Posted tagged ‘child abuse’

Catholicism and the spirit of the age

July 21, 2010

There has been a fair amount of news coverage over recent days of the Vatican documentNormae de Gravioribus Delictis, which was actually completed by Pope Benedict on May 21 of this year but has only just been published. Before commenting on the substance, it may be worthwhile pointing out what this document is. It is in essence a series of regulations (or ‘norms’) which list the most serious ‘crimes’ identified by the church. To get a sense of how the Vatican sees the context, one might consider a ‘summary’ of what it’s about issued by Vatican press secretary Fr Federico Lombardi and attached to the document. The key passage in that summary goes like this:

‘The serious crimes to which the regulations referred concerned vital aspects of Church life: the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Penance, but also sexual abuse committed by a priest against a minor under the age of eighteen. The vast public echo this latter kind of crime has had over recent years has attracted great attention and generated intense debate on the norms and procedures applied by the Church to judge and punish such acts. It is right, then, that there should be complete clarity concerning the regulations currently in force in this field, and that these regulations be presented organically so as to facilitate the work of the people who deal with these matters.’

The rest of the summary then focuses almost entirely on clerical sex abuse, indicating that this is where the Pope’s mind was when finalising the document. And that of course is well and good, except that the ‘norms’ cover all sorts of other stuff also. So for example, article 3(1)(4) refers to ‘concelebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice .. with ministers of ecclesial communities which do not have apostolic succession and do not acknowledge the sacramental dignity of priestly ordination’ as a ‘grave delict’ – meaning that joint celebrations with non-Roman clergy are highly sinful. Actually the terminology used there is perhaps more ambivalent than the Vatican itself may have intended, in that, for example, Anglicans would regard themselves as having ‘apostolic succession’ and recognise the ‘sacramental dignity of priestly ordination’. But that’s by the way; the intention was to brand non-Roman sacramental actions as gravely sinful. In an age where all religion is subjected to a fair amount of scepticism this approach might be considered a tad counter-intuitive, but there you go.

Article 5 has a go at the ‘attempted sacred ordination of a woman’, which it says is a particularly ‘grave delict’.

Article 6 then deals with clerical sex abuse.

The publication of the document was followed by a fair amount of outcry over the perceived status of women’s ordination and concelebration with non-Roman Catholic clergy as being similar in seriousness to clerical sex abuse. The church and its supporters have pointed out that this is not implied at all, but that this is simply a list of things that are grave moral delicts, set out in separate articles. But in the end that justification doesn’t work: it’s all still in the same list, and is decreed as having the same sinful status. And because of that, it presents the church as an organisation that appears to be incapable of understanding the ethical perspective regarding the issues into which it has strayed. Even if it wants to hold on to its opposition to women’s ordination – a position which increasingly its own members don’t accept, and which is bound to become harder and harder to explain to them – listing it in a series of delicts that also includes sex abuse shows at best a naivety which is astounding.

The Roman Catholic Church has adopted a position that holds that the revelations and enlightenments of this (or any) age don’t count, and that its own internal culture needs to be enclosed in normative judgements that were set in a very different age. For it, departing from that culture is gravely sinful, and that sinfulness is no less outrageous than sinfulness associated with crime and abuse.

I actually have a broad sympathy for the church, and a desire for it to prosper; I am myself a catholic Anglican. But the Roman Catholic church won’t do that until it learns to accept that our understanding of the nature of humanity must always evolve as we learn new things, and that this is not incompatible with divine purpose. There is nothing too astounding about this, as the church itself has abandoned all sorts of Old Testament prescriptions, and indeed has quietly abandoned more recent ones when it suited it to do so.

It is time – urgent time – for reform.


Reality has not yet set in: the convulsions in Roman Catholicism

April 4, 2010

One of the key problems facing the Roman Catholic church right now is that many of its senior prelates do not seem to have understood the position they are in and how that is viewed by the wider population, including the catholic faithful. This was illustrated powerfully by Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, the Pope’s personal preacher, who during a Holy Week sermon compared criticism of the Pope and the church over the handling of sex abuse cases with anti-semitism (though claiming that this comparison was offered to him by a Jewish friend). This came a few weeks after an Irish bishop complained about the media focus on the Roman Catholic church when discussing child abuse.

