I think perhaps I was hoping for something profound and yet simple, some assurance that a leader who, after all, occupies a special position in the hearts and minds of Irish people really got it, really understood the damage that has been done.
Above all, I think I was looking for a recognition that the church, as well as damaging the lives of so many, had also inflicted deep wounds on itself and its authority.
I was a bit reluctant to write about the papal letter partly because I really want it to offer comfort to those who need it and partly because every time I write anything about the Catholic Church I get abusive letters from a particular priest in Cork. He clearly believes I hate his church. I don’t, although I hate some of the things they’ve done and some of the ways they have used their influence.
But I’ve written here before about the crisis of authority we face in Ireland, and the crisis of values. You don’t have to be a believer to recognise that the Catholic Church has done many powerfully good things over the course of our history and has helped to hold us together during times of great crisis.
The church now faces its own greatest crisis, and I was really hoping the Pope’s letter would be the beginning at least of an attempt to rebuild the trust that ought to exist between church and people. I really wanted to be able to welcome the Pope’s letter as a new beginning.
But reading the letter as a layman, I have to say it was terribly disappointing, and chillingly dishonest in parts. Of course there was much fine language in it, and of course those bits of the letter that were directly addressed to people who had suffered abuse were appropriately apologetic.
It’s to be hoped many survivors of abuse will draw strength and comfort from the recognition of their suffering at the hands of the very people most responsible for their protection.
But there was no sense, where victims of abuse are concerned, that the church will in future, at the direction of the Pope himself, abandon the adversarial tactics that have characterised all their dealings with people who have been abused in the past. Will people still seeking redress and understanding from individual bishops now find it possible to abandon legal routes and seek a straightforward settlement?
Will the bishops now stop turning to lawyers as their first line of defence? There’s nothing in the Pope’s letter to suggest any of that is even under consideration – the repeated references to canon law make that clear.
And right from the beginning of the letter, there is a sense that the Pope has chosen to distance himself and the Vatican from what happened in the church in Ireland. There is an air throughout the letter that he is somehow only just discovering what happened in Ireland and that he is “deeply disturbed by the information that has come to light”.
The tone of this early part of the letter is deeply offensive because everyone knows the concealment of abuse, and the refusal to cooperate in any open way with investigation, has been a Vatican tactic from the very beginning.
The notion that the Pope has had to chastise the Irish bishops for their conduct – as if their conduct wasn’t deeply embedded in church policy – is thoroughly dishonest. There is no difference between “the church” and “the church in Ireland” in this respect, and it is pathetic to pretend that there is.
In fact, this distancing of the Pope from the Irish hierarchy really goes to the heart of the problem. For years some church people (not by any means all) have chosen to regard the whole issue of child abuse as a bit of a public relations disaster rather than the manifestation of corrupt power that it actually is. The suggestion that the entire issue is down to bad management in Ireland is just another expression of that self-serving mythology.
Pope Benedict then goes on to describe the context for everything that has gone wrong. Fast-paced social change, the neglect of sacramental and devotional practices, the secularisation of society – all these are part of the picture, the Pope explains. Although it’s not said in so many words, the inference is that we, somehow, by becoming less committed Catholics, conspired in the spread of abuse.
How? How are these changes part of the picture? How can a church that wielded absolute power, that dictated the lives and morals of its flock, all the while secretly tolerating abuse within its ranks – how can it now claim that a gradual liberalisation within society was part of the context that allowed abuse to flourish?
Isn’t it in fact the case that while religious adherence in Ireland was at its height, the church used the faith to intimidate individuals and their families from reporting abuse and from trying to stop it?
Isn’t it the case that the church used the faith to insist on a deferential, even an obsequious, approach from the civil authorities here? The Ryan and Murphy reports spell out all too clearly that government and public servants alike turned a blind eye to the abuse within institutions and conspired in the silencing of anyone who tried to speak out.
But it was while reading the section of the letter where the Pope addresses what he calls his “fellow bishops” that I couldn’t help feel a chill run up my spine.
“Besides fully implementing the norms of canon law in addressing cases of child abuse,” the Pope tells them, “continue to cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence”.
CONTINUE to cooperate? But there has been only the most grudging, reluctant cooperation. There have been constant arguments about what the norms of canon law mean, and where the competence of the civil authorities begins and ends.
We know only too well that the church in the past has made its own decisions about when to cooperate and with whom. While practice has improved immeasurably in many dioceses, it was only last year the church found it impossible to cooperate with a HSE audit of child protection practice because it would have meant revealing the number of allegations of child abuse they were dealing with (not the names of alleged abusers, mind you, only numbers).
What the instruction quoted above really means is that the Pope cannot bring himself to see that the dancing on the head of a pin has to end.
The abuse of a child is a crime, and the abuse of a child by a priest is a crime that is compounded by the betrayal of trust.
Until that is the core value that determines the behaviour of the church – and until we can see the actions to back that core value up – all the papal letters in the world aren’t going to carry any weight with the people most betrayed by the abusers within the church.