A moral perspective?

The news media in Ireland have, over the past week, been full of angry statements about two issues with a serious ethical dimension. The first of these concerns the ‘will-they-won’t-they’  procrastination of various Roman Catholic bishops in Ireland on whether to resign as a result of the role they played in the Dublin archdiocese when it was busily covering up child sexual abuse by priests. The second concerns the truly extraordinary goings-on in Listowel, Co Kerry, where a significant proportion of the townspeople seem to be anxious to show solidarity with a man convicted of a sexual assault. There are two aspects that link these stories: one is the role of priests, with Fr Sean Sheehy being amongst those in Listowel who supported the perpetrator; the other is the fact that such things seem to be happening in part because we have no real idea of what constitutes an acceptable moral code.

Take the Most Revd. Eamonn Walsh, one of the auxiliary bishops of Dublin who was in office for some of the time when cases of sexual abuse were being covered up (but who was not directly criticised in the report on the Dublin archdiocese). There have been calls on him (and on the other bishops in office in Dublin at the time) to resign. He has resisted this, and on December 18 he stated that while he might have to go if he had become a ‘block on the gospel’ (I’m not absolutely sure what that means, by the way), but that if this happened it would be an ‘injustice’. Asking for someone’s resignation always raises difficult issues. But here the bishop is showing a sense of personal indignation at his own probable fate, sending out the signal that the genuinely huge injustice of the sexual abuse has still not been accepted for what it is. In fact, I had been unsure about what should happen to Bishop Walsh, but once he made this statement I began to think he had to go.

Amidst all this mess, it is at least heartening that the Dublin diocese now has an archbishop who commands respect and who has been doing the right thing in seeking to clean it up. And I feel for the many good priests and faithful who have been let down so terribly.

And how do you even begin to talk about the behaviour witnessed in Listowel?

And yet, all the moral outrage that has filled the letters pages of the newspapers seems to me to be missing something: that these men (and it’s all men) gained their ethical compass in the same way that the rest of Irish society did. I remember being absolutely stunned at a student debate in Trinity College in 1975 at which a prominent Roman Catholic priest said that Irish catholics were uniquely privileged because they would never have to ask searching questions about morality: all the answers had already been provided for them and were ready to be displayed to them by the church whenever the occasion required it. The topic of the debate was contraception, but anything else would also have prompted the same ethical framework. And now that these unique privileges have been lost or rejected, we don’t know where we stand. Who is telling us now about right and wrong? And why is it so difficult to get it right?

My concern is that the academic community has made no major contribution to this debate. There have been plenty of academics to discuss child abuse, sexual misuse of power, and lots of other topics. But who has made any really visible contribution to a debate about morality and ethics in modern Ireland? Why is our academic community so uninvolved in what is perhaps the defining question of our era?

I don’t really know the answer, but I hope that DCU’s Institute of Ethics, established a couple of years ago, will play a leading role as it develops its agenda. But I also hope that the academic community more generally will get active: not as a new community of moralisers, but as an academy that can set out the issues we must face if we are to be a genuinely ethical society at all levels.

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17 Comments on “A moral perspective?”

  1. brianmc Says:

    Having met His Grace Walsh on several occasions, he has appeared to be a gentleman of the highest order.

    I cannot comment on his behaviour during the periods in question by the Murphy report, but by and large, he is a just man.

    • Roger Smyth Says:

      He may be just a man, but that man was in a position of power in an organisation that was responsible for the insidious cover up of child sex abuse, the most heinous of crimes. People have to be judged on account of their actions (or inactions) and in judging them, their character is largely irrelevant in my opinion. In any organisation, whether it be the Catholic Church or a business, sometimes heads have got to roll as a proportional response to an incident and a situation of such gravity as is the abuse scandal they could do worse than to try and wipe the slate clean

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      Is this parody brianmc or are you actually serious?

  2. Aoife Citizen Says:

    Without disagreeing with your call for Universities to help in providing a context for an ethical understanding, I would like to comment that our failure, in the academy, is more profound than that: where were the papers on sexual abuse by priests in Ireland; why didn’t our sociologists, protected by academic tenure and the international nature of academic reputation, not make clear earlier how extraordinary and contemptible the actions of the Church was.

