Sorrows: a Reflection on the Case of Cardinal Brady, by Brian Fahy

Cardinal Sean Brady, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, is seventy-two years of age now. He seems to be a kindly man, a good man. But he is under fire. Calls for his resignation have been made following a recent television documentary about child abuse in Ireland forty years ago, when the then Father John Brady was the notary at an enquiry into allegations of abuse against a paedophile priest. Father Brady took his notes and passed then up the chain of authority and that was his part in the matter. But the matter was so serious, that it now looks as if he was remiss in his duty to ‘do more’ than simply record conversations and interviews.
The Vatican is resisting calls for his resignation, but the latest news says that an auxiliary bishop will be appointed to assist the Cardinal, with automatic right of succession. That looks like a subtle and silent way of easing the Cardinal aside. I think it would have been better for the Cardinal to resign as a symbolic act of sorrow for the failings of the Church in this matter, and for his own smaller role in that failure.
The Church is looking at the issue from its own point of view, and is still practising the habit of self-defense. Having just watched the documentary, I now see the issue through the eyes of the victims in this story, with all the desolation that has dogged their lives since they were abused in their earliest years. The documentary did not attempt to attack or ‘kick’ the Church in any way. It was a fair reporting of events of long ago. The resignation of the Cardinal, if done properly, could be a great act of sorrow on behalf of the Church in Ireland.
The issue of the Church and sexuality has set me thinking. In this particular story, the story of child sexual abuse, it is clear that the Church did not know what to do or how respond to the allegations that a priest was interfering with young boys. Why was that so? Because sex and sexuality were never publicly spoken about. The only time that sex came into the public domain was during parish missions when the priest would roar condemnation on the things of the flesh. In the mind of the Church sex was bad.
Young boys who showed an interest in becoming priests were taken from their families and educated in special colleges, junior and senior seminaries, with never a chance to grow up in a normal world. Meeting and socialising with members of the opposite sex never happened for many of these boys, and they emerged into the world without any human maturity in this regard. What potential disasters were waiting the opportunity to happen in those secret lives?
An extra danger in this matter of education was the fact that the religious orders in the Church operated their own systems, practically independent of the power of the bishops. The quality of education and culture in those smaller seminaries left a lot to be desired. These places often went ‘under the radar’ of clerical quality control. In the recent cases, Fr Eugene Green was a Kiltegan priest, who was reassigned from Africa to the wilds of Donegal, and Fr Brendan Smyth was a Norbertine priest, from the monastery of Kilnacrott in Cavan.
During the education process in the seminary, you had to wait until your final years to be introduced to the big boys world of sexual morality. The books used for this moral study were in English, but the section on sexuality remained in Latin. As Peter Kay might say, “What was all that about!” Sexuality was so dangerous and the subject matter so delicate, a foreign language, and a dead one at that, had to be employed to keep the subject at a safe distance.
All sexuality was associated with sin, and sin was relegated to a dark roomed confessional, where things were whispered into ears, where absolution was given, all was swept under the carpet, and people emerged into the light of day to fall and fall again.
All clergy were celibate, and that is another dark area of life. How many celibate men are healthy in their sexuality? How many have been prevented by their training from even being able to mature into healthy adults? What do they know of sexual relationships if they have been expressly forbidden, by the church system, from ever having close emotional ties?
Another huge consideration in this sad affair is the fact that the Church did not consider itself subject to the law of the land. As a holy institution, commissioned to preach the glorious gospel of Christ, what would it have to do with wrongdoing or criminal behavior? Nothing, surely. The law of the land was for ordinary people to keep or be kept by. But holy priests and bishops were above all that by their very calling. When some rare misdemeanor occurred, it was important to contain it, deal with it, keep it from the eyes of the world, and carry on.
It was in such a culture that Father John Brady, and all his contemporaries, myself included, were raised. The world we lived in was the ecclesiastical world, a small self-contained arena of life, away from the realities of the bigger, wider world.
The world of today is far healthier in its open conversation about all things. The world is no better at getting things right. The public culture about sexuality is very unhealthy and damaging to people. So the world has nothing to boast about. But the public standards of accountability are well voiced and the world’s critique of the Church is a good opportunity for all to grow in honesty. It is important to ‘see ourselves as others see us’.
Father Brendan Smyth died of a heart attack, one month into his prison sentence. His body was taken back to the monastery of Kilnacrott, and his funeral took place ‘before dawn’. He was buried in the monastery ground, and his grave was covered with concrete, to prevent vandalism. What a dark ending to a dark and tragic tale. But the victims of his crimes live on, struggling to come to terms with the terrible things that happened to them as children. We need to keep our attention focused on these victims, and work to shed light on the world of dark deeds.
The strands of this story that now embroil Cardinal Brady cannot simply be cut, like cutting a ribbon, and the culture of the Church that allowed these things to happen has not vanished overnight, like early morning mist. All our lives are overshadowed now by the stories that have emerged.
The television documentary has done a good job in showing us, as in a mirror, a reflection of ourselves. We need to look at ourselves and look steadily into that glass. Robert Burns knew that it was a grace, a gift of God, to be able to see ourselves with the eyes of another.
Some people are calling for the resignation of the Cardinal. The Vatican feels it necessary to defend its image, and refuse that call. A sideways move is their response. Another way would be to watch that documentary again, and chose to perform an act of sorrow, maturely and freely, and to resign as a symbol of the church’s failure, and of our own part in it.
We were a conditioned people. Isn’t everybody! But we can learn to recognize fault and failure, and to say the prayer that we have greatly sinned through our most grievous fault. And pray for mercy.
Brian Fahy May 2012

