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
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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage