TERRY PRONE: Seven-page report urges members to find their voice

ALTHOUGH the summary of the findings of the apostolic visitation to Ireland is a scant seven pages long, and although it is predicated on the “sinful and criminal acts” at the root of the clerical child sex abuse crisis, it nonetheless finds space on its final page for a statement which doesn’t directly link to the rest of the document.

Just one sentence: “Finally, the visitation attested to the great need for the Irish Catholic community to make its voice heard in the media and to establish a proper relationship with those active in this field, for the sake of making known the truth of the Gospel and the Church’s life.”

It’s not an attack on media, although it is likely to be so interpreted, in the light of the way all mass media have worked to reveal the details of clerical sex abuse, and in the light of comments made to members of the delegation about the ferocity of the coverage, as experienced by religious who felt tainted by association with the cases cover-ed, particularly in television programmes.

However, what this one sentence indicates is the identification of the absence of the voice of the Irish Catholic community in media, which has been profound since the media blitz on clerical child sex abuse and institutional abuse first began.

It was not always thus. In the 1960s, the Catholic Church, mainly through the pioneering work of two priests, Fr Joe Dunne and Fr Peter Lemass, copped on to the importance of having a voice in what was then the emerging “new media” of television. The hierarchy set up the Catholic Communications Centre to train the hierarchy, priests and religious in how to spread the word of the Gospel through radio, television, and print. The immediate outcome was a generation of religious figures who became household names and identifiable faces, not just in the celebration of Mass or as guests on religious programmes, but as confident, competent contributors to programmes such as The Late, Late Show and others.

That had its downsides, not least of which was the glorification of populist figures who did not set out to inform and educate, but mostly to entertain and, in the process, promote their own brand, and reached its nadir in the priests-as-showband-stars era. But the fact is that for two decades, the Church was present in every debate on every social issue. Not just present, but interesting and influential.

That faded, assisted by the scandals involving two of the most popular Church/media figures, Bishop Eamon Casey and Fr Michael Cleary. It faded just on the cusp of the worst public challenge to the reputation and public perception of the Catholic Church in Ireland — at precisely the time, in other words, when fearlessly lucid media spokespeople were what the Church needed. A few survived, but — like Fr Peter McVerry — tended to be painted into one particular corner, their very credibility in that corner depending on their perceived maverick status within the wider church.

As a result of a confluence of factors, when the scandals of the last decade hit, the Catholic Church, in terms of mainstream media — the media from which most people still get their impressions and information — was largely silent.

When it appeared, it came in “doorstep” interviews, which by their nature tend to incriminate those doorstepped, or in written statements, which created emotional connection neither with victims of abuse or with the stunned “faithful faithful”. Television and radio would have welcomed speakers from the Church, but those who might have served that function were understandably terrified by the white-hot outrage expressed on television and radio programmes, and (rightly) anticipated that if they tried to do anything other than repeatedly apologise, they would be seen as colluding with the offenders and further damaging victims.

Although the Church has always talked about the primacy of lay people, the reality is that it had never stumped up to train lay spokespeople as it once had to train its own priests and religious, and so potential lay speakers were few and far between.

The visitation does not say the Church has been silenced. It does, however, draw attention to the lack of a voice. And for the need — “the great need” — for this to be corrected. They don’t say how this voice should be recovered. That’s up to the Irish Church. It will be interesting to see if the Church can now muster the practical initiative and understanding of mainstream and new media to enable it to recover its voice.


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