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Why the Irish government attacks the Catholic Church

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 22, 2011

Any Catholic American who lived through the Long Lent of 2002 can sympathize with the beleaguered Catholics of Ireland today. Especially for someone like myself—a native Bostonian, who saw the sex-abuse scandal erupt from a ground-zero perspective—the scenes that are playing out now in Dublin look depressingly familiar.

In Ireland, as in Boston, a society that was until recently dominated by Catholic influence is now in full angry rebellion against the Church. Politicians who curried favor with the hierarchy just a few years ago now compete with each other to take the toughest public stand against the bishops and the Vatican. The media are in attack mode, ready to lash out at any sign of Catholic misconduct, and let subtle distinctions be damned. The public is angry—so angry, in fact, that a remarkable transformation has occurred: Queen Elizabeth is more welcome in today’s Ireland than Pope Benedict.

Catholicism dominated in Ireland much more fully, and far longer, than in Boston. So since the pendulum of public opinion swung, the results have been even far more extreme. Politicians in Boston slapped aside Catholic objections to ratify same-sex marriage, but they have never (not yet, anyway) proposed legislation that would threaten a priest with prison if he refused to violate the confessional seal.

“This is not Rome,” said the Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny, in an angry tirade against the Church. “This is the Republic of Ireland in 2011: a republic of laws.” It seems clear that the Taoisech saw himself as bravely defying the power of the Vatican—although it is far from clear that the Vatican has had any practical control over Irish political affairs in recent years. Kenny’s speech was not logical, nor did his political proposals answer any real need, as we shall see below. The purpose of his broadside, it seems, was not to solve problems for the government but to create problems for the Church. And God knows, the Church has enough problems of her own.

The drama in Ireland includes one element that was missing from the sex-abuse scandal in the US: the presence of an influential and outspoken prelate who has frequently criticized his colleagues for their mishandling of the problem. Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin is himself immune from criticism on the handling of old sex-abuse cases, since he was serving at the Vatican, in offices that had nothing to do with clerical misconduct, until he was sent to Dublin in 2003. Since his arrival there, he has clashed repeatedly with his brother bishops: demanding release of documents, criticizing past administrations, prodding for resignations, and pointedly declining to issue expressions of support for embattled colleagues.

By meeting with abuse victims, underlining the gravity of the problem, frankly acknowledging past failures, and pushing for candor, Archbishop Martin has undoubtedly helped to ease public outrage a bit, and to give troubled Catholics a welcome sense that someone, at least, understands their horror at the stories of betrayal that continue to emerge. Yet the archbishop has been far better at citing problems than finding solutions—far more likely to bewail the past misconduct of others than to show the way forward. "I find myself asking today, can I be proud of the Church that I'm a leader of?” he told an RTE broadcast audience this week. Coming from the Primate of Ireland, that is hardly a statement calculated to boost Catholic morale.

In that RTE interview, Archbishop Martin might have helped to restore a bit of needed perspective to public discussions by challenging some of the illogical points being made by Enda Kenny and his political supporters. The Taoiseach lambasted the Irish hierarchy for not requiring bishops to disclose reports of sexual abuse in the 1990s, when his own government had not made any such requirement until recent weeks. He tore into the Vatican for failing to approve policies that the Irish bishops had devised in 1995, while at the same time making it quite clear that he did not trust the bishops who had drawn up, and would carry out, those proposed policies.

Kenny’s speech was most remarkable, however, in that it focused criticism not on the Irish bishops, but on the Vatican. (As the invaluable Irish Catholic commentator David Quinn has pointed out, hostility toward the Church always emerges as hostility toward the Vatican.) The Irish government leader condemned the Vatican for disapproving of the Irish bishops’ policies without bothering to examine the reasons for that disapproval.

In 1997 the Vatican—or to be more accurate, one office within the Vatican, the Congregation for Bishops—said that the proposed Irish policies did not include adequate canonical safeguards for the rights of accused clerics. As a result, the Congregation for Clergy warned, a priest guilty of sexual abuse might appeal a disciplinary sentence and escape punishment. That is a real, legitimate concern; a fair-minded critic would have acknowledged as much. In his unofficial response to Kenny’s diatribe, Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the Vatican press office, explained that the Vatican’s action in 1997 should not be interpreted as an order to continue covering up sexual abuse.

Nevertheless, a fair critic should also acknowledge that the Vatican response was disappointing—or, as the Cloyne report put it, “entirely unhelpful”—to advocates of real reform within the Irish Church. While the Congregation for Clergy had real enough concerns about the Irish bishops’ proposal, the substance and tenor of the response from Rome (again quoting the Cloyne report) “effectively gave individual Irish bishops the freedom to ignore the procedures which they had agreed and gave comfort and support to those who… dissented from the stated official Irish Church policy.” That too is an accurate assessment.

In appraising the Irish bishops’ policies, the Congregation for Clergy might have pointed out the problems and then offered potential solutions. The Vatican office might have encouraged the Irish hierarchy to refine the proposal before putting it into effect. No such encouragement is evident in the 1997 message from Rome.

Unfortunately, as we now know, there was a serious split within the Vatican, through the late 1990s, on the proper handling of sex-abuse cases. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was pushing for a strong disciplinary response. The Congregation for Clergy, under Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, took a much more casual approach to the problem—as did the powerful Secretariat of State under Cardinal Angelo Sodano. 

