train men to be ‘in persona Christi’, why was no Catholic bishop anywhere in the world a whistleblower against clerical child abuse before parents and victims had to act?
  • If criminally abusive breaches of priestly celibacy did not bar ordained men from celebration of the Eucharist in Ireland until those breaches were publicly known, why is Christian marriage still a barrier to that ordained Eucharistic role in Ireland?

To Follow Jesus Closely suggests that some Irish bishops believe that Catholic parents and grandparents have no access to reliable news media, no powers of observation or reflection, no memory, no access to the many gifts of the Holy Spirit and – after all that has happened in their own lifetimes – no such questions.

And it might also suggest that Irish teenagers who can qualify for university are naive when it comes to recent Irish history. Are we all thought to be living in a 1944 bubble, preserved by nightly amazement at Bing Crosby as Fr Chuck O’Malley in Going My Way? How can Irish Catholic parents ever forget that it was other parents – never their bishops – who alerted them to the deadly danger of believing that seminaries and ordination would make men incapable of harming children?

It is from whistleblowers against institutional abuse and other men and women of integrity that we Catholic laypeople best learn the meaning of the common Christian priesthood of all of the faithful – people such as Marie Collins, Mary Raftery, Peter McVerry, Gordon Wilson, Michael McGoldrick, Martin Ridge, Catherine Corless, Maurice McCabe, Tom Doyle, Veronica Guerin, Ian Elliott (the founding CEO of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church) and Sr Consilio of Cuan Mhuire.

That understanding, guided by the Holy Spirit, will in time reshape the ordained Catholic ministry and renew the Irish Church, when all Irish bishops have fully accepted what is plainly visible to all.

Sean O’Conaill is a member of Voice of the Faithful and of the Association of Catholics In Ireland.

(This article appeared first in the Irish News on July 4th, 2019)

Views: 288

Challenging the Murphy Report?

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life February 2014

On June 1st 2009 the radar image marking the position of Air France flight 447 over the mid-Atlantic suddenly disappeared, as did 228 human beings. Irish lives too were lost in that tragedy. For over two years its cause was mysterious – because of the difficulty of locating and recovering the plane’s flight recorders from deep ocean water.

Those recorders were retrieved in the end because Air France was able to arrange for a French submarine to scour the bed of the Atlantic over a wide area and over a lengthy period, in search of the unrecovered wreckage of the plane. That meticulous search was finally successful in April 2011, and experts were then able to determine the probable cause of the crash. This had been the icing-over of the plane’s airspeed sensors as it flew through a system of thunderstorms. That alone would have resulted in a loss of instrumentation that would probably have left the pilots not merely disoriented but very likely to misunderstand the situation, and likely then to take actions that would prove disastrous. The discovery of the vulnerability of that aircraft model’s speed sensors was vital in allowing the instrumentation of the Airbus 330 to be made more secure, and in making all air travellers safer.

I particularly noted that determination on the part of a national airline to retain the trust of its passengers because I was trying at the same time to assess the level of interest of our Catholic episcopal magisterium in discovering the answer to another mystery: why its ‘learning curve’ on the issue of clerical abuse of children had failed ever to rise, over many centuries, to the knowledge that this abuse was deeply dangerous to children. Since we know now that the Church Council of Elvira had condemned clergy sexual intimacy with minors in the early fourth century, and know also that St Peter Damien had strongly warned the papacy against retaining these clerical malefactors in ministry in the early eleventh century (for serious moral reasons), it struck me that our church could surely do with a thorough ‘submarine’ study of the history of this malady – to discover exactly why it had not led the world in revealing both the factuality of adult-child sexual abuse and, even more important, its dangers. Why had it still needed to learn this from the secular world in the 1980s?

It was in Nov 2009 – while the remains of Flight 447 were still being sought – that the shock of the Murphy Report on the role of church and state authorities in the handling of abuse in Dublin archdiocese struck Ireland, causing deep anguish to Irish Catholic clergy and people. As a parent who knew some sufferers of clerical sexual abuse I received the Murphy report as a timely vindication of the position they had always taken – that Catholic bishops and their administrative staffs had grievously and unjustly erred in their handling of the issue. I took as a genuine milestone the following excerpt from a statement of the Irish Bishops’ Conference in response to the Murphy Report on Dec 9th 2009:

We are deeply shocked by the scale and depravity of abuse as described in the Report. We are shamed by the extent to which child sexual abuse was covered up in the Archdiocese of Dublin and recognise that this indicates a culture that was widespread in the Church. The avoidance of scandal, the preservation of the reputations of individuals and of the Church, took precedence over the safety and welfare of children. This should never have happened and must never be allowed to happen again. We humbly ask for forgiveness.

