On a first reading and leaving aside the inevitable and overdue apology, the striking message of the Popes pastoral letter is that a clean-up is needed to strengthen the authority of the clergy, not dilute it. At the heart of his response is a basic refusal to grasp the full extent of the problem. Conservative as ever and as unquestioning as ever of the traditions, structures and authority of the Church, the Pope blames the swingin sixties for creating a climate of abuse, a turning away from the values of Holy Ireland. Vatican 2 wasnt what we thought it was. From the Pope’s letter
The programme of renewal proposed by the Second Vatican Council was sometimes misinterpreted and indeed, in the light of the profound social changes that were taking place, it was far from easy to know how best to implement it. In particular, there was a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations. It is in this overall context that we must try to understand the disturbing problem of child sexual abuse, which has contributed in no small measure to the weakening of faith and the loss of respect for the Church and her teachings.
The Pope recognises no systemic problem like celibacy, only the faulty application of procedures tucked among them, a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church. But no thought here that the Churchs claim to its own elevated position might be a basic problem. The admission to a sin of clerical pride is welcome though.
Only by examining carefully the many elements that gave rise to the present crisis can a clear-sighted diagnosis of its causes be undertaken and Certainly, among the contributing factors we can include: inadequate procedures for determining the suitability of candidates for the priesthood and the religious life; insufficient human, moral, intellectual and spiritual formation in seminaries and novitiates; a tendency in society to favour the clergy and other authority figures; and a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal, resulting in failure to apply existing canonical penalties and to safeguard the dignity of every person. Urgent action is needed to address these factors, which have had such tragic consequences in the lives of victims and their families, and have obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing.
Here, in addressing the Irish bishops he comes closest to admitting cover up but is unspecific about the remedy. The idea of a wholesale reorganisation of the Church introduced after the bishops visit to Rome isnt developed. This will disappoint many. However Cardinal Brady in introducing the Popes letter refers to it as one small step and Archbishop Martin call it “a further step.” This is unlikely to satisfy many victims.
Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations. I recognize how difficult it was to grasp the extent and complexity of the problem, to obtain reliable information and to make the right decisions in the light of conflicting expert advice. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that grave errors of judgement were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness. I appreciate the efforts you have made to remedy past mistakes and to guarantee that they do not happen again. Besides fully implementing the norms of canon law in addressing cases of child abuse, continue to cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence. It is imperative that the child safety norms of the Church in Ireland be continually revised and updated and that they be applied fully and impartially in conformity with canon law.
Further resignations aren’t mentioned and as far as the Pope is concerned, we may assume that Cardinal Brady is off the hook. His role in reading out the letter on TV suggests he’s staying on. This is probably correct. The whole idea of makng boys swear an oath even if not to undying secrecy was wrong but some confidentiality is needed in such cases before effective action is taken. He was craven for failing to speak out about it earlier but this is not a hanging offence. ” Wounded healer” is a good formulation, provided he gets on with real healing and doesn’t fool himself into thinking it can be limited to more praying. Action may come as a result of a review operation to be conducted by the Vatican. A 21st century Inquisition or Star Chamber? But this is specific to Ireland and implies no wholesale reform where it is equally needed in the opaque and overcentralised systems of the Vatican itself. Physician, heal thyself. The unreformed Vatican is the problem not the solution.
Furthermore, having consulted and prayed about the matter, I intend to hold an Apostolic Visitation of certain dioceses in Ireland, as well as seminaries and religious congregations. Arrangements for the Visitation, which is intended to assist the local Church on her path of renewal, will be made in cooperation with the competent offices of the Roman Curia and the Irish Episcopal Conference. The details will be announced in due course.
As usual, the laity are exhorted, but he makes no suggestion of serious democraticisation. They remain in a supporting role.
The lay faithful, too, should be encouraged to play their proper part in the life of the Church. See that they are formed in such a way that they can offer an articulate and convincing account of the Gospel in the midst of modern society (cf. 1 Pet 3:15) and cooperate more fully in the Churchs life and mission. This in turn will help you once again become credible leaders and witnesses to the redeeming truth of Christ.
This letter however unprecedented, is hardly enough unless followed up more radical measures not alluded to here. so now its up to the State and the people. They have to ask themsleves if they retain confidence in the authority of the clergy over aspects of education and welfare. Why leave it all up to the old man in the Vatican and his immediate cohorts, however contrite they are?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London