Is the Irish Catholic Church Starting to Listen?

As the Irish Catholic Church has stumbled through the aftermath of the sexual abuse scandals, one of the major complaints has been that the hierarchy has not and will not listen to the people in the pews.

In media coverage of Vatican attempts to manage the scandals, or of meetings of victims and survivors with clerics, victims/survivors say that they are not satisfied with the way the representatives of the Church have responded to them.

To take one example, after talks between the Pope and Irish Bishops in Rome last February, Andrew Madden, the first person in Ireland to publicly file a lawsuit against the church, simply said that survivors had been completely ignored. Similarly, some victims/survivors, like Colm O’Gorman, were outraged by the content of the Pope’s Pastoral Letter to the Catholic Church in Ireland.

I think that this lack of listening – whether perceived or real – has been behind the actions of people like Jennifer Sleeman, who called for a one-day boycott of mass across Ireland; or the people who organised the baby shoe protest at Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral last year. If you feel like the ‘leaders’ of your Church won’t listen to you, you have to take desperate measures.

The island of Ireland is currently experiencing an ‘Apostolic Visitation’, perceived by some as the Vatican’s genuine attempt to start seriously addressing the breakdown in the Irish Catholic Church, and seen by others as a cynical public relations exercise.

The Apostolic Visitors were in Northern Ireland late last month, and in the media coverage of that event I was struck by what was, for me at least, the first time I heard a victim/survivor comment favourably on a meeting with a high ranking cleric. As reported on Global Gateway:

The victims had initially believed the event was just for show, but as they emerged from Dromantine Retreat Centre after the meeting, they said their voices were finally being heard after all this time.

One of the victims Margaret McGuckin who experienced abuse at the Nazareth Sisters orphanage in Belfast said: “We went in a bit doubtful, but we do know that we had his ear. It’s important we are being listened to because we were never listened to all our lives. That is another abuse in our lives, it’s like being shunned, rejected all over again – made fun of and ridiculed. Now we’ve had enough of that.”
“We told him that we really needed someone that we could trust, someone that was really going to deliver for us,” she added.

I think it’s significant that some of these victims/survivors at least felt that they were listened to this time. That’s a small but significant improvement in communication, though we will have to wait and see if this ‘listening’  has a more far-reaching impact on the high-ranking clergy or even the Pope.

In addition to the Apostolic Visition, on 2 February the Diocese of Down and Connor began an official ‘Listening Process,’ with a Commissioning Service in the Good Shepherd Church, Belfast, for laypeople who have been trained to facilitate it. The initiative was launched with a letter from Bishop Noel Treanor, who said:

The purpose of this Listening Process is to give a voice to the People of God – parishioners, clergy, religious and those who live the monastic life –  in regard to the ways  in which we celebrate, pray and live the Christian faith. As we address the need to renew our response to the Word of God in the life of the Church and in society, it is vital that parishioners have an opportunity to express their views and be heard.

Though the letter doesn’t specifically mention the scandals, it includes a line that says:

I also invite all whose experience has caused them to become angry or disaffected with the Church to consider taking part in the process.

The Listening Process is intended to culminate with a Diocesan Congress at Pentecost 2013, where a ‘roadmap for the future’ and ‘pastoral priorities’ will be set out.

The Diocese of Down and Connor has published a full list of the dates and locations where the Listening Sessions will take place.

Veritas, a Catholic blogger from Co. Antrim, offers this evaluation of the Listening Process:

I believe there will be, broadly speaking, three types of response to this unprecedented invitation:

(1) Those with keen expectation and reasonable level of hope that they will be listened to and their suggestions/ criticisms/ grievances taken seriously.

(2) Those that have less hope that things will change any way quickly but who think it’s a worthwhile venture nonetheless.

(3) Those that, whether because of hurt, indifference, lack or loss of trust, or total cynicism will decide it’s not for them, with one friend viewing it as a PR exercise, a last ditch attempt by the church to slam on the brakes.

I would add a fourth response:

(4) Those that think that the exercise is slightly more than a PR exercise, but think that it is a rather meaningless ‘consultation’ exercise – somewhat akin to Northern Ireland’s seemingly now defunct Consultation on Dealing with the Past. Ideas will be taken onboard (maybe even written up in a Report!), but then ignored by the people with the real power to change something.

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com