Thirty seven priests gathered at the Charleville Park Hotel for the Munster meeting of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP). Seán McDonagh opened the meeting at 2.40pm. He asked Brendan Hoban to give the background to the formation of the ACP. Brendan spoke about the meeting in Athlone in June 2010, and the decision that was made there to try to set up an association of Catholic priests. He pointed out that the ACP does not set out to represent every priest in Ireland, which would be impossible, given the diversity of views among priests on theological and pastoral issues. The ACP does, however, espouse a reforming agenda for the Irish Church. Most of all, it was set up to give a voice to priests, something which has been lacking for the past number of years. Brendan mentioned that the ACP is not anti-anyone, bishops or others, nor was it a trade-union. It is concerned for the welfare of priests particularly when the civil and canonical rights of priests’ are violated. He highlighted the fact that there are major differences among Irish dioceses in the way priests, against whom allegations have been made, are treated. In some diocese they are given a salary, a place to live and the diocese pays for the costs for lawyers – civil and canonical. In other diocese, such priests are left to fend for themselves. This is unjust and therefore unacceptable to the ACP. Brendan said that the ACP had written to the Nuncio and the Cardinal requesting a meeting with the Visitors who are being sent from Rome to the Irish Church. While the request has been acknowledged, there has been no contact with the Visitors.
Following Brendan’s introduction, Tony Flannery opened the meeting to the priests. He stated that the purpose of this meeting and similar ones was to hear, at first hand, what priests are saying and thinking so that the ACP could represent these views. At that point Tom Hannon suggested that, instead of having people sit in row facing a top table, we gather in a circle to facilitate more sharing. One priest told the assembly that he had met one of the Visitors during the previous week. He felt that the Visitor was attempting to get a wide range of views about the Irish Church, not merely the one which the Bishops might share with Rome. Others felt that it was unacceptable in the modern world to have people coming to do a fact finding tour without publishing their terms of reference, the processes they will use during the visitation, and whether their Reports will be published. Secrecy and fear of offending bishops or superiors were major factors in allowing the abuses to go undetected and punished for so long. Yet, it would appear, that the Visitation is being carried out under the same cloak of secrecy. The bishops need to be much more open about the Visitation if they want it to be fruitful and have people seriously engage with it.
A number of those present spoke about the growing gap between the bishops and the priests. Oftentimes, the relationship is marked by both fear and distrust. Priests are afraid to voice their opinions, because they feel that they will not be supported and may even be reprimanded. Many feel isolated and not valued. Dissatisfied with the way Bishops were chosen was also expressed. Often priests were asked their opinion and then, Rome parachuted someone into a diocese who is completely unknown to the priests or people. This makes a joke of consultation. Given the present situation of the Catholic Church in Ireland with vocations in free-fall and many people not practicing, there is an urgent need for both acknowledging what is happening and attempting to address the Church’s failings in a collaborative way. Others pointed out that there were many good things happening in parishes around Sunday and funeral liturgies and that these positive elements need to be more widely communicated.
One major area of discontent is how accusations against priest were being handled by bishops. One person gave the example of a priest against whom a false accusation had been made and whose name had subsequently being cleared of any wrong doing, However, before being allowed back into ministry he was required to undergo a HSE risk assessment. The person went on to claim that the highest mark that a person will received from the HSE is that they are at low risk of offending. While, on the face of it, this appears to vindicate the priest, a low risk assessment is currently sufficient to bar someone from ministry in some diocese. There was agreement that these kinds of anomalies need to be resolved fairly and quickly.
There was very little enthusiasm for the introduction of the Permanent Diaconate in a number of dioceses. Many who spoke said that, whether it is intended or not, the diaconate which is open only to men, is another example of the Church’s lack of respect for women. Others saw the introduction of the diaconate as setting up another layer of clericalism. According to a few of the participants the real problem was lack of priests to carry on the preaching and sacramental ministry of the Church. Instead of addressing that problem, by ordaining married people, some bishops were introducing the diaconate as a stop-gap measure. One person called on the Church authorities to return to the vision of St. Paul who, when the need arose in a particular Church, he appointed presbyters. Reference was made to Paul’s Letter to Timothy. If body language is anything to go on, this man’s vision of an intimate Church responding creatively to the needs of the people, was enthusiastically received by the majority present. One person disagreed. He claimed that this vision was against the teachings of Vatican II.
There was considerable annoyance at how the new English translation of the Mass had been undertaken, with little consultation with the priests and their congregations. Some felt that it was another example of a controlling Church that did not take its priests or people seriously. While much of the focus was on the unacceptability of the Latinised English in the new translation, one priest pointed out the new Irish version was equally bad. This priest said that the present Irish translation is superior to the new one and therefore should not be dropped. The issue of preparing young people for Holy Communion and Confirmation in the schools knowing that they will probably not practice after receiving these sacraments was also raised. One man quipped that Confirmation now seemed to be the ‘exit’ sacrament from the Church.
The meeting ended at 4.45pm.