It has not been a good week for the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. The report prepared by a team led by Judge Yvonne Murphy on sexual abuse by priests in the Diocese of Cloyne was published, and it documents an astonishing tale of abuse, cruelty, neglect, cover-up, misrepresentation, failure of cooperation, and non-compliance not just with the law but with basic human decency. Of course the Cloyne report was not setting out some isolated incidents in the South of Ireland; from Judge Murphy’s previous report on the Dublin Archdiocese, from reports on other dioceses and from an ever-longer list of individual cases that began with disclosures in the mid-1990s about Fr Brendan Smyth’s abuse of over 100 victims, we know that there has been a terrible pattern of abuse that seems to have corrupted the church in almost every corner of the land. Of course not every priest was an abuser: most were not. But it is inconceivable that the culture of abuse and cover-up was not something that most would have been aware of, but none spoke up. It is hard to accept the point made by some defenders of the Roman Catholic church – that a small number of perverted men have brought shame on a generally good institution – because if it were a good institution, it would not have harboured this evil in its midst. There were too many abusers, and too many victims, for this to be seen as the successfully hidden wicked deeds of a tiny and unrecognised minority.
I strongly suspect that if this pattern of abuse had been revealed about any other organisation, that organisation would long before this have been wound up, either voluntarily or by order of the state. Though it must be so hard to bear for many good people of faith to see their church being exposed and then pilloried in this way, it is probably also hard for the victims and those shocked by what they have learned to understand why the organisation is allowed to continue, indeed to continue to have a special role in the care of the young.
Without doubt reflecting the public mood, the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Enda Kenny launched a strong attack on the church, and on its Vatican-based leadership in particular, in a speech in Dáil Éireann. This is an extract from his speech:
‘The report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection and elitism that dominates the culture of the Vatican to this day. The rape and torture of children were down-played or managed to uphold the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation. Far from listening to evidence of humiliation and betrayal with St. Benedict’s “ear of the heart”, the Vatican’s reaction was to parse and analyse it with the gimlet eye of a Canon lawyer. This calculated, withering position is the polar opposite of the radicalism, humility and compassion on which the Roman Church was founded. Such radicalism, humility and compassion comprise the essence of its foundation and purpose. This behaviour is a case of Roma locuta est: causa finita est, except in this instance nothing could be further from the truth.’
The church, however, has not been entirely willing to accept this criticism. The Vatican, in a diplomatic step that signifies anger with the Irish government, has recalled the Papal Nuncio to Rome for consultations. Furthermore, writing in the Irish Times, the eminent Roman Catholic theologian Fr Vincent Twomey criticised the Taoiseach for his attack on the Vatican and suggested that the primary responsibility lay with the state. These steps and responses suggest that the church has not understood the position it is in. Indeed the only church leader to have consistently shown an appreciation of the awfulness of what was done and the responsibility to address it has been the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin.
It is difficult to know what should be done with, or to, the Roman Catholic Church. But if one were advising the church one would certainly not be suggesting to them that becoming prickly, or attempting to allocate blame elsewhere, is a clever strategy. Its loyal and faithful members have rights to be ministered to; were it not for that, it would not seem obvious to me why it should not be disbanded.
For those of faith – and I include myself in the number – this has been the most terrible of times. More still, for the victims it has been a time not just of torture and abuse, but then of having to live without vindication and without self-respect. That is an unbelievably awful gift to present to Christianity, and it has subverted and perverted the mission of the church and the teachings of its founder. It has all but destroyed whatever is good in the legacy.