Rome has spoken. Or as Olli Rehn might say in his impeccable Latin, Roma locuta est. After the visit of the high-powered Vatican delegation to investigate the Catholic Church in Ireland, in the wake of the child abuse scandal, a summary of their findings was published last Tuesday. It was, of course, a summary so it is difficult to predict what’s going to happen now. It isn’t clear when or indeed if the detail will emerge. There are suggestions that the reports will be kept secret. I hope that doesn’t happen because if we’ve learnt anything at all from the last few decades it is that ‘the culture of secrecy’ – as one senior churchman described it – has served the Catholic Church very badly, not least in the last few decades.
One of the problems with secrecy is that it gives conspiracy theorists a field-day and no matter how bizarre the construction they put on things they can’t be contradicted. It’s understandable that every institution needs it’s ‘in camera’ moments but if people are to buy into the wisdom that’s offered that wisdom has to stand its ground in public. In the modern world there’s no way around that. Sometimes we might prefer if things were different. But there it is.
The clear Vatican endorsement of the child abuse guidelines and protocols is to be welcomed as is the clear recommendation that protocols around the ‘stepping down’ of priests should continue to be refined. This has been a concern for some time as the guidelines and protocols surrounding the ‘stepping down’ of priests after an allegation is made have led to much confusion, hurt and anger.
The unease wasn’t just that the guidelines were being unevenly implemented from diocese to diocese but that they were too blunt an instrument for the specific circumstances surrounding individual cases. It’s generally accepted now that the blunt one-size-fits-all response to every allegation is not fit for purpose. While, of course, child protection standards have to be the highest possible, it’s important that everyone caught in the slipstream of an abuse allegation should be treated fairly, as the Vatican document says ‘for the good of all concerned.’
As a member of the leadership team of the Association of Catholic Priests, we’re very happy with this focus. We asked for a meeting with the Vatican Visitors in each province to impress on them, along with other issues, the concern of priests about current ‘stepping down’ practices. We told them about our concerns in three areas: (i) priests who were accused but the Director of Public Prosecutions had decided not to proceed against them and they ended up in a limbo situation, effectively in a state of permanent suspension; (ii) priests who had been falsely accused but not returned to ministry; and (iii) priests who were guilty of abuse but who were effectively pushed out of priesthood, even though dioceses had a duty of care for them and a responsibility – in terms of ongoing child protection – to continue monitoring them.
Our main point to the four archbishops was that every case where an allegation of abuse had been made against a priest should be examined on its merits. Child protection is, of course, a priority and can’t be compromised under any circumstances but accused priests have rights too and those rights, in law and in justice, should be respected. We told the archbishops that we were unhappy with the way protocols for the stepping down of priests were being implemented in some dioceses and that we felt the protocols themselves needed to be refined.
It was encouraging that the Vatican report accepted our three points and asked that the Irish bishops, Religious Superiors and the National Board for Safeguarding Children should continue to ‘examine and update’ the current protocols.
As an association we were less happy with the recommendations about ‘reforming’ seminaries. While it is not clear what exactly is envisaged, the widely expressed fear is that an effort is being made to separate seminarians from their peers, even possibly to attempt to replicate the closed-in, traditional seminaries of the 1950s. I don¹t think that’s the case on the basis that it is hard to see what sense it makes to ‘form’ student priests in a monastic style life and spirituality if they are to work in parishes later on. Much has been made of the famous new door in Maynooth which was widely believed to reflect this new approach but in fairness to Maynooth and other seminaries, student-priests need their privacy too. ‘Unworldly’ can mean different things to different people.
Towards the end of the document there is a sentence that has caused some comment. It describes ‘a certain tendency among priests, Religious and laity to hold theological opinions at variance with the teachings’ of the Church’. This the document, suggests ‘requires particular attention, directed principally towards improved theological formation.’ While ongoing theological formation is obviously important, some people have wondered what the word ‘principally’ in the last sentence might mean. The media have latched on to it and suggested that there might be criticism of ‘dissident’ priests, Religious and lay-people. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin responded to a question about this at the Maynooth press conference by saying that this didn¹t mean that Rome was going to get involved in what he called ‘heresy-hunting.’ That makes a lot of sense.
I must say I don’t know of any ‘dissident’ priests, Religious or laity. I know a lot of them who have reflected on the wisdom accumulated over lifetimes of service of their Church and who have opinions that they feel compelled to express. That’s not the result of dissidence but loyalty. Confusing the two will only serve to damage the ‘Communion’ that the Vatican document says is needed ‘at a point in (Irish) history marked by rapid cultural and social transformation.’
John Allen, the well-known Vatican correspondent, once commented that part of the problem with church authorities in the past was that if all you had was a hammer, often all you can see is a nail. Times have changed since Karl Rahner, Yves Congar and so many others who became central figures in the Second Vatican Council were disciplined for their perceived ‘heretical’ leanings. I think we¹ve learned enough from our history to know that going back to those days would be a recipe for disaster.
Spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ in today’s Ireland is a difficult and nuanced exercise. We need to respect that complexity. Simple solutions can cause more problems than they solve.