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Of weeds and wheat and the troubles of the Church in Ireland

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 18, 2011

At Mass yesterday, as I listened to the Gospel reading, my thoughts turned toward the embattled Catholic Church of Ireland. To be sure, the enemy has had some great success there recently, sowing weeds amidst the wheat. And it seems that leading politicians are ready to adopt the same approach that the imprudent workers advocated in St. Matthew’s Gospel: they are eager to uproot the weeds, even if it means tearing up good wheat as well.

The public outrage is both real and reasonable. Church leaders failed to report the sexual abuse of children, and for that they richly deserve all the criticism they are now hearing. But the proposed solutions—which would include requiring priests to violate the confessional seal—would cause more damage, without addressing the real problem.

The problem exposed by the Cloyne report had nothing to do with confessional secrecy. The bishops and other diocesan leaders who covered for clerical abuse did not learn about that abuse in the confessional; they learned about it in their administrative capacities. A law requiring disclosure of child abuse, with the usual exemption for confessional matter, would give prosecutors all the authority they need to bring charges against any diocesan officials who did the same thing in the future.

Many Irish politicians today are ignoring the inconvenient truth that even if prosecutors had known what was happening in the Cloyne diocese in 2005, they might not have been able to bring charges; the law at that time did not provide a handy means for pursuing those who concealed evidence of abuse. So the law was partially at fault, too—and by extension the lawmakers. By all means, tighten the law to allow full prosecution of those who abuse, and all those who enable them. Certainly, demand accountability from Church leaders. But be careful to distinguish between the weeds and the wheat.

Unfortunately—as we American Catholics learned a decade ago—it is difficult to preserve these distinctions at a time when the media are howling for dramatic action, the politicians are eager to oblige, and the bishops themselves sometimes seem more anxious to avoid bad publicity than to serve the real needs of the faithful.

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  • Posted by: geraldodoire7287 - Jul. 20, 2011 11:38 AM ET USA

    I could not agree more with you Phil, as your wise words echo my sentiments exactly. It appears that Irish politicians are grandstanding in the most shallow way possible in their excoriating denunciations of the Irish Church. I would compare this situation to a person kicking someone when he has already been assaulted and lying prostrate. The Catholic Church in Ireland deserves much of the criticism which is coming their way but pulling up the weeds with the darnel is not the answer.

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