Already, of course, beginning in 1994, the Irish church had taken serious steps to make sure that the children of the church should be safer from this crime, and this too was welcome. However, the loss of trust in the episcopal magisterium was still seriously deep and in need of full repair. Why, for example, had it taken the public revelation of the phenomenon of clerical child abuse by Belfast families in 1994 (N.B. not by our bishops or other clergy) – to kick-start the first search for church guidelines for protecting children, when Irish bishops had taken the first steps to protect church finances from damages claims caused by clerical sex abuse as early as 1987?

And why then had it taken a state inquiry to persuade men ordained to be the shepherds and guardians of the Irish Catholic family to admit to a cover up? These questions too suggested the need for a full church-sponsored inquiry into whatever had caused its own inner house, its episcopal magisterium, to fail to prioritise the protection of the Irish Catholic family and to protect the wider church’s trust in the integrity of its leadership – a trust that is surely necessary for the survival of its prestige.

We still do not know the answers to these questions – in the midst of the deepest crisis the Irish church has ever known. This adds to the mystery of the failure of the global church to set out as of yet to discover the full history of this disaster. Why, in short, do Catholic bishops still seem less concerned to restore the trust of their people than a 21st century airliner has shown itself to be in regaining and retaining the trust of its passengers – by uncovering the full story of a disaster, at whatever the cost?

Very surprisingly for me in this context, a recent publication – ‘Untold Story’ by Padraig McCarthy – suggests an entirely different course of action – that Irish bishops might instead consider rebutting altogether the charge of cover-up, as well as the charge that in explaining their failures in Dublin up to 1994 solely in terms of a ‘learning curve’ they were being evasive.

For reasons of health I cannot submit myself to the full rigours that McCarthy has obviously endured in re-examining the full report over the past four years. I am already satisfied, however, that he makes a good case for the occasional fallibility of the report, and especially for the fallibility of its language. That linguistic precision failed at least once with disastrous consequences for the wider clergy of the Dublin diocese. In its account of what was known of clerical child sex abuse among Dublin clergy the following paragraph occurs:

1.24 Some priests were aware that particular instances of abuse had occurred. A few were courageous and brought complaints to the attention of their superiors. The vast majority simply chose to turn a blind eye. The cases show that several instances of suspicion were never acted upon until inquiries were made. Some priest witnesses admitted to the Commission that they had heard various reports ‘on the grapevine’.

This paragraph alone suggests that the commission did not review the final draft of the report with a keen enough eye to basic comprehensibility, let alone with an eye to how it might be used by media queuing up to summarise and sensationalise it. As the word ‘some’ can mean a percentage anywhere between one and ninety-nine, what on earth is that word ‘some’ doing in this paragraph – both as the initial word of the very first sentence, and initially again in the last? As to the ‘majority’ who ‘chose to turn a blind eye’, was this a majority of the initial ‘some’ or of the entire cohort of ordained men serving the Dublin diocese over the period in question? The impossibility of making any sense of what a ‘majority’ of ‘some’ might mean, and the media deadlines and competition that advised editors in favour of the easy option, led to media accounts of the report that took by far the most sensational and damning option. The consequent suffering of all Dublin clergy, and of all Catholic clergy must have been intense.

The Murphy commission has been seriously at fault at the very least in not withdrawing and rewriting this paragraph. As it stands it weakens the report’s authority by failing to make any useful sense, and by allowing an interpretation that is argued against by the commission’s own finding that those clergy who knew the details of these abuses of children followed a policy of secrecy.

There is another reason for changing that paragraph. The commission does not ever say clearly what it means by the term ‘cover up’. It is therefore open to readers of the document to interpret ‘chose to turn a blind eye’ as equivalent to ‘cover up’ – and from there to proceed to a conclusion that a majority of Dublin clergy were covering up criminal abuse.

There is another lack of clarity in the report – to do with frequent use of the term ‘learning curve’. McCarthy find this especially damaging because he feels that the commission’s rejection of the explanation given by clergy dealing with the issue – of why they did x when they could have done y (and absolutely never did z!) – i.e. that they were on a ‘learning curve’ – imputes to them a blanket dishonesty.