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  1. Great comment. Thank you.
    Yes a resignation could demonstrate a fuller understanding of these terrible issues and show active compassion to the victims.
    The Cardinal may have played his small part with only good intentions but the system he was part of was faulty; his resignation could express regret about that erroneous system and signal its total condemnation.
    The victims are the ones that count and they cannot be given too much care, love and attention; they deserve full honest compassion and real action.

  2. Kevin Walters says:

    What’s at stake here?
    Is it not the Integrity of the priesthood?
    In life all of us encounter evil with all its different faces. We do not always act with integrity we are impaired through our own weakness and sinfulness, we turn a blind eye, we justify what we have done or didn’t do we hide (run away) from the Truth all of mankind does this.
    When we first truly commit ourselves to the light of Christ we start on an inner journey of discovery. We are continually put to the test as we have to confront our own sinfulness and frailty and we often fall as we follow our master home. As more is asked of us, integrity, virtue (like a lamp) in time should become manifest. Only a holy priesthood can regain the credibility that has been lost by those in authority within the church.
    At the centre of our Fathers heart sits his beloved Son and all who have and would serve him there is no discord here as Jesus makes clear all who acknowledge the light will be made right in God’s sight. Will our Sheppard’s with a towel and a bowl not lead us home, in humility (self-knowledge) and love (truth); will we not follow (copy) that which cannot be misunderstood.
    Jesus tells us “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all”
    God’s Word is inviolate and supersedes any tradition in the church’s magisterial office. A servant must give full account to the ones he serves and we the laity have to (know) see this in action.
    The hireling turns a blind eye he justifies his actions he hides (runs away)
    You the Sheppard’s are responsible for those who serve you it is your integrity that is now at stake.
    In Christ

  3. Mary Wood says:

    It is still sometimes expedient for one man to die for the sake of the church – the people. Cardinal Brady could voluntarily resign as an outward expression of his inward sorrow at the situation in which he played a minor part.
    If the Vatican were to refuse to accept his resignation he would have to continue “in post” but could decline to function. And I suggest he could find great personal peace in retiring from the front line.

  4. Gene Carr says:

    Brian Fahy seems to attribute the clerical sex abuse problem to faulty selection, the character of seminary training and alledgely deformed attitudes to sex during that time. Now, insofar as statistics have any relevance, we know from the US John Jay study of the issues that about 4,300 clerics had allegations made against them by about 11,000 people between 1950 and 2002. That was about 4% of the over 100,000 priests that served during that period. Allowing for under-reporting on the one hand and unsubstantiated allegations on the other, this is the only reliable statistic available. Now the question I ask is this: If the selection process, seminary process and sexual attitudes were so bad, how come the other 96% of clerics escaped? Surely there needs to be much deeper exploration of the causes. For example, have we really delved into the evolving attitude at the time, under the influence of new psychologies and therapies, to ‘medicalize’ a problem that was really deeply moral, spiritual and criminal. Did the Catholic Church become over-enamoured by the claims of these new psychologies with their overwhelming reliance on ‘techniques’ rather than on its own venerable traditions of aesteticism?

