Is this the end of Catholic Ireland?

Along with horror and disgust, it's possible to detect in the reaction to the scandal something appr

Imagine a country whose police and politicians had for decades been in thrall to a foreign-owned multinational controlled by an autocratic octogenarian. For years, political leaders paid homage to the aged boss, believing his backing essential to their pursuit of power, as though he held a mystical sway over public opinion. The organisation claims to be working for the public good, yet some of its employees, it is now clear, have engaged in practices that the public naturally finds abhorrent.

Many of these crimes have been known about for years, and a few offenders have even been sent to jail. But senior executives have indulged in numerous cover-ups, obstructing justice and even colluding with corrupt police officers. At the very top, the leadership has claimed not to have known what was going on. Action has been limited mainly to belated apologies and expressions of regret, even as the scandal has spread to subsidiaries throughout the world. It won't wash. Riding the wave of public indignation, politicians are finally queuing up to denounce the very organisation whose approval they once abjectly sought. The prime minister himself has led the charge.

No, I'm not talking about Rupert Murdoch, though the News Corp boss does have financial and personal links with the organisation in question. The crimes of paedophile priests vastly exceed phone-hacking at the News of the World, of course; so much so that even to raise the comparison may seem offensive. But then the power of the Murdoch empire in Britain, even at its height, even in the most fevered imaginings of his enemies, was a little thing when compared with the dominance that the Roman Catholic Church once exercised over minds and lives of the people of the Irish Republic.

Not so much any more. As the Taoiseach said in his extraordinary speech to the Dáil on Wednesday, this is no longer "industrial-school or Magdalene Ireland, where the swish of a soutane smothered conscience and humanity and the swing of a thurible ruled the Irish-Catholic world." Even before the abuse scandals, that Ireland was already receding into history, its fate sealed not by the misbehaviour of clergy but by the inevitabilities of economic and social change.

What has died as revelation has followed shameful revelation has been not just Catholic Ireland itself but nostalgia and respect for what Catholic Ireland represented. Along with horror and disgust, it's possible to detect in the public reaction to the scandal something approaching a sense of liberation.

There was, at any rate, something histrionic about Enda Kenny's phraseology, as though he were not merely drawing attention to a series of institutional failings but mounting a one-man Reformation. In words that (as Cranmer points out) might have been written by Ian Paisley, this practising Catholic condemned "the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day"; spoke of Ireland's "abhorrence" of Vatican policy and actions; and denounced "the delinquency and arrogance... of a particular kind of 'morality'" which the institutional Church represents.

Fair enough, you may think. I am certainly no apologist for the Vatican, still less for its incompetent and, yes, often obstructionist handling of the abuse crisis. The Cloyne report, released last week, is indeed highly critical of Rome's approach to the issue, singling out a letter from the Papal Nuncio which implied that policies adopted by the Irish church in 1996 to deal with paedophile priests were contrary to Canon Law. This letter, the report notes, "greatly strengthened the position of those in the Church in Ireland who did not approve of the Framework Document as it effectively cautioned them against its implementation."

Yet it's also clear that the abuse crisis neither started nor ended with failings at the Vatican. The Cloyne report (available in full here) describes the mishandling of abuse cases during the past fifteen years in one small, mainly rural diocese centred in County Cork. It also criticises the response of the police and the civil authorities and suggests that the law remains inadequate to the task of properly protecting children from potential abuse. It even goes so far as to praise the guidelines contained in the 1996 Document as "far more stringent that those adopted by the State."

The problem, needless to say, was that the Framework was not being followed - especially not in the Cloyne diocese where a fatal combination of laziness, willful blindness to the facts and foot-dragging meant that abuse cases were dealt with inadequately if at all. The report depicts a Father Ted-style world of clerical amateurism and borderline stupidity presided over by a lackadaisical bishop who has himself faced accusations of inappropriate conduct.

Here's how a key witness described Bishop John Magee's general approach to priestly abuse:

If a case had come up, the bishop would say, "Oh yes, get on to Denis to cover that."

"Denis" was Mgr Denis O'Callaghan, the bishop's right-hand man and the cleric charged with investigating child abuse within the Cloyne diocese. He is the villain of the piece. Far from following the guidelines, he did his best to ensure that they were never implemented. He claimed to dislike the "rule-based" approach the Church had adopted. He especially disliked the rule that instructed church officials to report potential offenders to the police. In one case, he tried to have an allegation investigated by a police officer known to be sympathetic to his views. Shockingly, or unbelievably, neither he nor Magee appears to have read a report into priestly abuse that they themselves had commissioned.

The situation persisted as late as 2009, when Magee was first sidelined and then removed from office. The Vatican's own role in this was somewhat marginal. Apart from the Nuncio's letter, which encouraged those who, like O'Callaghan and Magee, objected to the Irish church's attempt to clean up its act, the report's main criticism is that that the Vatican declined to respond to requests by the Commission for assistance.

The Vatican has, indeed, failed miserably in the past and continues to act with more defensiveness than true penitence. Such institutional failings, however, are a symptom of a deeper problem. The Catholic Church claims to represent God. Individual priests may commit grievous sins but the church itself is the infallible embodiment of absolute truth. As the then Cardinal Ratzinger himself put it in a 1990 document quoted disapprovingly (and out of context) by the Taoiseach, the Catholic Church is "the sole authentic interpreter of the Word of God, written or handed down, by virtue of the authority which it exercises in the name of Christ."

How can any institution teach that, expect people to believe it, and not be prey to corrupting arrogance? And can some of the blame be attached to the faithful for believing in it for so long? Any other organisation, revealed to have had, over decades, an official policy of covering up such vile crimes would be disbanded, its leaders put on trial, its assets seized. No decent person would want anything to do with it. Rupert Murdoch felt in necessary to close the News of the World. Even now, even in Ireland, no-one is quite suggesting that fate for the Roman Catholic church.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.