Priests need to stand up for themselves

Some months ago I wrote an article in The Furrow on Irish clergy today. I called it ‘Disenchanted Evenings’, a title I felt mirrored the mood among Catholic priests at the present time. In the introduction I described Catholic priests in Ireland now as ‘the most pitied, patronised, insulted, isolated, disrespected, neglected and uncared for phalanx of Catholic clergy in recent Irish history’. Some people dismissed that comment as exaggerated. I believe it stands its ground.
Because while it seems every two-bit journalist trying to make his or her way in the world is happy to use the Catholic Church and especially Catholic priests (and bishops) as a soft target to establish their credentials, it’s quite a different matter when a long established newspaper like The Irish Times allows itself to be used to disparage, diminish and insult every Catholic priest in Ireland.
The Irish Times, once a Protestant paper with an unease and suspicion of all things Catholic, has long outgrown that sectarian and sometimes bigoted stance. It has established itself as a prestigious ‘paper of record’ and it confidently highlights its journalistic standards at every turn. Indeed sometimes readers have felt that when the Grand Old Lady of Tara Street preaches about ethical standards she has something of the preciousness of a princess about her.
In a recent Irish Times cartoon by Martyn Turner three ‘singing’ priests outside a confessional indicated their reservation about breaking the seal of confession in the matter of the mandatory reporting of child abuse. Turner had them singing ‘I’ll do anything for children (but I won’t do that)’. And in the bottom corner was an addendum: ‘But there is little else you can do for them (children) except stay away from them’. That codicil effectively alleged that every priest in Ireland was a danger to children.
The response, though muted enough in the circumstances  – after all, who would defend priests publicly now? – led to an Irish Times editorial in which it indicated that it apologised for the hurt caused by ‘a regretted editorial lapse’. ‘Civilised debate’, the editorial continued, ‘requires the eschewing of ad hominem argument, playing the ball, not the man, and avoiding crude stereotyping’.
Fair enough and credit where credit is due but the truth is that if you get used to playing the man, it’s understandable if the finer points of the game get moved to the side-line and spectacular lapses in judgement and standards ensue. (That’s why the GAA introduces the Black Card).
While it’s understandable too that mistakes are made, or as the editorial puts it ‘things fly under the editorial radar’, if the debasement of a group like Catholic priests is taken for granted, the radar is usually not as carefully patrolled as comments about, say, the sometimes litigious businessman Denis O’Brien. The truth is that in Ireland now, as many have noted, Catholic priests are the only group that can be reviled so publicly.
It’s difficult to imagine a similar cartoon blanketly accusing Protestant ministers, or Muslim clerics or Jewish rabbis as opportunist criminals. Or demonising every last member of any other ‘lay’ professional group for the sins of the few.
It was indicative of the seriousness of the charge and the build-up of frustration among Catholic clergy at the incessant punch-bag tactics of the media that the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) issued an unusually forthright statement protesting ‘in the strongest possible terms at this unacceptable slur on the Irish priesthood’. Not a body given to simplistic stances or knee-jerk reactions to tabloid slurs, the ACP – representing as it does over 1000 Irish priests – felt obliged to respond. Not reacting would have been a virtual acceptance of the truth of the slur.
There’s a positive side to what the Irish Times must regard as (for them) something of an embarrassing debacle. It’s about the growing sense of the need for priests to stand up for themselves, to question the culture of apology that so many now take for granted, to refuse to allow anyone and everyone to drag us through the mire without claiming our right to our good name as people and as citizens, to question the wisdom (even the biblical wisdom) of always and in every circumstance turning the other cheek.
That’s not to say that in certain circumstances apologies are not in order. Of course, they are, minimal and all as they sometimes seem. And as a Church and as a priesthood we have much to apologise for. But there comes a point at which we need to assert our individual, human and civic rights, even in the face of what seems like an ever-growing tsunami of public disgrace and condemnation.
That’s not to say either that Turner’s folly should diminish the need for the media to analyse and dissect public issues, including the crimes and misdemeanours of individuals and institutions. And it’s not to compromise the importance of satire in the public forum. But it’s to say that when a line has been crossed and those who publicly hold the higher moral ground are seen to have spectacularly failed to live up to their own standards that the hard truth should be named – in everyone’s interest.
While the right to free expression is important and should be defended, it’s not an absolute right. And those who are prepared to hurt and offend should not see it as a fail-safe or catch-all defence for their bigotry, of whatever hue. If saying about a named individual priest that he is a danger to children is defamatory, what do we call saying the same thing about every priest in Ireland? Satire?
If the Irish Times defamed one priest by name they would have to part with a considerable sum of money to help right the wrong – as RTE had to do when Fr Kevin Reynolds was defamed by the RTE PrimeTime Investigates programme. But when the Irish Times defames every priest in Ireland, an apology suffices?
So maybe the other side of this coin is that Turner’s infamous cartoon may help the progressively disenchanted Catholic clergy to find their own voice, to stand up for themselves, especially when no one else seems ready to accept that poisoned chalice.
As priests we need to say clearly and unapologetically that, as only a small minority of Catholic priests have abused children (terrible and shameful though that is), that it is a grotesque injustice to tar everyone with the same brush. When will the media get it?

