The RC Church in Ireland, coming out fighting: a wise strategy?

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.

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11 Comments on “The RC Church in Ireland, coming out fighting: a wise strategy?”

  1. Wendymr Says:

    The Vatican’s response to the report in Ireland is really astonishing. There is no reason whatsoever for the findings to have been in any way a surprise, nor to behave as this is a little local problem that would go away fairly quickly. That there was widespread sexual abuse has been known in Ireland for a long time now – but it wasn’t an issue just in Ireland. These scandals have hit all over Europe and North America.

    This article summarises some of the Canadian experience, including a Commission set up by the Catholic Church in 1990 to investigate sexual abuse in Newfoundland. And here is a list of around two dozen reports on sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in the US, Canada, Ireland and elsewhere – including a report on a major series of incidents in the city where I now live. This kind of thing is really too little, too late.

    It seems to me that members and clergy in the Catholic church who are not and never have been implicated in the abuse scandals need to speak out and insist that the Vatican take responsibility for this now.

    • Vincent Says:

      Ah Wendy, the issue here is that it has just dawned on aspects of the Irish Government that the indoctrination the received in primary school was just that. And that Rome views them as nothing more than animals to be managed.
      And it’s about time quite frankly. 70 years after an establishing document and 90 after an aspect of independence Ireland was still being ruled by a foreign power.
      Now the quicker that we can dump the legal system in favour of something that recognizes the Citizen, fully equal to all and subject to none, and dumps the common law structure so darn loved by Blackhall and the ‘Kings Inns’.


  2. From a scientific point of view you would imagine that these revelations would indicate that there is no divine intervention in the operation of the catholic church (unless god works in extremely mysterious ways) and wonder why people cling to faith when as the phenomena explainable only by such intervention continue to disappear.

  3. Kate Bopp Says:

    I had a chastising letter 2yrs ago from an aunt who is a member of a closed order in Portugal. Her community were upset by the “negative reporting in the Irish media”. The religious congregations are quite simply brainwashed after a lifetime of conditioning. They percieve the reactions of the general public to the abominations of institutional abuse as some kind of affront to their faith. There is denial on a grand scale. It is initially frustrating to encounter and then quite chilling to contemplate the extent to which all unpleasant facts are completely rejected by many of the religious. They refuse to process information detailing abuse and cover up. To process this would mean that they can no longer justify their devotion and then they are completely lost. I sent my aunt (who has internet access) links to the Ferns, Ryan & Murphy reports.


  4. For the Vatican to claim that the State should bear responsibility alone is stunning. Let’s not forget that the Church captured the State long ago.

    It’s a function of postcolonialism. Denied access to secular institutions of government, to education, to politics and to the Irish language, Irish people made Catholicism integral to Irishness, despite the proud tradition of Presyterian and Deist nationalist leaders, and despite the Church’s adherence to British rule once Emancipation was passed.

    Fast forward to Independence and you have a Church which has the emotional support of the people and a new state which gratefully receives the offer of Church maintenance of schools and other social provision (orphanages, mental institutions, hospitals, some types of prison) because it has neither the resources nor the expertise. None of the Catholic rulers has the educational or ideological resources to challenge this Catholic hegemony, so the Church’s role is entrenched further.

    The photograph of Cabinet ministers sitting in their cars outside a Presidential funeral (Hyde?) because he was Protestant and the Church forbade them to attend is a fine emblem of their mindset, but little changed in the intervening years.

    I suspect this cringing obeisance to powerful men is what led to the economic madness too: eagerness to believe fantastic stories with their own internal logic and a failure to question any sort of grand narrative.

  5. cormac Says:

    That is a really good summary of the issue, Ferdinand. As it happened, I was in Denmark in the year 1995-1996. The difference in society’s attitude towards the church that had taken place during that year was quite noticeable when I came back to Ireland..

    One aspect of the affair that doesn’t always get mentioned is that of faith. As well as a horrific crime against society, the abuse of innocent children also raises questions about the supposed faith of the perpetrators. It raises the question whether there exists a number of clergy for whom religion is a sham; a way of life, rather than a belief. Which pretty much undercuts the whole enterprise of the Church. I suspect this is part of the reason for today’s empty churches – who would trust a religious cult some of whom wrere known to betray their own faith?

  6. John Says:

    I would favour closing the whole shebang and sending all the priests and religious to the Vatican to administer them.

    There’s a perfectly good Church of Ireland, which could easily replace them.

  7. Al Says:

    Looking at the whole thing now for over 20 years, One could argue that there is something ‘unreformable’ about the Vatican in the sense of their ability to self govern and more importantly their valourisation of certain values over other values.

    Ireland is looking at a Lutheran moment here, facing the doors of Wittenberg, but like in politics we will shy away to return to an impotent conservatism.

    Facing this issue myself, I can ignore the Church by absenting myself as I have done, but with children about to reach school age I have to look at it again and face the question do I/We return in that Irish hypocritical way or do we sail for different shores.
    All down to the distance from the house factor!!!!
    Or not,,,,

    • TH Says:

      @Al – I sympathise. But, there are options – more than were normally thought feasible in times past. Many are in transition – holding to the core of catholicism but affirming independence of Rome. In other words a new and powerful reformation ‘outside the walls’. As it happens the COI is seeing more than a trickle into its ranks. That said, I fully respect the decision of those who rather ‘stay and fight’ or ‘stay and suffer’…


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