    The failure wasn’t just ethical, it was a failure to think rigorously, to put a problem central stage, to realize the full import of a fact we could have all seen. This failure is one we all shared. It is a sadness of mine that I am an unbeliever and, by tradition, a member of the Church of Ireland; but I can still recall, if I try, the depth of my shock when Eamonn Casey’s sin was revealed. Despite the frequent joking about his venality, his love of good times and laughter, I was deeply shaken to find he was actually weak and a hypocrite. Of course, his sin now looks quaint, but I do remember how, until that point, I had known, we had all sort of known, that the clergy were vulnerable to canal sin and how we kept this knowledge separate to a deep rooted belief, more a habit of mind, that the clergy were somehow better, wiser and closer to God, albeit a god I didn’t myself believe in. With the abusers, we all knew, we joked about it, we observed it, commented on it, but because we also believed in the essential goodness of priest we never thought through what we knew, we never confronted the implications of our half knowledge.

    Not confronting the implications of half knowledge: what greater way to sin against the academic tradition. The academy is, yet another, participant who failed us in this terrible history.

  3. Vincent Says:

    What the Bishops do not seem to get that it is not what they did but what they did not do.
    For me it was Anne Lovett, that lovely child that died giving birth under the Grotto in Granard. And once that switch is thrown nothing on Earth can carry it back to where it was originally.
    Now, I for one think that this is a way better situation. One where there is some debate, not where families could be destroyed on the word of a religious person that may or may not have been insane.
    On Listowel, I do not know what the heck to make of that. But I will say this, my faith in The Jury is about equal to that of the Bishops. While that judge seemed to lay into the convicted with a cudgel.

    • Jilly Says:

      Vincent, I hope I’ve misunderstood your comment. As I read it, of all those involved in last week’s events in Listowel, you’re criticising the jury and judge?! The jury who reviewed the unusually clear-cut evidence for a sexual assault case (unusual in that there was definite third-party/CCTV evidence) and returned a verdict based on it, and the judge who sentenced accordingly and explained the reasoning behind his sentence?

      I think you and I are I both old enough to remember the days (in this country and others) when judges made comments about rape victims ‘asking for it’, along with derogatory comments about their clothing or sex lives during their summing up for juries. Bearing in mind that to this day only a fraction of sexual assault cases even make it to court, let alone result in convictions, I think that the judge and jury in the Listowel case are to be deeply commended. In fact they go some way to answering FvP’s broader point about ethics and a sense of justice in our society: given the mire of corruption and unethical behaviour we’re stuck with in other quarters, such instances of people acting ethically are some small comfort.

      • Aoife Citizen Says:

        Can I second that Jilly, I thought the judge was magnificent.

      • Iain Says:

        I’ll ‘third’ it for what its worth. It stuns me just how many people seem completely unable to distinguish what is a criminal and abusive act and somehow try to bring in character accusations against the victims or make out that somehow its a less consequential offence than it is. So well done for the jury for not beinq swayed by the morally bankrupt local clergy.

      • Vincert Says:

        My comment has to do with any Irish Jury, or English jury for that matter. Because little is known as to the workings within the jury room. Now to the Judge, their comments Were designed as a response to the Speech from the Dock type of thing. And anyone who heard or read the comments by lord John Donaldson about those convicted wrongly of bombing in the UK, only for years later that the convictions be declared unsafe. Far far better that they keep their mouths shut, do the job they are payed for and deliver Sentence. Also, the less they say, the less opportunity for them to err in Law, thereby giving an opportunity for that type of Appeal.

      • Hugh Says:

        Hear, hear!! The judge made a point of publicly rejecting the character statement of Fr. Sheehy. He is to be commended for that.

  4. Iainmacl Says:

    Part of the problem is that in the Irish context the nonsensical argument that morality can only be found in religion has held sway for so long. Whilst many have argued in recent times about the evident need for a greater separation of church and state, there probably needs to be a stronger assertion that morality (and ethics) can, and should, be based on something more substantive, more intellectually robust than the authority of inherited religious dogma.

    The other wider question is also the extent to which morality and ethical issues are part of the foundation of the political system and a legitimate basis for decision making. Susan Neiman’s recent book “Moral Clarity” (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Moral-Clarity-Guide-Grown-up-Idealists/dp/1847920446/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1261472165&sr=8-1) tackles this aspect arguing against the association in the US between ‘morality’ and the right.

    • Jilly Says:

      I entirely agree, Iain, you took the words from my mouth. A belief in supranatural forces is in no way necessary in order to have an ethical code.