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  1. They certainly do need to assert themselves and not be brow-beaten or manipulated by anyone including bishops and Vatican functionaries.

  2. Tony Conry says:

    We priests have a long history of service to the Church and to humanity in general, a history we can be justly proud of. We have always been, and continue to be, the hewers of wood and the drawers of water, the lowest rung of the hierarchical ladder, the buffer zone of a system not of our making or of our preference. Few bodies have served the Irish Nation with such competence and dedication over its long history. In its often turbulent history and in times of tragedy we were always at hand. The Old Priest Peter Gilligan never abandoned his flock or ever will. It is part of our ethos, who and what we are.
    I have just finished reading for the second time the story of an extraordinary personality, a Cork diocesan priest who arrived in Sydney in 1820 as first chaplain to the colony (mainly penal). The book called John Joseph Therry, a Meddling Priest (Paulus, 2000) has a relevant message for everybody today, lay and clerical. His story in the rough and tumble of a birthing nation is not unlike the story of most priests at the coalface. Thank God that we have priests in Ireland today who are ready and able to bring the Good News to a nation in a process of rebirth.
    Tony Conry.

  3. Ed Flaherty says:

    Priests need to stand up for themselves … but not just to journalists, but to bishops and the church hierarchy. I can understand a Catholic priest being upset with the publicity associated with the church’s sex abuse scandal, and certainly it is a minority of priests. But this scandal, because it gets all the publicity, needs to be the catalyst for change within the church. Any organization that fears change would be subject to scrutiny and criticism. Everyone knows the church needs to change. Apparently the laity lacks a voice because they have been voting with their feet … not attending Mass. We need the priests and bishops to rally to get the church to change. Any all-male celibate organization or any organization that discriminates against women and married men needs to be subject to scrutiny and criticism. Any organization that did not report a crime should be subject to scrutiny and criticism. Any organization that has an isolated and outdated management structure is subject to scrutiny and criticism. It is inexcusable and shameful how the church has handled the sex abuse scandal … and it is time that we all spoke out for change.

  4. Ed Flaherty, I saw the excellent programme on RTE about the Cistercian nuns at Glencairn. Now am I being discriminated against because I can’t be a nun? Hardly. Likewise with the priesthood. Different vocations for different people in the Church. Just as a man can’t be a sister, so too a woman can’t be ‘Father’. It’s just common sense.

  5. Joe O'Leary says:

    It is easy to stand up for good priests of the past, but we need to stand up for flawed priests of the present — despite the shrapnel from SNAP types. I think most priests are absolutely terrified of speaking up for themselves or their confreres.

  6. Joe O'Leary says:

    I caught a misrepresentation of ACP on the NCR website: “When I was in Ireland last summer, an Irish priest organization denounced the isle as a land of pagans. It blamed prosperity rather than scandal within the clergy for collapse of the church’s once almighty power. A public statement that arrogant and clueless strongly suggests that the priests of Ireland are still firmly in a state of denial.” (Steven Shea)
    I answered: “Did the ACP “denounce the isle as a land of pagans”??? I read your link and this is what it says:
    “A report from the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) also claims there is a strong view AMONG ECCLESIASTICAL AUTHORITIES authorities that falling vocations and Mass attendance figures are a result of people “not having time or interest in faith”, rather than as a result of any of the clerical sex abuse scandals to rock the Church.”
    The general tenor of the piece is that the ACP are criticizing the ecclesiastical authorities, the bishops.
    “The report said there seems to be a substantial number of bishops, and some priests, who believe that the problems facing the Church are not due to any difficulties in the Church or with the priesthood, but are caused by a lack of faith in the people.”
    “The people, they told us, have bought into the evils of materialism and consumerism, and don’t have time or interest in faith any more,” said the report.
    “They have, to all intents and purposes, become pagan. And they believe that ‘evangelisation’ is the answer. It is a convenient belief, in that the blame lies elsewhere than among ourselves. We consider there are real problems here for the Irish Church.”
    THE ACP are CRITICIZING the conservative diagnosis of paganism, not promulgating it as you falsely stated. Had I not noted your report it would not doubt have circulated as another anticlerical and anti-Irish meme.
    Please add your voice here: http://ncronline.org/news/accountability/irish-safeguarding-board-plans-follow-pope-and-kick-fuss#.U2JzNR1G3oc.twitter

