Category Archives: Inquiry

Relating to the process of investigation that has either occurred or is arguably needed – into an issue.

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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Is unaccountable leadership worthy of the public’s respect?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Authoritarianism and Moral Cowardice

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life  May-June 2010

Among the major questions that need consideration in the wake of the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the CICA Report) and the Murphy Report of 2009 is this: why did paid servants of the Irish state, with responsibilities for protecting children and preventing crime, fail so badly in their obvious duties?

We need urgently to reflect upon the way in which the CICA Report describes the failures of the Department of Education both to supervise and to reform the residential institutions. The following references to the Department are culled from the executive summary of the CICA report:

The failures by the Department that are catalogued in the chapters on the schools can also be seen as tacit acknowledgment by the State of the ascendancy of the Congregations and their ownership of the system. The Department’s Secretary General, at a public hearing, told the Investigation Committee that the Department had shown a ‘very significant deference’ towards the religious Congregations. This deference impeded change, and it took an independent intervention in the form of the Kennedy Report in 1970 to dismantle a long out-dated system. (CICA Report, Executive Summary, Chapter 1: The Department of Education)

The deferential and submissive attitude of the Department of Education towards the Congregations compromised its ability to carry out its statutory duty of inspection and monitoring of the schools. The Reformatory and Industrial Schools Section of the Department was accorded a low status within the Department and generally saw itself as facilitating the Congregations and the Resident Managers. (CICA Report, Executive Summary, Conclusions, 3)

When these passages are juxtaposed, a key descriptor leaps out: deference. Departmental officials, and the Department as a whole, were deferential and submissive to the congregations, regarding them as owners of a state-financed system. This was despite the fact that those officials were answerable as employees to a democratic state and an elected minister, not to any cleric. A similar attitude seems to have determined the decisions of Gardaí who, according to the Murphy Report, regarded criminal clerical child sex abuse as a matter for Archbishops of Dublin to deal with.

How are we to explain this deference, which amounted to collective moral cowardice? Let us suppose for a moment that among the sensational accounts of Irish Church-State controversies of the twentieth century the following was to be found, perhaps in an online encyclopaedia:

The Irish Civil Service Revolt of 1967

In 1967 senior officials within the Irish Department of Education launched a sudden and unexpected investigation of conditions in Irish state-financed residential institutions run by Catholic religious congregations that catered for disadvantaged children. These officials then immediately leaked to the Irish media a scarifying account of their findings, which included not only widespread extreme physical abuse but ‘endemic sexual abuse’. It transpired that they had undertaken the surprise inspection on their own initiative, without waiting for ministerial authorisation.

When the congregations protested and sought the sacking of these officials, the latter responded by pointing to current Catholic social teachings which emphasised the right of all people to equal dignity and respect. The officials also claimed the duty of lay Catholics to act on their own moral initiative, as sanctioned by the Church document Lumen Gentium, agreed by the Bishops of the Catholic Church in 1965.1

The Irish Catholic Church was, for the very first time, deeply and openly divided by this controversy, with some bishops expressing outrage that lay Catholics would forget their obligation to act `respectfully and subordinately’. Others took the view that, given the seriousness of what had been revealed, the officials had been amply justified in their actions. Most Irish Catholic theologians also took the latter view. Outraged public opinion decided the issue in favour of the officials, who were reinstated after suspension. A thorough reform of the institutions was then initiated.

I hope the point of this lapse into romantic historical fantasy will be properly taken. Such an event could indeed have occurred in 1967, on foot of happenings in the wider Church in the period 1962-65. What were the countervailing circumstances in Church and society? It was undoubtedly a deferential era. There could obviously be a wide divergence of opinion about the degree to which the Irish Church was to blame for this, but here is my own brief attempt at an inventory of Church circumstances that contributed to the culture of deference:

  • Irish lay Catholic clericalism: a strong historical inclination among Irish lay Catholics to leave all moral leadership to Catholic clergy, and especially to the hierarchy. ( ‘We lay Catholics can’t do anything Church-related that our bishops and priests don’t tell us to do’.)
  • A reciprocal Irish clerical tendency to prioritise the rights of clerical magisterial authority above the formation of private lay conscience. As late as 2007, Vincent Twomey, professor emeritus of moral theology at Maynooth, insisted that the lay Catholic’s duty of obedience ‘includes submission to the Church’s teaching authority on faith and morals, irrespective of how little we understand of the reasons why the Church so teaches’ (my italics) 2
  • The tendency of the institutional Catholic Church to see itself as a moral monolith, in which any kind of dissent was to be seen as dangerous to the unity and survival of the Church, and lay people would not take unilateral action (The idea of a ‘loyal opposition’ was considered ludicrous and subversive);
  • The absence of an Irish culture of open-minded Catholic adult education, alive to Catholic social teaching, and passionately imbued with the Gospel of love and justice;
  • The absence of interfacing Church structures for Catholic clergy and laity which would allow the open asking of awkward questions and the threshing out of the kind of misgivings that many had about the residential institutions;
  • Irish hierarchical attitudes which saw Vatican II as potentially dangerous to the supposed ‘tranquillity’ of the lives of lay people and did nothing to improve Catholic adult education or modify Church structures in favour of permanent open dialogue;
  • The failure of any Irish Catholic Church leader to utter public criticism of the running of the residential institutions, even though, by 1962, some leaders were certainly aware of the worst that was happening;3
  • The hierarchical structure of the Church, which turned itself, and Irish society, into a social pyramid of dignity and deference. In this pyramid the ‘preferential option’ must always go to clergy and religious. Unwanted and ‘difficult’ children were at the base of this pyramid, preferably out of sight. This Church structure subverted official Catholic teaching on the equal dignity of all;
  • The monopoly of the Sunday pulpit by Catholic clergy, who therefore retained enormous power as brokers of honour and shame in Irish society. This could be deployed against anyone considered dangerous or disloyal. Lay people had no counterbalancing right or power of self-defence within the Church;
  • The consequent deep fear among lay people of the power of `the Church’ — the clerical apparatus which in the lay view included the religious congregations that ran the institutions. `The Church’ was believed to have ‘tentacles everywhere’, and to be ever ready to ask ‘Who do you think you are?’ of any lay Catholic who presumed to quote the Gospel in defence of private conscience. This fear ensured the dominance in Irish Catholic life of the Seamus Heaney protocol: ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’;
  • The prevalence of this fear of the ‘the Church’ in Irish political culture also, encapsulated in the view that to oppose or criticise `the Church’ would be to ‘commit political suicide’.

In sum, Catholic authoritarianism prioritised, and continues to prioritise, uniformity, docility, obedience, unidirectional ‘communication’ by bishops, and silence and deference on the part of those who must listen to them. Its ecclesiological ideal is indeed a moral monolith in which bishops never disagree publicly, everyone waits for hierarchical sanction of anything new, bishops may secretly report to Rome theologians they dislike, and ‘group think’ is therefore obligatory. Authoritarian clerics are ready to label as ‘disloyal’ any breach of this culture of uniformity, and to publicly shame ‘dissidents’. They scorn lay initiative of any challenging kind. They refuse to be questioned by the lay people who pay all of their bills, not simply on matters of doctrine but on any administrative matter, and block all structural reform that might facilitate such questioning. They prize their own completely unaccountable status, with the consequence that a culture of unaccountability cascades downward through the Church and spreads outward into wider Irish society.

It is therefore to Catholic clerical authoritarianism we must look for some of the thickest roots of Irish lay Catholic moral cowardice. The sooner this is acknowledged, the better for the Church, the whole people of God. A Church structure that tolerated disciplined dissent would now be embraced joyfully by most Irish Catholics as an alternative to the utter global disgrace we have suffered.

Sometime in the future, the leadership of the Catholic Church in Ireland will acknowledge that the authoritarian culture of Irish Catholicism in the twentieth century:

  1. seriously weakened the moral character and Christian initiative of the Irish Catholic people;
  2. helped to subvert the obligation owed by the Irish state to its poorest citizens;
  3. disproved completely that the Church functions best as a clerically dominated army acting with complete uniformity under a unanimous leadership;
  4. proved the necessity of moving to a Church structure in which the following principles apply:
  • unity in essential doctrine;
  • structured freedom to debate all other matters, especially the social implications of Christian principles;
  • the sovereignty of individual conscience.

It remains to be seen whether such a leadership can emerge in the wake of the shock we have all experienced. Mooted reorganisation of Irish dioceses could facilitate such a development, but the history of the Church seems to prove that creative movements for change seldom originate at its summit. Ireland badly needs a grassroots movement aimed at establishing a more grown-up church, and a tradition of conscientious Catholic independence from the dominant authoritarian and clericalist current.