  5. Concerning Cardinal Brady’s resignation, I think that Brian’s analysis is on target. The cardinal’s resignation would send a powerful message that he was taking responsibility for his actions. That will never happen. Rather than facing the truth, the Holy See will appoint a coadjutor to ease the cardinal out and allow him to save face.
    In this honest appraisal, I respectfully disagree with Brian that “because sex and sexuality were never publicly spoken about,” the bishops didn’t know how to act. Actually, bishops throughout the world did know how to act. They had two options: protect the good name of the priest and church or protect the children. They chose the former, giving little or no thought to how abuse would affect these children’s lives. Bishops and their advisors enabled these priests to continue their abuse and I don’t think that their inability to speak of sex in the public arena motivated their actions. It was all about power and protection.

  6. Isabel Sinton says:

    “Church did not know what to do or how respond to the allegations that a priest was interfering with young boys” ??? There is canon law dating back to 306 AD ( Council of Elvira ) addressing this situation. Subsequent Councils repeatedly addresses the problem for the last almost 2000 years.
    “. . .education process in the seminary . . books used for this moral study were in English, but the section on sexuality remained in Latin” Are there no words in Latin for male sex organ, anus, children, perverted and inappropriate? How about common sense? Is it possible to translate this sentence into Latin: Thou shalt not bugger Altar Boys ?
    Am I the only person to have studied the Baltimore Catechism 50 years ago when I was a child? There are several steps to the sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation and Cardinal Brady and anyone interested can google it. First is contrition followed by confession. The public apology many years later after being caught on TV sort of applies. Before the grand finale, Absolution, comes Penance. There is a penalty for what you did or in Cardina; Brady’s case failed to do. I suggest his punishment is to turn in his red hat and Primate title.
    Did he thinks three Hail Mary’s would get him off the hook ? Let’s ask the victims that didn’t need to be victims.

  7. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Sarah and Mary W, I suspect Cardinal Brady has already resigned himself to resignation, but things aren’t ever that simple. It ain’t exactly an “administratively convenient” moment, not for himself but for Rome and the Congregation for Bishops.
    Two years ago he asked for a helping hand, preferably for a co-adjutor with right of succession in the short term. No doubt it would have happened already – if Ireland had a ready store of able, shovel-ready bishop material hidden somewhere around the dioceses. Already there are at least seven vacancies, or about-to-be vacancies, out of 26. What does Rome do? Shift the “young” Noel Treanor out of Down & Connor to serve as Primate in Armagh (as counter-balance to that other European-wise Dublin Primate, DM, if DM hasn’t returned to HQ long before then)? But +Noel has been in Belfast for little more than three years so Belfast and Antrim folk mightn’t be greatly pleased. He is a Clogher man, though, so he’d be a good lynchpin to have in Armagh when they get around to re-clustering or re-configuring dioceses in, say, 2020 – when +Liam of Clogher would be due to retire and Cardinal Noel Treanor would be just about 70. And so on and so forth across the land. I’m sure administrative convenience and general tidiness rank much more highly with Imperial HQ than such things as doctrine etc.

  8. Seán Mac Nialluis says:

    A terrific commentary on this sad crisis.

  9. Eric Conway says:

    Appropos of Gene Carr’s comment, we need also to bear in mind the following. A US Dept. OF Education commissioned study of sexual abuse in the US state school sector by Prof. Carol Shakeshaft revealed a figure of approx. 10% abuse – way, way above that relating to the Catholic Church. In addition figures released by the three leading US insurance companies in respect of the main Protestant denominations, confirmed higher figures than that relating to the Catholic Church. Of course, one case of abuse is one too many, but it’s incorrect to directly relate abuse to celibacy.
    One request, if I may. Can we please ditch the dreadfully offensive “paedophile priest” narrative. It’s inaccurate as well as offensive.