He quotes the following from the report:

1.14 The volume of revelations of child sexual abuse by clergy over the past 35 years or so has been described by a Church source as a ‘tsunami’ of sexual abuse. He went on to describe the ‘tsunami’ as ‘an earthquake deep beneath the surface hidden from view’. The clear implication of that statement is that the Church, in common with the general public, was somehow taken by surprise by the volume of the revelations. Officials of the archdiocese of Dublin and other Church authorities have repeatedly claimed to have been, prior to the late 1990s, on ‘a learning curve’ in relation to the matter. Having completed its investigation, the commission does not accept the truth of such claims and assertions.

McCarthy goes on to argue as follows:

What the commission is actually saying is this (please pardon my blunt translation):

“Officials of the archdiocese of Dublin and other Church authorities have repeatedly claimed to have been, prior to the late 1990s, on ‘a learning curve’ in relation to the matter. Having completed its investigation over several years, the commission does not believe them. The commission believes that they were repeatedly telling lies. We, the commission, say very clearly that there was no such learning curve. The commission believes that we cannot trust what these people say.”

They make another equally serious charge (again my words):

“These people say that they were on a learning curve – that they

did not have sufficient knowledge and understanding prior to the late 1990s. We do not believe them. We believe that they did have the requisite knowledge to deal effectively with the allegations of child sexual abuse and that they deliberately chose not to do so. They deliberately turned a blind eye and let children and families suffer.”

(Unheard Story p. 39)

McCarthy follows this by proving conclusively that Dublin administrators could not have known in, say, 1980 what they knew by, say 1994.

I can agree that again here the language of this paragraph of the Murphy report can bear the interpretation that McCarthy gives it. However, having read, several times, all of those passages in the Murphy report that speak of a ‘learning curve’ , I believe that McCarthy’s summary is mistaken. I believe that instead the commission was saying something more like the following:

“Your explanation of your actions over a long period in terms of a ‘learning curve’ is in the end incomplete, unconvincing and evasive. It’s true that you did not know in 1980 what you knew by 1994. However, you did know of cases of clerical sexual abuse of children in the 1960s and 1970s, and you knew from then also that these actions were repugnant both to the law of the Irish state and to the laws of the church. You may not have been aware all along of the full consequences of these actions for the long-term health of the children concerned, or of the typical chronic recidivism of paedophiles, but you had no reason whatsoever to believe that such an experience for a child – an experience categorised as a crime by both legal codes – would be harmless. You must therefore have had deep misgivings in returning these men to ministry, misgivings about the possible dangers to other children if these men were to reoffend – as some had already done. In failing for so long to explore options for dealing with offenders that could have involved a civil criminal investigation – and in failing also to explore the full possibilities of canon law for removing offenders from Catholic ministry – we believe that you were not constrained simply by lack of experience and knowledge but by the conviction that these offences must not become a matter of public knowledge.

“The ‘learning curve’ explanation of your conduct for so long is therefore in the end both inadequate and evasive – because you have not admitted that your belief in the need for secrecy to avoid scandal, and not just your lack of knowledge, was at all times what also constrained you in the period before 1994, and you must know that it was.”

I come to this conclusion simply because of the volume of evidence covered by the commission in the report – evidence that was easily sufficient to convince it of the conclusions it reached. The absence of any general warning – at any stage before 1994 – to Irish families that caution over child safety in a church context would be sensible speaks emphatically of a reluctance to admit even that sexual abuse by a priest could ever occur. The uniformity of administrative clerical practice in Dublin archdiocese until 1994 – in never choosing an option that would put the facticity of Catholic clerical sexual abuse into the public domain – speaks to the same conclusion. In that year, 1994, the phenomenon of child sex abuse by some Irish clergy was revealed for the very first time to the Irish public by civil legal court actions initiated by Catholic families – NOT by any Catholic cleric in Dublin or elsewhere. It was only then that the ‘learning curve’ of Dublin diocesan administrators rose to embracing options that they had previously avoided. And it was only then that the Irish magisterium began the search for guidelines for dealing with offenders and for ensuring the protection of the children of the church.

