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  1. Politics
22 July 2011updated 05 Oct 2023 8:31am

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

By Nelson Jones

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.

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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.

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