    • Iain, I would not disagree with your point, though I probably come from a different religious perspective from yours. Actually, within the religious tradition there would be some differences as well. The idea that morality springs from an ‘informed conscience’ used to be the standard expression in Ireland – meaning that your conscience must express what the religious hierarchy tells you it must express. That would not be a universally accepted position even within catholicism (see Hans Kung), never mind beyond it. But the problem in that heritage is that when the ability of the church to insist on the details of morality declines or even disappears, a vacuum opens up – not because morality can only be found in religion, but because when an accepted dogma goes people initially struggle to know what should replace it: look at Russia immediately post-Communism.

      In that sense I agree strongly that we need to find a moral code that is the basis not just for political decision-making, but for public and social life more generally.

  5. Hugh Says:

    I don’t think you folks should beat yourselves up for “failing” to bring these issues centre-stage. Firstly, the cover-up was so successful that it would have been impossible to get printable evidence. Secondly, it was prudent, given the pervasiveness of the church’s influence, to avoid the issue. Imagine the pressure on any academy that dared to raise it; where was the support going to come from??!! Thirdly, people didn’t want to know; the implications shook them to the core, and it was easier to “keep the faith” at a general level than to face the loss of their own moral compass.

    I remember trying to discuss these issues with traditional Catholics when the child abuse scandal started to become unavoidable. I couldn’t get through to most of them, despite the evidence that was by then incontrovertible. I felt I was never having a conversation with the person in front of me, rather with somebody or some book behind them that they were utterly reliant upon for guidance.

    The quicker people begin to rely on their own well-informed judgement, the quicker we can come up with a new moral code. That’s where the academy can help. But, at the risk of raising another issue discussed here before, where’s the commercial benefit in humanities research??


    • Hugh, regarding humanities research, I may open that discussion in another post – is there a particular perspective that you wish to express?

    • kevin denny Says:

      As one on the fringe of the humanities (economics) I suspect there is little commercial benefit directly attributable to humanities research. Thats not a reason for not doing it ‘though.
      Much of the research in the sciences is of little practical application either, almost all pure mathematics, much of physics or biology for example. The reason they do the research is the same as the humanities folks: its fun.
      Of course it is easier to claim that some application may come from it, someday, if you are working on cell biology and the public won’t know otherwise. In the social sciences, likewise, its often not too difficult to come up with some “implications for policy”. Great for getting grants.
      And remember just because there are some returns to science/technology research that doesn’t imply it was worthwhile in the sense that it couldn’t have been better spent elsewhere. Think about the $100bn laboratory orbiting overhead.

  6. Myles Duffy Says:

    The Church authorities had sight of The Murphy Report for several months prior to its general release on 26th November and they ought to have been in a position to respond to it comprehensively with vigour and foresight immediately it was published. But the wholly inadequate piecemeal response that has ensued is a devastating indictment of the standard of institutional governance throughout the Church. A new decade beckons as the Church feebly attempts to play ‘catch-up’, like anaemic lame-duck politicians.

    No secular organisation, or, dare I say university, could overcome the systemic failure described in the three State investigations into clerical sex abuse, much less maintain individuals in leadership roles on the basis of open tenure, without a clear job description, without clearly delegated authority and without any countervailing structure of accountability, where vital information may, or may not, be relayed as appropriate in an organisation where the maintenance of secrecy has an extraordinary status and value.

    The five bishops whose resignations have been called for are highly educated and talented individuals who collectively have over 90 years service as bishop. It is entirely disingenuous of them to evade collective responsibility to Dublin Catholics through distracted pleadings about personal integrity or of merely resigning in response to the needs of some survivors.

    Resignations are required. The reason for them is not simply an adverse reflection on personal integrity. They are necessary because of a systemic failure in a collective mandate that caused thousands of Dublin children to suffer child sex abuse over many decades. The report recognises that bishops’ were not directly responsible for the actions of offending priests although they did have the power to appoint priests to parishes. But they were appointed by an administration that failed to successfully ensure that offenders were not protected from the normal processes of civil law, or facilitated in their privileged access to children, or facilitated in re-offending.

    The Church is neither a democracy nor a secular entity. There are no elections, liquidations, mergers, acquisitions, nationalisation or other processes available to restore a damaged mandate. Resignations combined widespread reform are therefore the only viable options available if the Church is to recover from the metastatic consequences of this advanced malignancy. If it fails to recover trust, esteem and respect it will be incapable of executing its fundamental mission.


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