Lessons for the Church from recent State scandals?

Interesting how no one seems worried now about REHAB or the CRC.
Hardly a mention now in the media. Even though there are a series of investigations
still to be completed and a lot of loose ends to be tidied up, that’s the
way it works. REHAB and the CRC don’t seem to matter all that much anymore.
Public fatigue is one reason. But, more compellingly, it’s the way media
operate. Things move on. Bigger fish to fry. No matter how important a story
is or how significant its impact, if something more interesting comes around
the corner, a hierarchy of media priorities determines that the old story is
shuffled to the sidelines, out of sight and thus out of mind. REHAB and CRC
will be taken out again and dusted on a bad news day.
In many ways the Garda Siochána is like the Catholic Church. High on the
pecking order for public confidence, admiration, trust. Powerful yet
secretive of necessity, but expected to do the right thing. No one really
questioned the absence of a moral compass. It couldn’t even be contemplated
because the centre is expected to hold. Things only fall apart in
dysfunctional, peripheral bodies. As Lord Denning famously suggested in
another context, the alternative would be too ‘appalling a vista to
But, like the Catholic Church, An Garda Siochána lost the run of itself. The
arrogance of ‘touch-me-not’ power overwhelmed the wisdom of the age.
Remember Charlie McCreevy jeering in the Dáil at the modern goddess, OTA –
openness, transparency, accountability – so indiscriminately worshipped? It
was great fun but, in retrospect, that brazen attitude was part of the
Institutions, especially powerful institutions, often justify operating in
part at a furtive, confidential level. And the nature of the work can create
an ethos where knowledge and decision-making
are reserved for the very few.
This in turn creates a garrison mentality, Us against Them. And leads to a
circling of the wagons. Or a digging of the moats. And when questions have
to be answered, information is measured out in small doses. You didn’t ask
the right question, is often an official rejoinder.
An Garda Siochána and the Catholic Church share another characteristic. Both
operate mainly at a personal level with one individual representing a
powerful institution and the other on his or her own. The encounter, in
terms of the status of the individuals involved, is necessarily uneven. And
in such circumstances, power can be abused very easily.
Coming around a corner a Garda squad car waves you down. And even though
everything is in order – tax, insurance, driving license, no bald tyres, no
green diesel – the heart hops a bit as a torch shines in your eyes and a voice
behind a uniform asks for your name, where you’re coming from and where
you’re going.
The power balance in the encounter is so one-sided that you can feel
diminished by the experience, an unexpected vulnerability that’s exacerbated
if you imagine you’ve something to hide.
Church encounters can be the same. I remember as a little child a priest
using his power and position to verbally diminish me before my friends. I
was only about 9 at the time but the memory is as sharp today as it was
then, even to recalling the exact words he used.
Later I realised that individuals, who often lack a sense of personal worth
themselves, are attracted to institutions (like An Garda Siochána and the
Catholic Church) where they can piggy-back on a power they could never earn
on their own. Thick Gardaí and thick priests have a lot in common.
After Garda Commissioner Callinan appeared before the Public Accounts
Committee, it was clear that instead of batting arguments away, he
effectively invited a new raft of questions.
One problem was with his attitude. He kept talking about ‘my force’ and ‘my
officers’ and it grated on all those who believed that An Garda Siochána was
‘our force’ and ‘our officers’.
Another was his naive argument that because there were only two
whistle-blowers in a force of 13,000 (or whatever) that this indicated that
the problem was miniscule. And, by implication, that the two Gardaí involved
were unrepresentative of the mind of the force.
The more difficult truth is that most Gardaí are like most priests: they
know what’s wrong with their institution, they know how it can be put right
and can talk at great length about it (if they can get anyone to listen to
them) but they won’t say it themselves. And if there is no structure to
facilitate members expressing their own truth then those with the courage to
say the hard word are easily dismissed as trouble-makers.
Leaders of institutions that function the way An Garda Siochána (and the
Catholic Church) often function won’t convince the public. Because to
demonise whistleblowers simply enhances their status in the eyes of the
public and convinces neutral observers that they’re probably right.
Whistle-blowers in great institutions should be unambiguously cherished
because they are part of the machinery needed to make things work. Martin
Callinan would still be the Garda Commissioner if he had recognised that
simple truth. He should have welcomed criticism, created a platform where it
was given the attention that was its due and enhanced the reputation of
‘our’ force in the process.
Instead his actions as a Lone Ranger and those of his Tonto (Mr Shatter)
have undermined public confidence in An Garda Siochána, lowered the morale
of the members of the force and, unintentionally, ensured that a
root-and-branch reform of the Gardaí is now inevitable. God works in strange
I won’t spell out the implications for the Catholic Church of leaders
refusing to listen to the equivalent of whistle-blowers. Or the failed
strategy of dismissing them as trouble-makers.
That’s for another day.

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  1. Just be thankful your Garda officers don’t have Glock 17 pistols on their belts like the PSNI. That is a really significant power imbalance!

  2. Comparing the leadership of the Catholic church to gardai is very apt. They’re establishment men and they’re capable of changing nothing. A few weeks ago we cleebrated St Patrick’s Day. St Patrick and those who worked with him transformed Irish society. St Patrick was an outsider. He had a vision. He wasn’t crippled by the values of his upbringing or the values of Irish society or a power fixation. If you put the present leadership of the church in the position of St Patrick and ask them to do what he had done they would not achieve much. Perhaps the old ways are finished.

    1. Father Kilian Byrne says:

      Yes, if you read his Confessio you will see that it begins with a true confession of his sinfulness and that his ‘vision’ came from a faith informed by the supernatural. A rarity today, even among priests.

  3. Sean O’Conaill says:

    Jesus was crucified because he was a whistleblower against religious hypocrisy and injustice – but we will wait forever for an encyclical to tell us this – or to admit that Jesus tells us that himself when he says he has ‘overcome the world’ (John 16:33).

    To overcome the world is obviously to overcome our greatest fear – the fear of ‘what people will think’ if we do speak truth to power.

    St Ignatius of Antioch had obviously overcome that very same fear when he was making his way to the Colosseum c. 107 CE – two centuries before the inauguration of Christendom by Constantine. The recent BBC series ‘Colosseum’ clearly admits that it was Christian martyrs such as Ignatius who undermined the might-is-right ethos of that central Roman arena, making it eventually a neglected ruin – because they believed that the power of the truth of Jesus’ resurrection was greater than the power of Rome to kill them.

    And Ignatius’ letters (written on that journey) show also that his faith was creedal. Christendom did not invent the Creed but instead it undermined it by making the clerical church itself a broker of power. After Augustine of Hippo justified coercion of Christian dissenters, the Donatists, in 408 CE it was to take until 1965 for Vatican II to contradict that by insisting that the truth cannot be conveyed by coercion. That was far too late to stem the rise of relativism, and we are still suffering the consequences of what Pope Francis has recently called the ‘immorality’ of the Inquisition.

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