The Vatican’s attitude toward sex-abuse cases has undergone two major changes in the past decade: both of them clearly changes for the better. In 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger gained sole jurisdiction for such cases for his Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and began taking every instance of clerical abuse seriously. Then in 2005 Cardinal Ratzinger—who was now even more acutely conscious of the severity of the problem, having sifted through the avalanche of troublesome personnel files coming from the US—became Pope Benedict XVI. Since his election there have been no more examples of Vatican sympathy for priestly abusers and their defenders in the hierarchy.

Enda Kenny, in his outburst against the Vatican, neglected to mention the clear change in policies emanating from Rome—and, for that matter, the clear change within the Irish hierarchy. The errors of the past are gross and undeniable. But are they continuing? The Cloyne report exposed a lackadaisical attitude toward abuse reports in that diocese, as late as 2008. That is appalling. But let’s not forget what happened in the Diocese of Cloyne. Bishop John Magee—a very influential man in Rome, who had served as private secretary to three Popes—was forced to resign in disgrace, even before the Murphy commission began its investigation. In other words, the Vatican took action before the Irish government did.

The Vatican has subsequently accepted the early resignations of three other Irish bishops. More changes may be coming, as the result of an apostolic visitation: a thorough Vatican investigation of the Church in Ireland. The Vatican is now demanding accountability of Church leaders. It can certainly be said that in the past some Vatican officials supported Irish bishops who covered up sexual abuse. Not today.

Why, then, are Irish government leaders lashing out at the Vatican? To gain political advantage? No doubt that is part of the explanation. But I think there is more. I think that Kenny’s fulminations against Roman influence betray a mounting hostility toward the Church which has been growing in Ireland for years, and has only burst into prominence now because of the sex-abuse scandal.

Years from now, I suspect, historians will say that the public influence of the Church in Ireland fell sharply in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal. But that will be a very superficial analysis—just as it is superficial to say that Catholic influence in Boston has plummeted since 2002. In both cases, the public influence of the Catholic Church was manifestly in decline for years before the scandal emerged. Indeed the scandal itself is a manifestation of a deeper problem within the Church. A healthy Catholic community would not accept misguided attacks on the Vatican. And a healthy Catholic hierarchy would not include bishops who believe that welfare of predatory priests takes precedence over that of innocent children.

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Show 8 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: BLRallo3059 - Sep. 03, 2011 12:40 PM ET USA

    It may just be a coincidence but it looks like a goodly number of Irish Catholics have decided to take offensive positions towards their Church ever since they were lost their lower-class-citizen status on the world stage. It wasn't very long ago that Irish Catholics were looked upon as cheap, ignorant laborers, a circumstance that I remember very well growing up. Why is it that when people start to do well, they scorn religion? Maybe a little poverty of spirit is in order.

  • Posted by: loumiamo7154 - Jul. 27, 2011 12:34 PM ET USA

    Yo, bkmajer3729, I've got no problem calling them predatory priests. My point was that the priests were preying on sexually capable "men", rather than pre-pubescent boys--at least that was the case 98% of the time. To me that last sentence just reads too much like an acceptance of the liberal spin that all the cases were men on boys, rather than men on men.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Jul. 25, 2011 7:14 PM ET USA

    Phil's last comment is spot on! It matters not whether the perpetrators are homosexual or not - they gravitated to the Priesthood to hide from dealing with their issues or to hide their issues. In any case, the majority intentionally sought out young adolecent males to take advantage of in immaturity and possibly gullibiity. Predatory is the correct term.

  • Posted by: geraldodoire7287 - Jul. 24, 2011 12:47 AM ET USA

    A very insightful and comprehensive piece by the ever reliable Phil on the factors which have influenced the latest scattergun outburst from the Irish taoiseach Enda Kelly. One can rightly lambaste members of the Irish hierarchy for their appallingly inept responses to allegations and still recognize the lack of perspective in the loud denunciations of the Vatican which are bordering on hysteria coming from the local media.

  • Posted by: loumiamo7154 - Jul. 23, 2011 5:17 PM ET USA

    Good column, Phil, but "welfare of predatory priests takes precedence over that of innocent children", your last sentence, while true, misstates the problem, doesn't it? 98% or more of the abuse cases were homosexual rather than pedophilial, right?

  • Posted by: bsp1022 - Jul. 23, 2011 3:23 PM ET USA

    Just so, Phil Lawler and well said, my friend. Many Irish, myself included, mourn the loss of the demonstrably Catholic ethic that has historically guided our beloved Republic and has given so much to America from the treasure of her ordained sons and religious daughters. In truth, the coming fury which engulfs her now was apparent even at the beginning of JPII's Pontificate. When one rides a Tiger [Celtic, in this case] it can be hard to know where the Tiger will take you.

  • Posted by: quinn1971 - Jul. 23, 2011 8:38 AM ET USA

    Kenny's tirade appears to be a purposeful opening round to completely banish the Church from the public square. I fear the objective is to repeal the Irish constitution's abortion prohibition.

  • Posted by: Steve214 - Jul. 22, 2011 5:50 PM ET USA

    Interesting and valuable thoughts--as always!

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