McCarthy’s efforts to interpret every avoidance of any option that would result in public revelation until then as entirely explicable and excusable in terms of the limits of the knowledge they had, and/or of the psychiatric advice they had received, and/or in terms of the unproven effectuality of other options – are in the end unconvincing. I cannot and will not impute to any individual at any stage a primary intent to cover up a crime, but the sheer volume of such incidents and the uniformity of clerical practice in avoiding all options that would have led to public revelation, speaks to a conviction until 1994 on the part of all clergy who dealt with these matters that such public revelation of clerical sexual misconduct must be excluded as an option – whatever else they knew or didn’t know.

The commission’s account of the diocesan use of psychiatric advice speaks to the same conclusion:

1.38 Archbishop Ryan failed to properly investigate complaints, among others, against Fr McNamee, Fr Maguire, Fr Ioannes*, Fr (Name withheld) Septimus* and (Name withheld) . He also ignored the advice given by a psychiatrist in the case of Fr Moore that he should not be placed in a parish setting. Fr Moore was subsequently convicted of a serious sexual assault on a young teenager while working as a parish curate.

1.50 In the case of Fr Payne he (an auxiliary bishop) allowed a psychiatric report which was clearly based on inaccurate information to be relied on by Archbishop Ryan and subsequently by Archbishop Connell (see Chapter 24).

1.71 The Commission is very concerned at the fact that, in some cases, full information was not given to the professionals or the treatment facility about the priest’s history. This inevitably resulted in useless reports. Nevertheless, these reports were sometimes used as an excuse to allow priests back to unsupervised ministry.

This is important because McCarthy makes much use of the failings of psychiatry to justify his conclusions that diocesan officials were indeed on a ‘learning curve’ in their handling of abuse. It’s clear that both psychiatrists and clerical administrators were indeed learning as they went along, but that clergy were also operating within the ‘no publicity’ constraint, even in having recourse to psychiatry. They could never allow themselves to learn that state prosecution could be an option until the secrecy that they themselves had maintained had been exploded.

For much the same reasons I have the same difficulty with McCarthy’s position on the commission’s charges of ‘cover up’. In a chapter dealing with this he writes:

Perhaps the commission interprets as a cover-up the efforts of the diocese to deal with the situation without handing the whole thing over to state authorities, but at the time there was no legal obligation to do this.

I must say that I find this argument, at this late stage, quite staggering. There has been much recent public attention to the problem caused to families if abuse of one family member by another is ignored and not challenged, and general agreement that this kind of cover up is entirely wrong – quite apart from what the law may have to say about that abuse. To ensure the safety of younger family members, the abusive member needs to be confronted and those younger members need to be informed of the danger.

Leaving entirely aside the role of the state in dealing with clerical child abuse, the church too is a family, all of whose members have needed to know – and have had a right to know – of the danger of clerical child sex abuse ever since Irish bishops have known of the problem, and have known also that men who have abused in this way have been, as a matter of policy, sometimes returned to ministry. Keeping the phenomenon of Catholic clerical child abuse entirely to themselves in these circumstances was always a breach of trust, and therefore morally repugnant – completely irrespective of state legal requirements. It was a sin against family.

It is specious to argue in this cause that bishops could not ever have divulged information that could have damaged the reputation of individuals. What they could have done since the knew of the possibility of clerical sex abuse occurring was simply to find a way of warning their people that it could occur. That they never did that speaks also of a church denial of information – i.e. of a cover-up that actively endangered all of the children of the church – especially when, by the early 1980s they were aware of the wider incidence of the problem.

Total exculpations of diocesan clerical administrators also tend to ignore the claims of the magisterium to be a teaching corps – i.e. a corps that could claim to teach the whole church and the wider global society – especially about matters of family. All Catholics could feel justly proud today if their magisterium had faced with fortitude the ordeal of revealing to their people that Catholic clergy could err in this way – before secular society had evolved to the point of forcing them to acknowledge it. “Why didn’t they tell us!” – this is what we lay people all now tend to ask. Our church leaders could have taught and led the world – instead of waiting to become an object of media execration.

That this leadership could have happened in Dublin also is proven by the resignation statement of Bishop Moriarty of Kildare and Leighlin on Dec 24th 2009. (He had earlier served as an auxiliary in Dublin archdiocese.)

It does not serve the truth to overstate my responsibility and authority within the archdiocese. Nor does it serve the truth to overlook the fact that the system of management and communications was seriously flawed. However, with the benefit of hindsight, I accept that, from the time I became an auxiliary bishop, I should have challenged the prevailing culture.