Notes

  1. See, for example, Pacem in Terris, 1963, and Lumen Gentium, 1965 (n. 37).
  2. Quoted in ‘Catholic Church “cannot teach what is wrong in itself”‘, P. McGarry, Irish Times, 27 December 2007.
  3. See, for example, The Irish Gulag, Bruce Arnold, Gill and Macmillan 2009, Chapter 24.

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After Ferns: the Rise of Christian Secularism?

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Mar 2006

The Ferns report forces those Catholics who read it to pinch themselves hard at least twice.

The first pinch is for the startling revelation that, in the words of the report itself “bishops put the interests of the church ahead of children”. As I pointed out in an earlier article this is not strictly true – because those children were a vital part of the church. However, if we rewrite this sentence to read “bishops put the clerical governing system of the church before children” this verdict becomes unquestionable – and even more damning.

The second pinch is for the revelation that it is now to the secular state, and secular society, we must look to realise key Catholic values, such as the safety of children, the inviolability of the family, the primacy of truth and the dignity of the unordained.

This second pinch needs to be a really hard one – to make sure we stay awake and absorb all of the consequences. One of these consequences is surely that we must seriously consider the possibility that for lay Catholics – deprived of all direct influence over their church’s clerical governing system – the way forward is to exploit the opportunities provided by secular society for the realisation of our gifts and social vision as lay Catholic Christians.

I don’t know the religious affiliation of Judge Murphy and the other members of the Ferns inquiry team. What I do know is that by acting with diligence and integrity they have done more to vindicate some key Christian and Catholic values than most of our bishops. In particular, acting under an entirely secular remit, they have made our church a safer place for our own Catholic children than it was when our bishops had total and unquestioned control of it.

This raises a most serious question over the conventional wisdom that secularism and Catholicism are incompatible. Two things now seem clear instead. First, our church as currently organised makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for Catholic bishops to behave with complete integrity – and therefore to model Christ. Second, Catholic lay people have more freedom to act creatively as Christians in their role as citizens of a secular republic than they do as members of their own church.

This second revelation will take time to sink in. When it does it will make us realise that we are now in an entirely new era in the history of the Irish church. Before Ferns (BF) we were taught to see secularism as a threat to faith. After Ferns (AF) we must see less of a threat than an opportunity in the secular world – to exercise leadership in making our society a safer and happier and more hopeful place for all children, and to rescue the reputation of our church.

That is not to say that the old war between secularist intellectuals and church leaders will come to an end overnight. The secularist tendency to see religion as a threat to freedom will continue, and so will the conservative Catholic clerical tendency to see secularism as a threat to faith. But those secularists who accept that the secular state does not automatically deliver a caring and decent society, and needs to find its values wherever it can, and those Catholics who believe in the timeless validity of Christian values, can engage in a new and fruitful dialogue.

However, this possibility didn’t begin in 2005. The conflict between secularism and faith has been based from the beginning upon some fundamental misconceptions – especially the failure to see that some of secularism’s enduring key values were from the beginning derived from Europe’s Christian heritage.

Throughout the world only three centuries ago the state’s role was still confined to keeping order internally and keeping external threats at bay, by naked force. It wasn’t until the 1700s that a new generation of European thinkers conceived the possibility of building a perfect society by uniting the power of the state with the power of the rational human mind, empowered by Newtonian science. These intellectuals, called in France the philosophes, were the founders of modern secularism, because they saw Christian clerical thought as both elitist and defeatist.

That is, they saw in the doctrines of original sin and Christian salvation after death a pessimistic acceptance of an unjust world order which placed a landowning social elite in permanent control of the world. A legally privileged landed aristocracy dominated the conservative political systems of Europe, while the younger brothers of that aristocracy ran the established churches of Europe. This was the ‘Old Order’ – the Ancien Régime – which needed overthrowing by a rational secular revolution.

This was the beginning of the clash between secularism and religion that still continues today. However, as John Paul II himself remarked in 1980, the key values of the very first secular revolution in France – liberty, equality and fraternity – were essentially Christian values.

They were not seen as such in 1789 because the leaders of the established churches of that era were themselves aristocrats who saw their world as the best that was possible, given the sinfulness of our species. Also, secular thinkers who found themselves opposed by Christian clergy, saw Christianity as focused upon the next world rather than upon improving this one. The very first intellectuals to use the term ‘secularism’ were Englishmen who saw the Anglican church as the conservative ally of the Tory politicians who opposed social progress.

