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Vatican report gives blunt assessment of Church crisis in Ireland

March 20, 2012

The Vatican has released a comprehensive report on the struggles of the Catholic Church in Ireland, concentrating on the response to the sex-abuse scandal but also addressing the issue of widespread theological dissent.

The Vatican report, released on March 20, reflected the conclusions of an apostolic visitation that had been ordered by Pope Benedict XVI two years ago. The apostolic visitation involved six different teams, led by prelates from other countries, investigating the four archdioceses of Ireland, the formation of priests, and the religious orders.

The apostolic visitation came as the Church in Ireland faced a storm of criticism in the wake of reports that showed many bishops had failed to curb sexual abuse by priests, protecting the guilty clerics and covering up evidence of their misconduct. In a letter to the Church in Ireland, released on March 19, 2009, the Pontiff had expressed his horror “regarding the sinful and criminal acts that were at the root of this particular crisis.”

The summary of the results from the apostolic visitation echoed that concern, acknowledging “the shortcomings of the past gave rise to an inadequate understanding of and reaction to the terrible phenomenon of the abuse of minors, not least on the part of various bishops and religious superiors.” However, the report also found that substantial progress has been made in recent years to remedy the problem.

The report was particularly strong in its praise for the National Board for Safeguarding Children; it strongly encouraged bishops to continue working closely with the autonomous board. The report called for the development of norms that would allow for the handling of cases in which civil authorities decide not to prosecute a priest who has been credibly accused, and also for the return to active ministry of priests who have been accused falsely.

The visitation also offered some frank criticism of seminary life in Ireland and of the country’s religious orders. The Vatican called for stronger scrutiny of candidates for the priesthood and more attention to the spiritual formation of seminarians. Regarding religious life, the visitation suggested that the Irish orders should undertake a 3-year process of returning to their fundamental charisms and to the Scriptures and teachings of the Church.

Speaking more generally about a climate of theological dissent in Ireland, the report said:

Since the Visitators also encountered a certain tendency, not dominant but nevertheless fairly widespread among priests, Religious and laity, to hold theological opinions at variance with the teachings of the Magisterium, this serious situation requires particular attention, directed principally towards improved theological formation. It must be stressed that dissent from the fundamental teachings of the Church is not the authentic path towards renewal.

The report concluded with an expression of hope that the visitation would contribute to a “process of healing, reparation and renewal which Pope Benedict XVI so eagerly desires for the beloved Church in Ireland.”

Speaking on behalf of the Irish hierarchy, Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh welcomed the report. He voiced the sorrow of the Irish bishops for the damage done to individuals and to the Church by the abuse scandal, saying: “In expressing true sorrow and regret, we make our own the heartfelt plea for forgiveness from the victims, and from God, for these terrible crimes and sins.”

Spokesmen for groups representing abuse victims said that the report did not go far enough. Maeve Lewis, the director of One in Four, said: "The Vatican could have used this document to acknowledge its responsibility in helping to create the culture that led to the purposeful cover-up of the sexual abuse of children, so that the prestige of the Church was protected at the expense of children."

Critics of the Church in Ireland have consistently complained that the Vatican blocked efforts to address the abuse scandal. Prime Minister Enda Kenny made that charge in an angry speech last year, lashing out at the Vatican and prompting the recall of the apostolic nuncio. Vatican officials have staunchly denied impeding the Irish bishops’ reform efforts, and in recent months the Vatican has accepted the resignations of several bishops who were slow to address abuse complaints.

The struggles of the Church in Ireland, and the sweeping criticism of the country’s hierarchy, had given rise to reports that the Vatican might cut down the number of diocese in the country. (There are now 26 dioceses in Ireland: an unusually large number for a country with a population of under 5 million.) The report addressed that question but did not resolve it, saying that “the Holy See and the Irish bishops have already initiated a joint reflection on the present configuration of dioceses in Ireland, with a view to adapting diocesan structures to make them better suited to the present-day mission of the Church in Ireland.”


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  • Posted by: thomas.friel9910 - Mar. 20, 2012 7:24 PM ET USA

    ''Speaking on behalf of the Irish Hierarchy Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh welcomed the report.He voiced the sorrow of the Irish Bishops for the damage done,etc'' Surely this man's handling of recent events in the Irish Church when the Hierarchy collectively dumped this Augean mess at the feet of Pope Benedict,and then to a man,kept their heads down,after Enda Kenny's scurrilous attack on the Holy Father,leaves much to be desired.