From the editor’s desk
Heinous crimes, grave failures
20 February 2010
It was an unprecedented event in Catholic history. Pope Benedict XVI summoned the entire hierarchy of the Church in Ireland to Rome this week and publicly rebuked them. The sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy was “a heinous crime and grave sin”, he told them. In a statement afterwards, the Vatican made clear it was the Pope’s view that there was no doubt “that errors of judgement and omissions stand at the heart of the crisis”. In other words, it was the bishops’ fault. As inquiry after inquiry has revealed, they consistently covered up the activities of abusive priests to protect the Church’s good name from scandal. The result is a scandal 1,000 times worse, from which the Church in Ireland may never recover.
The one group missing from the dramatic events in the Vatican were the victims, and they ought now to be brought centre stage. They, too, should be invited to meet the Pope, but not just for spiritual consolation. They are owed an apology, and not only on behalf of the Irish hierarchy. The Pope appoints bishops, supervises their ministry, and can discipline them when they err. The hierarchy’s failure is therefore, at one short remove, the papacy’s failure too. Indeed, the crucial link between them, the nunciature in Dublin, has some sharp questions to answer for itself. The present nuncio’s repeated refusal to cooperate with government or parliamentary agencies investigating clerical child abuse is unacceptable.
These Aegean stables must not only be cleansed but be seen to be cleansed, and if that means further resignations, then so be it. There is also need for an affirmation of the Pope’s full confidence in Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, who is under attack by some Irish bishops and clergy for the outspoken line he has taken. If there is one man who can lead Irish Catholicism out of this hideous morass, it is he. Archbishop Martin understands that the root cause of the present crisis was the way the relationship of the Irish Church towards Irish society and culture had become toxic, with an overbearing authoritarianism displayed by church officials towards a cowed and infantilised laity. Indeed, the reconversion of the Church to the Gospel must precede the reconversion of the nation, if it is ever going to happen. For the time being, the Irish Church will have to accept that it may have lost a generation. A sorrowful pastoral letter from the Pope, planned for later this spring, is unlikely to be enough to halt the slide.
Blaming the institution, however justifiably, is no substitute for proper procedures to prevent paedophilia ever taking root in the Church again. Professor Klaus Beier, the head of Berlin’s Institute of Sexology and Sexual Medicine, has pointed out in connection with a similar sex abuse scandal now making headlines in Germany, that clerical celibacy enables a paedophile candidate for the priesthood to keep his inclinations hidden. Better and earlier diagnosis of the condition was imperative, he said. But even this may not go far enough. The Catholic Church’s entire attitude to human sexuality is called into question by such scandals as these. Certainly nothing it says on the subject is likely to carry much weight in Ireland for the foreseeable future. And the fact that that may not be such a tragedy says it all.