Church pays the price for its history of sectarianism and blind arrogance

THE pub culture has been changing in this country in recent years. The drift from the bars is matched only by the drop in vocations and the attendances at Sunday mass, which can probably be attributed largely to the culpable arrogance of prominent church people.

Mercier Press published Pat Walsh’s book, The Curious Case of the Mayo Librarian, this week. It is a timely reminder of the controversy surrounding the appointment of Letitia Dunbar Harrison as Mayo county librarian in 1930. While we have never been slow to criticise the Orangemen in the North for their sectarianism, we have been conveniently blind to our own failings.

Dean Edward D’Alton of Ballinrobe denounced the Local Appointments Commission’s selection because Ms Dunbar Harrison was a Protestant and a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin (TCD).

Some people tried to make an issue of her inadequate command of the Irish language, but Dean D’Alton ridiculed the need to know Irish. “If a farrier looks for the shoeing of horses, he must know it,” the Dean said. “It’s a wonder they don’t require the horse to know it.”

Eamon de Valera, the leader of Fianna Fáil, joined with the protesters who argued that for educational reasons the people were entitled to a Catholic librarian. A Protestant librarian was supposedly not properly qualified to deal with Catholics, any more than a Protestant doctor would be qualified to deal with Catholic patients, according to de Valera.

“If I thought that the principle that the librarian in a Catholic community should be Catholic was a new principle introduced merely to deny a Protestant an appointment, I should vote against it, but I know from my youth that it is not so,” he continued. Catholic communities were entitled to Catholic librarians and Catholic doctors, he contended.

“If I had a vote on a local body, and if there were two qualified people who had to deal with a Catholic community, and if one was a Catholic and the other a Protestant, I would unhesitatingly vote for the Catholic.” Carried to its logical conclusion, his argument would have barred Protestants from virtually every position dealing with the public.

But the Cumann na nGaedheal government tried to hold the line. Mayo County Council was dissolved for refusing to confirm the appointment, and Dunbar Harrison was then formally appointed.

With the roused people of Mayo unwilling to accept her, however, the Government gave her a comparable position within the civil service in Dublin at the start of 1932 in an attempt to prevent the controversy becoming an election issue.

A decade later there was a similar controversy in Galway when Robert Corbett, the master of the Coombe, was appointed professor of gynaecology at UCG.

Bishop Michael Browne of Galway objected to the appointment because Corbett — who was actually a Catholic — had been educated at TCD. Corbett turned down the post because of the bishop’s opposition, and he emigrated instead.

In the 1950s biology students at University College, Dublin needed the permission of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid’s office to check out Darwin’s Origin of the Species from the library. The bishops interfered in political matters at will.

“I, as a Catholic, obey my church authorities and will continue to do so,” Taoiseach John A Costello told the Dáil during the Mother and Child controversy. He was prepared to kiss the Archbishop of Dublin on all four cheeks.

During the Clonlara affair in 1956, Costello responded to a protest from Bishop Joseph Rodgers of Killaloe by writing that he appreciated “the just indignation aroused among the clergy and the people by the activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses”. A local curate had a local group beat up two Jehovah’s Witnesses and burn their literature because they dared to distribute it publicly.

In 1957, the bishops supported the Fethard-on-Sea boycott of Protestant business people after a mother refused to bow to the dictates of a local priest who was insisting she send her children to a Catholic school.

There was also the controversy over the Rose Tattoo play at the Dublin Theatre Festival. The producer was arrested for “producing for gain an indecent and profane performance”. Somebody was to drop a condom on stage. They did not have a condom, so they just pretended to drop it. The case was eventually thrown out of court, but not before the producer had lost his business and his marriage.

The people and politicians slowly began to stand up to the bishops. The symbolic high point came when President Mary McAleese defied Archbishop Desmond Connell who publicly denounced her for taking communion at a Protestant service in Christ Church Cathedral.

In contrast with the earlier gunmen turned politicians who cowered for fear of the proverbial belt of a crozier, President McAleese had the exquisite audacity to intimate where the archbishop could stick his crozier by announcing that she would receive communion in such circumstances again. More than threequarters of the people agreed with her, according to a public opinion poll. These bishops, who set themselves up as the great educators, exhibited a crass arrogance and an insufferable stupidity. They seem incapable of learning themselves. “Public trust has been damaged,” Cardinal Seán Brady told RTÉ this week in reference to the clerical paedophile abuse in Cloyne. “The issue has raised very important questions which must be addressed,” he said. “The first question must always be the suffering of victims.”

If concern for the victims is the first test, then Bishop Magee has clearly failed it. The cardinal stated this week, however, that Bishop Magee has “begun to address these serious issues.”

Could anyone in his or her right mind be reassured now that Bishop Magee had “begun” to address these issues more than a decade after the allegations were made? How long are people going to tolerate that threadbare excuse that the church authorities still did not know how to handle the allegations of sex abuse?

BEFORE these Cloyne cases arose, the Fr Brendan Smyth case had already led to the fall of Albert Reynolds. Anyone who could not learn from that fiasco should not be trusted to learn from subsequent mistakes.

Bishop Magee has been roundly criticised for his handling of priests who were accused of abusing children. Some people will argue the hierarchy has been more interested in protecting the church. In this they have failed miserably. They have really only been trying to protect their own privileged positions.

In the process they have betrayed not only the abused children but also the overwhelming majority of good, decent people who went into religious life to serve humanity.

Cardinal Brady stated that Bishop Magee “should not resign”, but this is no longer the issue. It is patently obvious that he should go because his position is untenable. He may be a very good, decent man, but he has failed as an administrator in dealing with these matters. He has accepted that he mishandled the clerical paedophile abuse. If this happened in many other countries, it would be a police matter, but the Catholic Church was allowed to act above the law here in matters like the sexual abuse of children. The question now is whether Cardinal Brady should go, too?

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