  10. As a priest for a number of decades I have never seen anything but cover up regarding sexual abuse of minors even by the nicest of bishops !! The case of Card. Brady as a young priest secretary shows us one of the clearest examples yet of the systematic cover up within the Catholic church. Fingers need to be firmly pointed much higher up the chain of command. As head of the CDF for such a long time the present Pope must have known what was happening??? We have had apologies but there needs to be open simple admission of cover up. The Pope himself must face this sooner or later – here on earth or when he stands before His Maker. I console myself with the thought that there will be no denominations in heaven and certainly no prelates or other earthly ranking. Our mission and work as a church is now so severely hampered and tarnished by this on going saga that it is hard not to despair and give up now………..!!!!! Surely in our very multi-faith society we should be mindful that to your average non Christian the Pope remains the chief Christian. We surely tarnish and undermine the good work of all other Christian denominations. I would feel rightly angry about this implication.

  11. I was truly privilaged to be part of the ACP gathering in Dublin on May 7th. For many years I have been totally saddened with both Rome and our own Hirearchy on what I considered the mismanagement of our Church. It was good to spend time with like minded people. Within a few days of the meeting I read Brian Fahy’s contribution and again this made me sad, not because of the content, but rather that Brian was a former Redemptorist. I do not know Brian or the reasons he is no longer in active ministry, but many of his colleagues were ordered to leave ministry when they committed the unforgiveable sin of falling in love and getting married. To-day our church are welcoming with open arms those men from the Anglican communion, who wish to join us and become active priests. Their wives and children are equally welcomed. It is accepted that in South America, many priests have fathered children, and live in their communities with the Mothers of the children, as man and wife. Bishops and Rome know of this situation, but prefer to look the other way as the communities need the priests. I welcome my brothers from the Anglican community, and their family’s into our church. Likewise I see no problem with the priests in South America. In an ideal world of course they should marry the Mother of their children. Different rules apply in Ireland.
    We have a shortage of Priests in Ireland at present, and God knows what the situation will be within the next 10–15years. As stated I welcome our married former Anglican brothers now working as Catholic priests. I also accept the situation in South America. But why is it not acceptable for men who were ordained into the priesthood in our country, but now married, not allowed back into active ministry. They would be welcomed with open arms in every parish. This type of double standard is part of the reason so many people have become totally disinchanted with our church. Within the last couple of years two retired Bishops commented on Women Piests and also celebacy. Each had no problem if changes were made on both issues. Will we have to wait until the present group of Bishops retire before we know their thoughts on these and other important issues.
    Finally, in relation to the sex scandals which have crucified HIS CHURCH ON EARTH, I wonder who has committed the gravest sin, those who abused our brothers and sisters, or those who covered it up to protect the institution. God himself will judge.

  12. FR Fahey opine calls for political correctness, sans forgiveness; there are many misteps that we all make in our lives and Cardinal Brady as a young priest was following the strictures as they applied at that time. Reviewing the past with 21st century norms does not move the conversation forward – if you insist we go down that silly you also must encourage all to riot in the street against England and its heinous crimes against the Irish race. Let’s stop throwing the first stones!

  13. Bernadette Marie says:

    I feel a lot of compassion and sorrow for Cardinal Brady in the persecution and suffering he is now having to face by his own men.
    I did not see the BBC documentary but I realise that at the time of the complaint of abuse the Church probably failed in its duty to protect the innocent. Great strides have now been made to rectify as far as humanly possible the damage done and to stop all future abuse(there isn’t really any restoration for destroying a child’s innocence and for the horrible abuse both mental and physical that they endured). I think it was a taboo subject and no-one wanted knew how to deal with it.
    A priest is celibate and that is a gift from God (maybe not something most men and women can understand).
    I remember John Paul II saying that the devil was involved in attacking these priests and thereby the Holy Mother Church. I do not believe nor will I ever believe that the majority of these priests were homosexuals – I don’t think where God is involved it works that way.
    I think we as Catholics all need to pray and pray and pray for our priests who are extremely vulnerable. I pray for Cardinal Brady today and commend him to Our Blessed Mother to help and protect him for the rest of his life on earth.

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