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Catholic Church and Accountability

Today the Pope has issued his pastoral letter on child sex abuse in Ireland. A lengthy letter (full version published here), it will take time to fully digest and analyse, and indeed this analysis could perhaps focus on numerous different aspects of the letter. In this blog entry I wish to focus on just one issue arising from the letter: accountability. In particular, it is possible through this letter to consider how the Pope appears to believe he and the Vatican connect to current problems in Ireland.

Despite what many may have wished for (the letter being promised since 13 December 2009) this letter does not accept any blame or accountability for the current scandal in Ireland. Instead we see an allocation of blame directly on the priests who offended and some senior members of the Church in Ireland who made leadership mistakes. The fault lies in Ireland, not in the Vatican. The word ‘we’ is nowhere to be seen in the discussions of the Church, the fault, the apology.

I can only share in the dismay and the sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them.

I must also express my conviction that, in order to recover from this grievous wound, the Church in Ireland must first acknowledge before the Lord and before others the serious sins committed against defenceless children.

To my brother bishops It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse. Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations… it must be admitted that grave errors of judgement were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness.

A very direct attempt is being made here to imply that yes, there is a problem in the Church in Ireland but this is not a systemic problem which extends to the Vatican. In any organisation which faces a scandal predicated on misconduct or criminal actions of some members, this approach of accepting that a number of apples were rotten but implying that the barrel is not, is commonplace. If nothing else, the dedication and deference which the bishops of Ireland have shown the Vatican in recent months make it clear that do they do not operate independent of the Vatican. The reality is that even when a small number in an organisation misbehave (and surely the scale in this case is much bigger) they only do so because of a belief that they will not be found out, and if they are, that little will come of it. The priests who abused children and young people in Ireland believed at that time that there would not be investigations or prosecutions. Furthermore, as is becoming clear, bishops were aware of problems and did not act appropriately. In the same way, they could act as such in the belief that the Church would provide protection. Arguably, they have now been proven correct.

I recently invited the Irish bishops to a meeting here in Rome to give an account of their handling of these matters in the past and to outline the steps they have taken to respond to this grave situation

…the task you now face is to address the problem of abuse that has occurred within the Irish Catholic community, and to do so with courage and determination.

…As you take up the challenges of this hour, I ask you to remember “the rock from which you were hewn” (Is 51:1).

…It is my prayer that, assisted by the intercession of her many saints and purified through penance, the Church in Ireland will overcome the present crisis and become once more a convincing witness to the truth and the goodness of Almighty God, made manifest in his Son Jesus Christ.

The Church is displacing the responsibility for both the scandal and the mamooth task of trying resurrect the Church in Ireland on both the Church leadership and, somewhat disconcertingly, the people of Ireland. Missing is a sense of how the Vatican will work with the Church in Ireland to apologise to the victims and work in Irish society to heal the gaping wounds left by the Church in this country. This denial of the influence and involvement of the highest levels of the Church can only impede any possibility of a recovery for the Church in Ireland. It is the Vatican that directs all members of the Church, which dictates how it, as an organisation, should be run, and which establishes the values by which all priests should live. To deny the relevance of this factor is to deny reality. The apology itself to victims does appear to accept the severity of what has occured but again does not acknowledge any role of the Church more broadly in the harm caused.

You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated.

One point which is difficult to understand in the letter is the discussion of social change in Ireland.

In recent decades, however, the Church in your country has had to confront new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularization of Irish society. Fast-paced social change has occurred, often adversely affecting people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values. All too often, the sacramental and devotional practices that sustain faith and enable it to grow, such as frequent confession, daily prayer and annual retreats, were neglected… It is in this overall context that we must try to understand the disturbing problem of child sexual abuse, which has contributed in no small measure to the weakening of faith and the loss of respect for the Church and her teachings.

It appears, though as I say it is not clear, that the Pope is implying that these changes contributed to this crisis. Many, such as Inglis, have argued that the role these changes have had in terms of this scandal is that it has enabled the truth to be disclosed. The demise of the Church, the decline in their authority, has allowed people to speak about the Church in way which did not arise before.

At the end of the day, while the Pope apologises to them, it is unlikely that this letter will satisfy the victims of abuse in Ireland. In terms of moving forward, the Pope speaks of the need for prayer, states that he will host an Apolostolic Visitation to Ireland and mission to be held for bishops and priests in Ireland. He urges those who have abused children to ‘take responsibility for the sins they have committed’, he calls on the Church in Ireland to co-operate with any civil investigations and announces that the Church will conduct an investigation into abuse in Ireland. This final point is unlikely to satisfy victims whose trust in the Church has been shattered. Indeed, the call for abusers to take responsibility is presumably the closest to what many victims would have liked to have seen (a call for Cardinal Brady to resign).

Much more is left to be said, responses to be seen but an initial reaction is that this letter is fails to acknowledge the extent of the problem. Given previous scandals in other countries, and the emerging scandals in yet more, adherence to blame lying at a national level appears more likely to be in defiance of reality.

  1. March 21, 2010 at 6:54 pm | #1

    I absolutely agree Vicky, especially re the misplaced implication that secularisation is somehow to blame. Without secularisation people would, in my view, have found it more difficult to take their complaints to secular institutions such as the Gardai. Another piece of the puzzle here, and one which the Pope could not have veen expected to confront in his pastoral letter, is that by abrogating its responsibility for so many social functions to the Church the Irish state for decades created a situation of loyalty to the Church and not to state. Hence going to the Bishop and not the Garda. Recognising responsibility at the higher levels of BOTH the organisation (here the Vatican) and the State are absolutely necessary if anything approaching an appropriate response in terms of restructuring and understanding how to bring about effective protection is ever to come about.

  2. Vicky Conway
    March 22, 2010 at 8:24 am | #2

    Yes, the link to secularisation kinda baffles me. IN truth secularisation began to occur in Ireland in the mid-1970s and then the visit of Pope John Paul II managed to stave that off for another decade or so. Yet the Commission’s very clearly documented a far lengthier history of abuse in Ireland. The argument he makes here is untenable.

    And yes again, I agree fully as regards the role of the State in giving this authority to the Church. Dev et al being so determined to turn Ireland into their vision of how the State should be (romantic Ireland, island of saints and scholars) that the Church (and I believe the Guards) attained a status that was not just undeserved, but unhealthy. And you are absolutely right. The State will have to face up to its role in this.

  3. March 26, 2010 at 6:39 pm | #3

    Sinéad O’Connor’s powerful column in the Washington Post is a must-read: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/25/AR2010032502363.html?wpisrc=nl_pmopinions

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