It does not serve the church’s best interests to say its leaders were no more dilatory in facing this problem than the surrounding society, and that it’s leaders should therefore be completely exonerated. If the church is ever to lead anyone, all of its members need to see the necessity, sometimes, of taking risks to effect change. This is especially true for all of those in a position to be especially aware of faults, and of injustice, within the church itself.

I find it interesting to speculate, for example, over the reasons for the deep anger felt by St Peter Damien over what he described as moral corruption of the young by clergy in the early second millennium. Morality is our church’s ‘core business’ – in the deep belief that to be moral is to be deeply happy also. The deep demoralisation experienced by all who suffer abuse suggests that a remoralisation of the church is necessary if we are to address a whole series of problems, from addiction to school and workplace and digital bullying to clinical depression. If we are to do that we need to find a way of talking honestly together about all kinds of abuse, including clerical and family sexual abuse. I don’t believe we can move to that stage if we now set out to roll back the major findings of the Murphy report – including the finding that our ‘learning curve’ was retarded, and not completely unconsciously, by episcopal secrecy – by a cover-up.

In a very real sense the cover-up mentality is not yet completely behind us. How many Irish priests feel strong enough now to initiate a discussion with lay people on this whole issue? And how many of us laity would feel ready to be entirely open about, for example, the issue of family abuse, in such a discussion? We all need to pray hard these days for all the gifts of the Holy Spirit. When will church bells toll to convene us all for the most candid verbal communion?

Thankfully the new papacy has shown signs of a willingness to take risks on behalf of a more open church. I have not lost hope that someday we will know the full story of the church’s unspectacular learning curve on clerical child sexual abuse – over sixteen centuries. We will not finally be able to declare the era of cover up behind us until the church at its summit has commissioned as unremitting an investigation of its tragically slow ‘learning curve’ on clerical child abuse as Air France undertook into the causes of the crashing of Flight 447.

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The Greatest Scandal

Sean O’Conaill © Reality June 2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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April Epiphanies

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life  June 2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Secularism and an Adult Church

Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 1997

“Ireland is becoming a secular country.” With these words Bishop Thomas Flynn responded in April 1997 to questions from the Irish Times about a reported 70% support in Ireland for those causes espoused by the liberal Catholic petitionary movement originating in Austria in 1995 (advocating female ordination and an end to mandatory priestly celibacy etc.).

What struck me at the time was that Bishop Flynn’s comment coincided with a determined effort by the Catholic hierarchy to prevent their influence over education in Ireland being eroded by proposed (but subsequently abandoned) legislation by the Rainbow Coalition. If Ireland is becoming a secular country, I asked myself, is this in spite of, or because of, Catholic determination of the ‘ethos’ of most schools in Ireland? As a teacher of history for thirty years in Catholic schools in Northern Ireland I was fairly well placed to ask such a question, but it is in fact extraordinarily complex.

What is secularism?

First, secularism is a slippery concept. Are we talking simply about the undogmatic tendency of humans to give priority, most of the time, to the immediate concerns of this life – for food, shelter, career, financial security, entertainment. Or are we referring to an ideological commitment by those in control of policy to exclude all religious concerns and values? Or do we mean specifically anti-clericalism – the desire to wrest intellectual authority from the clergy? As the first is a constant throughout history, even Irish history, I presume that Bishop Flynn is talking about the second or third – perhaps both. Modern secularism originated in the eighteenth century enlightenment’s determination to wrest control of ideas and public policy from the clergies, so a dogmatic and exclusive ‘this world only’ outlook, and anti-clericalism, are historically closely related.

In assessing the impact of this kind of secularism upon schools in Ireland, and, through them, upon the church, we must remember that in all schools on both sides of the border there is a secular curriculum, legally enforced, which occupies more than 85% of the time of all pupils. It is against this curriculum that young people are tested at the end of their school careers in probably the most demanding ‘rite of passage’ they will face in their lives. How influential, in this context, can a spiritual ethos actually be, no matter how well used the 10-15% of time remaining?

Less influential now than heretofore, apparently – education has been secularised in this sense for generations, but only now do we discern the dominance of secularism as an exclusive cast of mind, threatening to disinherit the Church in Ireland. It seems that, ‘catholic ethos’ notwithstanding, the spiritual cast of mind so sedulously developed in up to fourteen years of education is soon consigned by most school leavers to the attic, along with the files of leaving cert and A level notes. Religious practice often ceases at the same time. This is a phenomenon that deserves serious attention and study far beyond the scope of this article, but some observations based upon my own experience as both pupil and teacher over the period 1953-1996 may be useful.