  7. Association of Catholic Priests says:

    As ever Brendan Hoban’s words in The Western People hit the right note. Priesthood is in crisis and I believe that there is an current agenda, I think in many ways it is particular to Ireland, amongst the other countries of Europe, and not only Priesthood but of anything that pertains to the living faith tradition of the majority of the population of our land. Only very recently one radio presenter had to give reasons as to why he had chosen to play ” Bring Flowers of the Fairest” on May !st. In applying for a position in one of our universities one lay applicant had included in cv, a theological degree, this was publicly questioned on line as another Church attempt to control. I am open to correction but I do not think that the position applied for was to do with theology and in fact the person who applied was not in fact a Roman Catholic but a member of another Christian faith tradition, not that that should be any obex to that sought position, but I believe that the applicants faith tradition was mistakenly believed to be Roman Catholic and because of that it was questioned.
    But Priesthood itself? St. Augustine had a phrase ” homo incurvatus in se”, the human being turned in on itself. Luther was to use this phrase years later and he ( Luther) wrote: ” It is when we all play safe that we create a world of utmost insecurity….It is in the ‘ dark shade of courage’ alone that the spell can be broken.” ( Lectures on Romans, Vol.25.) Safety, not standing up for each other, not being there for another cocoons us in safety…..but at a cost. We suffer, the Body of Christ suffers because of that turning in of self. I also believe that if the Priesthood were a life- choice available to women we would have less cowardice amongst us. ” I deliberately use those words ” life-choice” rather than vocation as I believe that many woman do in fact have a vocation to Priesthood.
    Keeping our eyes wide shut helps no one. My brother/sister does not need a keeper but another brother/sister. Someone to say that word that may prevent burn out or break down. The phone call that is one of appreciation and thanks and congratulations, the sacrament of hospitality and occasional open house for our priest-brothers – I do include superiors and bishops in this, both as recipients of support and as givers also. Tomorrow we celebrate The Emmaus meal, Jesus is recognised in sharing, in the breaking of bread, we have to continue that sharing among ourselves, that feeding of each other, it has benefits both for the provider and the recipient. I remember some years ago returning from hospital after treatment for a depressive illness and being welcomed by my superior with the words ” welcome home ” those words spoken to me many years ago are still with me to this day.
    We must turn outwards towards each other, to be there for each other, in the good days and when equally when daily life may be frought. Our daily liturgy asks us ” to prepare ourselves to celebrate…. ” not the easiest of injunctions day in day out, I see this sometimes addressed to the celebrants navel and that saddens me, I want to say, look at me, look at us…There is a biblical metaphor – cannot just find its source just now, it states ” their heart is covered with fat !” the fat of it’s not my business that my brother priest is neglecting himself, I see it in little ways, his personal hygine is deteriorintating in so may increasing small ways, his clothes need attention, he could with a bit of tidying up, he’s not going to win a Master Chef award but that used marmalade jar has not been moved off that Prenuptial Enquiry on the kitchen table for weeks. Small signs of self neglect, we owe it to each other, to care, to be there to turn round and face each other, The risk to unbidden care is a risk indeed but the omission of it ?
    I agree with what Brendan says about being a priest in Ireland today. Bearing witness day in day out is maybe all that we can do in these days, however I believe that do more can be done amongst ourselves to support each other. We can shut our eyes and continue that turning in on self, we can continue whistling in the dark because many of us are scared, are we finding our world is now being lived as part of a virtual community to the expense of real engagement with each other? face to face engagement?, brothers, we must allow the unchosen surprises of the real world to touch us and give us the courage to care for each other.
    Tony Butler

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