Fr Cantalamessa’s statement shows an extraordinary detachment from reality, and an apparent inability to see that evidence of child abuse would inevitably, and rightly,  prompt some very close and critical analysis of what the church (including the Pope) was doing. To equate such critical analysis, where it relates to the known abuse cases within the church, with anti-semitism (which as we know led to the Holocaust) is breath-taking, both because it suggests an absence of any real understanding of what has happened, and because it is an amazing insult to those who have suffered or died as a result of anti-semitism.

Once again, the statements recently by the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, have provided some reassurance that not everyone is so detached from reality or has such an inadequate understanding of the moral issues involved. It is to be hoped that others in the church develop a much better sense of what has happened and do so quickly; time is not on their side. The first thing to do is to grasp that statements that appear to suggest that the church is a victim in this saga will prolong the agony and make recovery less likely. I for one would genuinely regret that.

A future for Irish catholicism?

March 21, 2010

In September 1961 my family moved from Germany to Ireland. My parents were a mixed marriage, with my father a Roman Catholic and my mother a German Lutheran. They had agreed that the first three children (there were four of us, eventually) would be baptised Lutheran, an agreement for which my father (who was actually a very devout catholic) was excommunicated for some years; and so my early childhood was a Protestant one. Taking into account also my father’s position vis-à-vis the Catholic church, I was not very aware of catholicism in any shape or form until we arrived in Ireland.

But in Ireland catholicism was everywhere, as was the local parish priest. I should say right away that the latter, Father Holmes, was a rather wonderful man, a community leader as much as a priest. But for many local people he was much more the government than anyone in Leinster House. So for example, if my father wanted the farm’s employees to work overtime at times of seasonal pressures, this required the permission of the priest (always readily given, however). No staff party could be held without him, and issues of public concern were settled in everyone’s mind only when he had pronounced on them; though after that they were beyond debate. Actually, Father Holmes was a warm and entirely humane individual, and his influence on the community was, as I remember it, benign.

But all over Ireland there were, as we know, hundreds of similar little local rulers, and some of them were autocrats, and some of them were cruel. Some of them knew about, or were involved in, extraordinary abuses of trust and compassion, but abuses that could not be mentioned even in private and that were not recognised or addressed by those in positions of secular authority. As we know from examples such as the letters of Sean MacBride to then Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid, society’s leaders for decades were subservient to the church authorities and would not have contemplated criticising or controlling them, regardless of the circumstances or the issues.

If you were to experience all that from a detached position, you would probably always have said that one day this house would come crashing down and when it did the damage would be terrible; and so it has been. It has been hugely aggravated by two things: the revelation of abuse and cover-up, and the sheer inadequacy of the response even now. The latter was brought home to me again when a couple of weeks ago the Bishop of Elphin, Most Rev. Christopher Jones, accused the media of being ‘unfair and unjust’ in focusing on the Catholic Church in the context of child abuse. If he could say that, then he had not understood what was happening to the church; but worse than that, he was speaking at a press conference after the Bishops had met in Maynooth, and he was speaking on their behalf.

It has not been all like that, and one light in this astounding darkness has been the Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Rev Diarmuid Martin, a man who has displayed both courage and insight. But he seems to be on his own, indeed literally. I confess I feel a little bit of sympathy for Cardinal Brady, who was doing in 1975 what he could do in 1975 (but no more); but his initial response to the revelations, that he had done nothing wrong and that in any case this had been someone else’s responsibility, was appalling.

It is very hard to see where Irish Roman Catholicism can go from here. It is my view that all churches run the risk of being corrupted if they play with temporal power, or if they become too concerned with institutional dignity, or if their clerics are given the status of local leaders. Add to that the exclusion of women from the clergy, and enforced celibacy, and you create a caste of rulers who lose a sense of perspective as to their role and who do not experience the mission of their founder in their lives. It is hard to see that those who have graduated from this caste – and that includes most of the bishops today – can jump over the shadow of their former self-importance and reach out to their congregations to meet their spiritual needs. And because they will hang around still, the work of renewal cannot properly begin. The Pope’s pastoral letter, while expressing some admirable and welcome sentiments as far as it goes, will not make much of a difference if its messengers are much the same faces as before.