First, it is an educational truism that an answer which precedes a question will bypass the pupil. It is far easier to pose an historical problem in the classroom and arouse an interest in all possible answers, or to structure a chemistry experiment, than to create in the same situation the complex of life circumstances which lead to deep religious questions, and deep receptivity to Christian answers. If Jesus is to be a model for our educational praxis it’s worth pointing out that far from advocating the systematic ‘inculcation of ethos’ in children, He held them up, uneducated, as an example towards which the adult should aspire. And the adults chosen were usually those who turned up, often in anguish, with their own needs and questions. The original church was founded upon adult suffering and uncertainty, not childhood habituation, and grew in this mode for centuries.

Paradox

This observation explains an anomaly in my own life. My doubts about the faith started at the precise moment I was first told insistently (about the age of ten) that the Catholic Church was the One True Church. I had encountered no reason to doubt it before this, so now I wondered why so much of a song and dance was being made. Hey (lightbulb flickers) maybe ….! Yet after a subsequent half-lifetime of intellectual swithering between a purely secular and a Christian outlook I became deeply and totally committed, at about the age of fifty, to the latter. This happened as the consequence of a deep personal crisis, and was deeply influenced also by an experience of the liturgy and culture of the school in which I had taught for a quarter of a century. But paradoxically many of the most intelligent children I taught, including my own, felt ‘suffocated’ by that same experience. There are several reasons for this paradox.

The first is that, evaluating my own life, I was asking those deep ultimate questions to which Christianity is the most beautiful possible answer, whereas most young people have no occasion to do so – at least until late adolescence. Another is the fact that as a teacher I was not subject to the mandatory RE curriculum in the same manner as my own children, captives rather than determiners of the system. To put it simply, I had the power of initiative, whereas catholic education is based upon the presumption that children are from baptism committed catholics. And they are treated accordingly at every stage of their school career. From early in secondary school our children are given total freedom to choose a secular career (from a more and more dazzling array). To choose a religious faith – the most sacred right defended by Vatican II – they are given no significant moment of freedom whatsoever: Faith is poured on aboriginally at baptism and assumed to be growing constantly thereafter, like appetite or a birthmark. We take our children’s faith for granted – although it is a matter of grace, and therefore not in our gift.

No sacramental rite of passage to adulthood

The result is the most fundamental flaw in the church’s present structure: despite our total freedom to determine the age at which the sacraments are administered, for the lay ‘cradle’ Catholic no sacrament marks and celebrates the free decision – which can be taken only by an adult – to commit oneself totally to Christ. The Eucharist is first administered before the child can understand the extraordinary gift of Christ’s sacrifice of His own body in an appalling personal and completely human crisis; Confirmation before the child can possibly understand the need and opportunity for the descent of the Spirit following the Ascension and Christ’s joyous reunion with the Father. For the Catholic baptised at infancy there is no sacramental rite of passage from habitual religious adolescence into Christian adulthood. Experientially awesome sacraments – received by the apostles before and after a supreme trauma – are administered as though their efficacy was similar to that of the whooping cough vaccine – totally independent of the psychological readiness of the recipient. The life role designed for the layperson involves no power of initiative either, so passivity is all that is required throughout life.

This familiar but awful truth helps to explain what is currently happening to the church in Ireland: few lay Catholics voluntarily make the transition to an adult commitment and vocation. When the social conventions which once supported school habituation in adult life are removed, we mostly breath a sigh of relief and play truant. Further, we subsequently see the clergy as opposed to our own free maturation, as advocates of this unequal system which pre-empts and presumes what should and could be both freely offered and freely chosen. Catholic education, as currently conceived, is thus itself a major part of the reason for the early flight by many young adults into secularism and anti-clericalism in Ireland, although it does ‘work’ for a gentle, mostly female, minority. For the typical independent-minded eighteen-year-old, Catholicism represents not freedom, but captivity.

Our typical deeply pathological lay-cleric relationship also begins here: clerical paternalism and pre-emption offer only two easy options for the layperson – a childish deference and passivity, or anti-clericalism. An easy adult-to-adult relationship, founded upon the fundamental equality of responsibility and fellowship offered by Christ, is the exception rather than the norm. This is why clerical scandals are regarded as an almost opportune and therapeutic vindication of the anticlerical option.