The ultimate fall from power of the old landowning classes, and the decline in the political power of the churches, has made that original quarrel obsolete. Once the churches became focused upon issues like poverty and the education of the underclass they effectively became part of the effort to equalise the benefits of modern life – part of the original secularist revolution.

The quarrel continued largely because clergies resented the loss of their role as the dominant thinkers of their societies, and because the secular revolution moved on to espouse new causes like sexual liberation, which have become increasingly problematic. But classical liberals more concerned about economic injustice than the sexual revolution, and Christian intellectuals focused upon social justice rather than maintaining clerical control, have a huge amount in common nowadays.

The Ferns report in Ireland should be a moment of epiphany for Ireland’s Catholic leaders – because it represents a moral victory for the secular principle of achieving accountability by dividing up the powers by which society is governed . It was a free media who began this process by focusing a national spotlight upon victims of clerical child sex abuse. It was an aroused public opinion that then forced an elected government to set up the Ferns inquiry team. And that team was composed of members of Ireland’s secular intelligentsia, including the judiciary. The beneficiaries of this process are the abused children of Catholic families – the disempowered members of the church that failed to deliver justice to them through its own governing system. And that failure clearly had to do with the lack of structures of downward accountability in the church itself.

But even if Ireland’s Catholic bishops learn nothing from these events, the attitudes of Irish lay Catholics will be profoundly affected. They have seen that basic Christian values are not a monopoly of their clergy, and can be better implemented by secular means.

Meanwhile across the Irish sea the leaders of Britain’s ‘New Labour’ secular establishment try to set in motion what they call the ‘respect agenda’ – an end to ‘yobbism’ and ‘neighbours from hell’, to rampant school and workplace bullying, to teenagers spitting in the faces of pensioners, to racial and religious insults. Secularism, it seems, is now casting around for ways of reviving basic community values and respect for the weak – to save us from the appalling consequences of a complete breakdown in civil society.

We may well be closer to the same situation in Ireland than we would wish, and ‘equality of respect’ is too close to ‘equality of dignity’ for us Catholics to miss. The time has come to be fully Catholic in the secular world, without seeking to restore the unquestionable power of clergy.

It is time for Christian secularism – because secularism needs to return to its original aspiration towards a truly just and peaceful world, and because Christianity remains the greatest source of inspiration, wisdom and consolation for all who aim at that goal.

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After Ferns: Clericalism Must Go!

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Jan 2006

“Bishops placed the interest of the church ahead of children …”
(The Ferns Report, Page 256)

Although everyone knows what Judge Murphy and his colleagues meant by this verdict on two former bishops of Ferns, there is something strange and contradictory – even outrageous – about it also.

First, those children, and their parents, were also full members of the church – so the church itself, as a society of human beings, was grievously harmed by what those bishops did, or failed to do.

Second, the Irish Catholic church, as a community of faith, has never been so grievously hurt – not even by the Cromwellian persecution. If we cannot trust that our bishops – whose banner is ‘the faith’ – will put the basic law of the church before everything else – the law of love – then our faith too will be deeply challenged. Had those bishops deliberately set out to injure ‘the faith’ they could not have been more effective.

So, if it wasn’t ‘the church’, what interest exactly was it that those bishops placed ahead of children?

It cannot have been Catholic teaching, because the church has always taught that the family is the basic social unit. For over four decades now it has also taught that all are equal in dignity. In favouring erring priests before children, those bishops were denying, not upholding, strict Catholic teaching.

What interest was it, then, that they placed ahead of children?

We discover what it was by reflecting that it had to do not with revealing the truth, but with concealing it. What was it that was concealed?

We all know what it was now – because the Ferns report reveals it beyond question.

Catholic ordination – the distinctive badge of Catholic clergy – does not guarantee sinlessness or virtue in those who receive it.

Most importantly, ordination does not guarantee sexual abstinence – true celibacy – to those who receive it. It is clear now, in fact, that some of our clergy have sought ordination precisely because it has allowed them to prey upon children, sexually.

It is clear also that, faced with this reality, bishops have, far more often than not, sought to conceal that truth from the wider church – as though it was diametrically opposed to faith itself.

Yet nowhere does the church officially teach that the sacrament of ordination is a guarantee of virtue, or even celibacy. That odd notion has always been contradicted by experience anyway. Yet, for some strange reason, bishops have nevertheless felt obliged to preserve it – at the expense of children.

The reason is clericalism – the felt obligation, transmitted for centuries in the culture of the church, to uphold the myth of the moral and intellectual superiority of clergy.