When we settled in Ireland I took what is sometimes described as the via media and became an Anglican (Church of Ireland) by choice, so residing somewhere between my parents’ religious backgrounds. But I have felt a great fondness for some of the catholic inheritance of Anglicanism, including the spirituality, and the sense of poetry and art in its liturgy. I don’t enjoy the current spectacle of catholic decline. I don’t particularly believe that the erosion of religion from public consciousness impoverishes the people, but I regret it nevertheless. I don’t know how much of Ireland’s inherited sense of religion will survive, but I suspect that the religiosity which featured so strongly won’t, or that particular type of piety which was in reality just subservience to power. And if I am right, maybe that will give some space to a real sense of Christianity. At least I hope so.

A moral perspective?

December 22, 2009

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.

Day of shame

November 27, 2009

Once again Ireland is in the global news headlines, and the story is one of abuse, betrayal and shame. Thursday saw the publication of the Report by the Commission of Investigation into the handling by Church and State authorities of allegations and suspicions of child abuse against clerics of the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin. Although as we know this is not the complete report, it is still terrifying to read: terrifying that such abuse could be perpetrated by men in positions of authority and trust, terrifying that the abuse could be covered up and kept from the authorities in order to protect the institutional church, and terrifying that a society many of whose members must have known something was wrong did not come to the help of the victims. I was here, and I lived through some of these times in Ireland, and once again I also am consumed by shame that I was there and saw nothing and did nothing.

Much has been said over the past 24 hours in condemnation of those responsible. I would maybe add two comments. These crimes were committed within the institutional church and covered up by it, but they took place in a society that had for too long practised obsequiousness and had allowed a culture to prevail where many people may actually have agreed that the interests of the church should take precedence over the cries of the victims. Secondly – and this is the only positive note I can sound – the Roman Catholic Archdiocese has now at least the benefit of an archbishop who has shown some sensitivity, courage and integrity in handling the legacy of abuse: I do have quite some respect for Diarmuid Martin, and of course for those priests who followed their vocation with decency.

But for now, the only real response can be one of utter horror and shame, and the hope that the victims may now have the support and love of the community and that, over time, at least some of the wounds may heal.

Separation of church and state

May 22, 2009

In response to my post of yesterday on the report of the Commission on Child Abuse, a number of comments have focused on the issue of the separation of church and state. The concern being expressed, I think, is that the misuse of power and the prevalence of abuse unchecked by any real scrutiny over decades was connected with the failure in Ireland to separate church and state in any meaningful way. It is worth pursuing this further, but in my view (as I shall explain below) this is not the main – or at any rate only – cause of the problem.

The legal standing of churches and religions is regulated under article 44 of the 1937 Irish Constitution, Bunreacht na hEireann. This article provides as follows:

1.    The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion.
2.    1° Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen.
2° The State guarantees not to endow any religion.
3° The State shall not impose any disabilities or make any discrimination on the ground of religious profession, belief or status.
4° Legislation providing State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious denominations, nor be such as to affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school. 
5° Every religious denomination shall have the right to manage its own affairs, own, acquire and administer property, movable and immovable, and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes.
6° The property of any religious denomination or any educational institution shall not be diverted save for necessary works of public utility and on payment of compensation.

1.    The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion.
2.    1° Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen.
       2° The State guarantees not to endow any religion.
       3° The State shall not impose any disabilities or make any discrimination on the ground of religious profession, belief or status.
       4° Legislation providing State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious denominations, nor be such as to affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school. 
       5° Every religious denomination shall have the right to manage its own affairs, own, acquire and administer property, movable and immovable, and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes.
       6° The property of any religious denomination or any educational institution shall not be diverted save for necessary works of public utility and on payment of compensation.

There have been a number of cases in which the Irish courts examined the meaning of this article, and its impact in practice. It might be reasonable to summarise the findings in these cases as follows: (i) that no religion or denomination may receive special support or financial assistance; (ii) that no denomination can be accorded any special status; (iii) that no citizen can be ‘compelled to act contrary to his conscience in so far as the practice of religion is concerned and, subject to public order and morality, is free to profess and practise the religion of his choice in accordance with his conscience’ (Walsh J. in McGee v. Attorney General).

