The Vatican and Ireland

A series of abuse and cover-up scandals within the Catholic church has alienated many in in one of its historic heartlands. But the Vatican remains in denial, says Michael Walsh.
Michael Walsh
24 November 2011

Raphoe does not rate high on any tourist trail, though it enjoys a modicum of fame as the site of one of Ireland’s most ancient bishoprics. Its small cathedral is Anglican, but the town gives its name to the Roman Catholic diocese which includes most of Donegal. The seat of the Catholic bishop is no longer there, however. It is now located in Letterkenny, the largest (and, just for the record, officially the tidiest) town in the county.

The cathedral on its hill dominates Letterkenny rather as, for centuries, the Catholic church has dominated Irish society. No longer. The secularism which has spread across Europe may have taken longer to gain a significant foothold in Ireland but, compounded with disillusionment with the church over the scandal of sexual abuse and its subsequent cover-up, it is now rampant.

Just what went on in Ireland’s Catholic institutions, its schools, its convents, its orphanages, has been meticulously, some would say mercilessly, revealed in a series of reports: the Irish government’s wide-ranging Ryan report, the Murphy report on abuse in the Archdiocese of Dublin, the Cloyne report on the eponymous diocese. Now there is to be a Raphoe report. It can scarcely do more damage than has already been suffered by the Irish church. The clergy directly implicated, the bishops accused of failing in their duty of care for the laity under their charge, and for children in particular, may perhaps be a minority, but all have been tainted by the shocking findings of the various commissions of enquiry.

The Dublin speech

Well, perhaps not quite all. Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin since 2004, unlike his predecessors, has been untouched by the scandal. From 1976 he was in Rome, serving first on the Pontifical Council for the Family and then in the much more high-profile post as a member - and eventually secretary - of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. His last Vatican posting was as the Holy See’s representative on various international organisations (the IMF and the World Trade Organisation, for example). He was out of the country during the worst years of sexual abuse and never, as a bishop, implicated in any cover-up.

Quite the contrary. He has been forthright in his condemnation, prepared his diocese to face up to the Murphy report, and has been transparent in his handling of the crisis. He has won praise for his honesty and for restructuring of his diocese to ensure none of the abuse happens again, but, one Dubliner told me, he is still beset by the opposition of many of his clergy and his fellow bishops. And he has stopped short of criticising Rome. He had, after all, been placed in his diocese by the Vatican as a reward for services rendered to the Holy See.

So, for that matter, had Bishop John Magee, private secretary to three popes - though one of them was the short-lived John Paul I. In 1987 he was appointed Bishop of Cloyne, a diocese which covers most of rural County Cork. It has been the Cloyne report, published on 13 July 2011, which has given rise to the most comment - not so much because of the report itself, but because of the twelve-minute speech delivered a week later by the taoiseach (prime minister) in the Irish parliament.

Enda Kenny is customarily described as a practising Catholic, but his words about the church were anything but deferential. "For the first time in Ireland", he said, "a report into child sexual abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic … as little as three years ago, not three decades ago. And in doing so, the Cloyne report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism - the narcissism - that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day. The rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and ‘reputation’".

Apart from the accusation that Magee (who, incidentally, resigned his office in March 2010) had failed to report to the police, as the Irish church’s own guidelines required him to do, the names of sex abusers among his clergy, the report had contained particular criticism of the role of the Vatican. It had indicated to the bishop that it considered the guidelines as only advisory. The report also criticised the lack of cooperation on the part of the Apostolic Nuncio (papal ambassador) to Dublin, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza.

The Vatican report

The Vatican was outraged and in an unusual (for the Holy See) response recalled Leanza "for consultation". It was an overreaction, thought Ivor Roberts, who had served as British ambassador both to Ireland and to Rome. It left the Vatican with no room to manoeuvre. But the Holy See had little choice. The chairman of Kenny’s own party had called for Leanza’s expulsion, another member of parliament had demanded that he be stripped of his role as dean of the diplomatic corps in Dublin - an act which would have contravened international diplomatic protocol. It made Leanza’s position in Dublin untenable.

After his recall, however, Leanza was swiftly reassigned to Prague, no doubt a signal to Dublin that whatever the taoiseach might think, the papal diplomat still had the confidence of his Roman masters. Meanwhile, at his party conference, Kenny vigorously defended his words. "As a member of the Catholic church", he said, "I want to see the church of which I am a member as absolutely above reproach in the issue of this and other areas".

Some saw the Kenny speech as a stratagem for distracting voters from the pain of Ireland’s economic woes. Such doubters were few. Archbishop Martin expressed his dismay and asked for an explanation, but almost all comment in the Irish press was distinctly favourable. In his criticism of the Vatican, I was assured by many to whom I spoke, the taoiseach had at last given the Irish something to be proud of.

While the nunciature in Dublin remains without its nuncio, the Vatican has been summoned before the International Criminal Court by a group of those who had been abused by clergy. Even one of the Vatican’s staunchest allies, John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, thinks it might be a good idea if the Holy See turned up to defend the action. It will not do so. It continues its dysfunctional ways - Enda Kenny certainly wasn’t wrong about that - and for the most part affects to ignore the uproar around it.

A bishop in Kansas City (where, as it happens, the National Catholic Reporter is based) has been charged, not with sexual abuse but with the cover-up subsequent to the abuse. Perhaps that fact will at last shake the Vatican out of its complacency. Though I wouldn’t bet on it.

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