Clericalism is the root of the Catholic clerical child abuse scandal – for three reasons.

First, clericalism empowers the abusive priest and disempowers his victims. This is proven by many of the stories told in the Ferns report, reflected in the summation on page 261:

“Frequently it is the respect in which the abuser is held which affords the opportunity of perpetrating the crime….”

The unquestioning respect in which clergy have been held in Ireland rests squarely on clericalism – taught to children by the attitudes and behaviour of their parents and teachers. Put simply, the priest was the man of God, the one closest to God whom the child should trust implicitly to give access to grace, the gift of God.

Clericalism deliberately cultivates an attitude of deference to clergy. Deference – the habit of submission and compliance – gave abusive clergy virtually total power over their child victims.

Second, clericalism gave abusive priests power also over the families of those children. Irish mothers especially have tended to feel honoured that any priest would “take an interest in our Johnny” – even if ‘Johnny’ was asked to stay in the care of the priest overnight. It could not enter parents’ heads that the priest could do any harm – illustrated in the poignant story of a mother who denied to the Ferns inquiry that an abusive priest could have molested her daughter, even though he sometimes occupied the same bed!

Why could it not enter their heads? Because Irish Catholicism has so far not properly distinguished between faith in God and faith in clergy. For far too many Irish Catholics, to doubt the priest was as grave a sin as to doubt God – and our church leaders have found it all too convenient to leave this confusion intact. It is the root of Catholic deference – and deference is – or rather was – the root of much of the social power of the clerical church in Ireland.

Third, it was clericalism also that presented the bishop with the opportunity, and the obligation, to protect the myth of clerical sinlessness. It gave him that opportunity because it always counselled lay people to give the priest – and the bishop – the benefit of any doubt. It gave him the obligation to do so, because the power to which the bishop believed himself to be above all accountable – the papacy – is clericalist also – intent on ruling the church through clergy, and on protecting the myth of clerical sinlessness.

Nothing else can fully explain the virtually universal failure of Catholic bishops throughout the world to deal effectively with clerical child sexual abuse. Or the failure of the Vatican to deal with it also. Or the failure of both to give lay people the structures they have needed for forty years to develop their own role and mission in their own church.

Yet so far, regrettably, no Catholic bishop has identified clericalism as a primary factor in the problem – as the reason for the lack of integrity in our leadership. This is the real measure of the failure of the leaders of our church to grasp the nettle.

It is also the measure of the challenge facing the current papacy on this issue. It is of first importance for the recovery of the church that the myth of clergy be expressly contradicted in church teaching. We need, as a matter of great urgency, an encyclical against clericalism – an encyclical that will emphasise that faith in God does not require faith in clergy also – or deference either.

But there is the problem. The power of the church in the developing world is largely based upon clericalism also. Clericalism flourishes wherever there is a clear educational gap between the priest and the bulk of his congregation. And Rome tends to point to the developing world as evidence of the continuing health of the church – even to the extent of proposing that the priest shortage in the west could be supplied from Africa!

So it seems unlikely that clericalism will be tackled as a problem by the church leadership soon.

But meanwhile in Ireland, as elsewhere, we must develop a church culture that is safe for children. This surely must involve the warning of every child, at an early age, that no adult is to be deferred to when personal boundaries are at stake. To make sure the child is clear on what ‘no adult’ means, we must deliberately and expressly abandon the Irish Catholic habit of automatic deference to clergy.

Can our bishops rise to the challenge of telling us this? Will they be allowed to?

Who can say? Given the extraordinary slowness with which our bishops have learned anything in recent decades, it seems likely that there will be continuing tension between the needs of child protection, and the clericalist bias that has so endangered our children since Vatican II.

Catholic adults – lay and clerical – will need to pray hard to negotiate this minefield without further pain and grief.

However, there is great comfort to be gained in the realisation that although ordination does not guarantee virtue, most of our priests are virtuous anyway.

The reason is that they do obey the basic law of the church – the law of love. And pray hard for that virtue of virtues. That is why they are, mostly, genuinely loved by their people also.

Clericalism will not be needed to hold the Irish church together if we let truth and love, and prayer, and the sacraments, do so instead. If our bishops cannot rise to the challenge of teaching us this, we – priests and people – must rise to the challenge of teaching it to them.

For, whatever else may happen, the death of Catholic clericalism in Ireland is now assured. Our Irish Catholic church will either survive – and flourish – without it, or perish with it.

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