On the other hand the interpretation of these provisions is undermined by the tone of the whole document including its religious references in the Preamble, which dedicates the constitution to ‘the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred.’ In addition, the original wording of article 44 (repealed by referendum in 1972) provided for the ‘recognition’ of the ‘special position’ of the Roman Catholic Church.

These aspects of the Constitution are significant, not for their legal effect (which, it was suggested in a judgement by one Supreme Court judge, was zero), but because they imply and reflected an ambivalence in the national attitude. Ireland might not have been governed, in strict legal terms, by the Roman Catholic Church, but in practice it was much less clear. When Sean MacBridge was elected to Dail Eireann in 1947, his very first act was to write to the then Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, in the following terms:

‘I hasten as my first act, to pay my humble respects to Your Grace and to place myself at Your Grace’s disposal. Both as a Catholic and as a public representative I shall always welcome any advice Your Grace may be good enough to give me and shall be at Your Grace’s disposal should there by any matters upon which Your Grace feels I could be of assistance. It is my sincere hope that Your Grace will not hesitate to avail of my services.’

When a year later the new Fine Gael-led coalition government, of which MacBride was a member, took office, it sent a telegram to the Vatican in which it proposed ‘to repose at the feet of Your Holiness the assurance of our filial loyalty and of our devotion to your August Person.’ This was reflected more recently, as we have just read, in the unwillingness of the Department of Education to address suspicions or allegations of child abuse in Roman Catholic institutions because of the handicap of the Department’s deferential attitude.

In these periods of Irish history, I suspect what was needed in Ireland was not a better legal framework of separation of church and state, but a more emancipated attitude to the relationship. It is perhaps the case that what we had was a national ambivalence rooted in post-colonial problems, which unfortunately created a large group of victims – not just abused children, but arguably women also. It took the country a long time to escape from this position, but arguably that has now been achieved. What we now need to ensure is that the injustices inflicted duiring this time are recognised and, if possible, compensated.

The final victim of all of this is, perhaps, the Roman Catholic church itself. Throughout this period there were also people (including clergy) of compassion and goodwill in the church. Right now that hardly seems to matter, and as the edifice continues to creak and threaten to collapse few of the good things seem memorable to anyone. The final lesson in this is that a deferential attitude by the state and by society to any church is ultimately destructive for the church also. The church will survive, but its position will never be the same again.

Commission on Child Abuse

May 20, 2009

Today has not been a good day for Ireland. Or rather, what we have had to read today tells a painful, harrowing and terrible story about part of this country’s history. I am referring to the publication of four volumes of reports by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. The Commission was established in 1999 by the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, to investigate child abuse over a period of time in institutions where children had been placed and were in care. Overwhelmingly these were institutions owned and managed by religious orders of the Roman Catholic Church. Eighteen such orders made contributions to a redress fund that was set up in negotiations with the state, and some of them offered apologies, though in very different terms between them. A general apology was offered by CORI (Conference of Religious of Ireland) in 2002.

The material contained in the report published today is harrowing, detailing physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and emotional abuse. The volumes of the report describe a system of childcare that had ceased to consider the human dignity of the children in care, even where there were no examples of the more extreme abuse. But actual abuse itself was, we now know, widespread. And because nothing was done about any of this, even when it was known, the report describes a society that had allowed itself to be corrupted, and one in which tackling abuse and cruelty was seen as less of a priority than the maintenance of the established order and institutional deference.

I spent a good part of my youth and early adulthood in Ireland, and they were happy times for me. But even for me some of this now looks corrupted by what I am reading, at the very least because I was part of a society that did nothing to protect the most vulnerable. No doubt we will be able to reflect more positively on the country’s history again, but right now this is a terrible moment. And it is certainly not a moment for any equivocation or any attempts to defend the indefensible. Church leaders in particular must assess again how they believe they can or should exercise authority, and on whose behalf they believe they must act in the first instance. The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, has been a breath of fresh air in these matters; but others have shown far less understanding of the position they are in. But the church could not have done what it did without the complicity of society in general.

It is time for reflect on who we are and what values we hold.