So what?

One further consequence of modern secularism is pervasive: scepticism about the fundamental truth of all truth claims. Cartesian doubt is a remote cause. The expansion of the media and advertising, and clerical and secular scandals, are more potent. So is the application of discipline to the evaluation of sources – as a teacher of History this has been the single most important development in my lifetime. All of this produces the ‘so what?’ syndrome – a caustic disrespect and suspicion of all claims to authority.

The popular actress Maggie Hoosit says ‘Drift’ washes whitest? So what? She’s paid handsomely to do so. The lesson derived from this truism is to look for self-interest in all attempts to control our behaviour. Applied to the church as presently ordered this method of authority-testing is devastating. The Pope/bishop/priest says we must go to Mass? So what? He’s worried about losing your family’s weekly pound in the envelope!

The consequence of this cynical sophistication in the evaluation of clerical claims to life-changing authority – achieved by most by the age of about sixteen – are obvious. The Tridentine concentration of initiative and authority in the hands of a professional clerical elite – supported financially by a relatively inexpert and psychologically and spiritually immature laity – has become a colossal inspirational liability for the church of the twenty-first century. Clerical scandals simply reinforce this weakness.

Secularism in deep crisis

Yet this is far from being the end of the story. Its impact upon the church should not obscure the fact that secularism, as an ideology, is also in deep trouble, and this provides a moment of extraordinary opportunity for the church. The systematic secular ideologies which emerged following the enlightenment (liberalism, democratic socialism, Marxism, Fascism chiefly) have all failed to deliver a spiritually, socially and intellectually respectable alternative to practical Christianity. In the aftermath of the Cold War, many western societies, Ireland included, have discovered some of their most eminent secular leaders to have been essentially corrupt.

So there is a growing awareness of the importance of community, but little understanding of the relationship between community and overarching religious beliefs. So, exclusive secularism produces a growing casualty list, a dysfunctional society, and thus a new receptivity to religious claims. This exposes millions to quackery and cultism – everything from astrology to ‘New Age’ vapourware to ‘aromatherapy’ to Scientology to the X files and Yogic trampolining – but it prepares them also to listen to the truth, and trains them to recognise it when they experience it. It can also cast a new light upon the Christian cosmology inherited from centuries ago and delivered so hopefully at school.

The enlightenment, the fount of secularism, was in turn inspired by the belief that science – wonderfully boosted by the recent Newtonian synthesis – would answer all questions and solve all problems. More than two centuries later, after a period of unprecedented scientific and technological advance, we can now evaluate that prediction. In fact, runaway technology threatens to create a global wilderness of greed and deprivation. And science at its leading edges has exposed mysteries as deep and awesome as those which baffled and inspired the ancients. The imagination of children, alienated from the mess we are making of this world, reaches into deep space and distant futures. Ancient legends set in a terrestrial landscape, find a new vogue and audience when set in cinematic planetary systems way out far beyond the reach of present and foreseeable technologies. The holocaust and the nuclear winter and substance addiction have had their own horrific impact. Mystery, chaos and terror have come back into the world, although the enlightenment predicted the opposite.

This is very similar to the spiritual landscape into which Christ came.

Why did Christ undergo humiliation?

Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Church’s central agency for monitoring theologians, is my favourite clerical bête noir. His role, awesome knowledge and super-cool confidence create an impression of Olympian omniscience and remoteness. So he recently rose greatly in my estimation when he admitted that he didn’t quite understand why Christ had to fail – had to be humiliated and crucified.1In Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium – published interview with Peter Seewald, (1997)

My layman’s ‘take’ on this, for what it’s worth, is that God is overwhelmed by compassion for the ordinary human being, the ‘loser’, for whom failure, humiliation and a lonely death are the norm. The ordinary human solution to the anticipation of this fate is to seek wealth and power – but this is in fact the basic cause of the complaint, the despoliation and enslavement of other losers, the eternal sin which will dog mankind eternally through time, and maybe destroy the whole of creation through the limitless potential of human intelligence. So God wants us to see another solution: the living of one’s life, and, if need be, the dying, for others. This will break the pattern – inspire a new creation.

That’s easy for God to advocate, we will complain, so He makes it difficult for himself also – He sends His only and most precious son to live this life and meet this death as a fully human archetype. The option he does not take (authoritarians take note) is to compel – because human freedom is part of human dignity and therefore inviolable. Secular power is a temptation for the Son as for us – but He remains faithful to His father’s vision. Rejecting the option of secular empowerment (which would enslave us) He is publicly humiliated and physically destroyed by it. This ‘death to oneself’ is morally superior to the ethic that supports the empire that killed him, and to all others of the same type. While the memory of this death and its reward, remain alive there is hope in the world, for from this seed a human and cosmic transformation can evolve. All the Christian churches carry this memory. Ours daily celebrates this loser’s death and invites us to physically link with the real body that suffered it.

Freedom?

Modern secularism is all about personal freedom. That is the glory and the tragedy of western society at the end of the second millennium. Intellectual freedom has indeed transformed the world. Freedom from material want is often achieved, but then misused – with catastrophic consequences for both the individual and society. Never before has there been the possibility of worldly success for so many people – but those who achieve it mostly haven’t a clue what to do with it. In scaling the pinnacle of modern ‘success’ – by possessing wealth – we discover that there is no beautiful vista on the other side. Today’s power symbol (the Pentium PC or Porsche) becomes tomorrow’s waste disposal problem. At the moment of triumph aspired to by teenagers the world over, the pop idol implodes into addiction, or shuts himself away in a compound to escape stalkers, thieves or the media. Our wealth is achieved at enormous environmental and personal cost. When we surf the Internet we learn that 200 million children around the world rot in sweatshops or brothels or on rubbish tips – but there appears to be no solution. We were never more knowledgeable or technologically powerful – why then are we so morally impotent?

It is questions of this kind that bring us back to reality and spirituality. Christ’s response to the worldliness of his own time was not to criticise the secular agenda of the Roman empire but to show solidarity with the weak and the miserable – at the level of the individual. There is not in the whole of the new testament a shred of evidence that Christ foresaw a role for the secular state in building His kingdom. That development had to wait for over three centuries, for the adoption of Christianity as the faith of the Roman Empire (a very mixed blessing, as time was to prove). Christ’s appeal was not to institutions or their leaders (their primary morality is always self-preservation) but to individuals on society’s margins. This is important, because it is at the level of the individual that western society is currently breaking down. Christ’s appeal to the individual – to perceive that it is only in giving that we receive, that only in service to others do we find true freedom – was never more relevant in a world devastated by selfishness and licence.

Yes, the power of secularism in Ireland today is in the ascendant. But it is forcing us all to realise and accept that priests too are only human, that we are all equally flawed, and that the church is not a given which will always be here no matter what. Many of us laity are now trying for the first time to identify what it is about our Catholic inheritance that must be salvaged. And realising that there is here after all a light with power enough to pierce through all possible futures – if we too cherish and carry it.

So I am not depressed by the rise of secularism in Ireland. The Roman Empire was the matrix of secular suffering and darkness into which Christ came. Its enormous power crushed him bodily as carelessly as one would a fly, but the relevance of his teaching, and the impact of his Resurrection upon his followers, conquered all fear and gradually overcame that empire, which now is but ruins and a memory. Its brutality was overthrown by Christ’s solidarity with its casualties, and his power to give them a certainty of their own worth that no worldly power or ideology could destroy. Today’s secular world produces even more of such casualties. They are today’s and tomorrow’s harvest – to which we are all invited.

To those who are convinced that the ‘old church’ is dying I would simply say this. The old and the new never occupy totally separate eras. They will always overlap. Alongside the old there is a new emerging church, because the Spirit is there whenever we reach out, not waiting for a change of Pope. A Catholic education joyfully forgotten at eighteen may be remembered, in its essentials, at a moment of supreme adult crisis. The central office of the priest, celebration of the Mass, saves lives eternally. But the priest now needs us, the laity, to share the church’s non-sacramental burdens in fellowship – everything from administration to evangelisation. It is this spirit of fellowship, rather than the Summa Theologia or the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that is most needed just now – although they too have their place. Christ’s burden for us is far lighter and more portable – simply the news that with that extraordinary death a light came into the world that will never go out. And it shines, believe me, equally on us all.

So keep an eye out for this emerging church, if you have not already discovered it. Its harbingers may not be wearing any recognisable uniform. One of them may confront you soon in your bedroom mirror. The closer you are to despair, the more likely it is that this will happen – if you express that feeling in heartfelt prayer, even in tears. I have the very best of reasons to be certain of this.

Notes

  1. In Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium – published interview with Peter Seewald, (1997)

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