When bishops differ and debate …
‘I never thought I’d live to see the day,’ is a common response when something unprecedented happens. An elderly priest I know made the comment when he read that Pope Francis had told the bishops in Rome at the recent Synod not to be afraid to say what they felt and that he wanted them to ‘debate, debate, debate’. Changed times indeed.
Not so long ago bishops never contradicted each other. It wasn’t just regarded as bad form; it was breaking a golden rule because bishops never disagreed with each other – at least in public. And for a bishop to implicitly and publicly criticise another bishop in the same diocese would be unthinkable. Or, as Charlie Haughey might have said, ‘grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre, unprecedented’ – GUBU-land.
But now Pope Francis has brought a refreshing air of realism into the Church, where freedom of speech makes possible an adult debate for the first time in more than half a century. So bishops (and priests and people) can now say what they want – with the Pope’s imprimatur.
An example was the flurry of controversy in Dublin diocese after the recent death of Bishop Dermot O’Mahony. At the end of his funeral Mass Bishop Eamonn Walsh commented that, in reference to the child sexual abuse scandals in Dublin diocese and the Murphy Report that adjudicated on them, O’Mahony had been ‘scapegoated in a society that at the time ignored the principle of equity – audi alteram partem – to hear the other side’.
It was clearly a considered and serious charge, and it was well known that such a perception was shared by many priests and many bishops.
O’Mahony had been roundly criticised in the Dublin Murphy Report as having failed badly in dealing with complaints of abuse against 13 Dublin priests. And while nobody, much less O’Mahony himself, pretended that mistakes had not been made, a report by Fergal Sweeney, a retired Hong Kong judge, commissioned by the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), had found that there were ‘serious faults with the work of Yvonne Murphy . . . and also with the legislation underpinning the Commission of Investigation’.
A later forensic examination of the Dublin Report by Dublin priest, Padraig McCarthy, in a book, The Unheard Story: Dublin Archdiocese and the Murphy Report (2013), confirmed Sweeney’s findings.
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s insistence that the Dublin Report was above criticism (‘No ifs or buts’) is not shared by the ACP, many Irish priests and bishops, O’Mahony’s friends and family – nor indeed by senior members of the legal profession. Privately a High Court judge told me that there was general agreement in the Law Library that, once the detail of the Commission of Inquiry was announced, the Report was all too predictable, meaning that reputations would be shredded without appropriate balance.
The consequent injustice to O’Mahony and others was compounded by Martin’s insistence that O’Mahony withdraw from Confirmations and from the Dublin diocesan young people’s pilgrimage to Lourdes, a penalty received very badly by colleagues, family and friends of O’Mahony, who were dismayed at what was interpreted as a slur on a decent man. Hence Bishop Eamonn Walsh’s comment about ‘scapegoating’.
A few days later Martin responded to Walsh’s comments by defending the Murphy Report, denying that O’Mahony had no opportunity of defending himself and dismissing the Sweeney Report as ‘fundamentally flawed’.
The backdrop to the controversy is the difficulty in finding a balance between competing rights, especially in a context of outrage and public denunciation because of a general sense that an accusation of child abuse against a priest in the present situation can put at risk the priest’s right to his innocence until proven guilty.
This has been compounded by some bishops rushing to be seen to be hard on priests, by implementing not wisely but too well, protocols regarded in retrospect as seriously flawed but now thankfully being revised. (Some bishops, with little sense of legal nuance or ultimately of respect for their priests, chose the security of regulation or even worse succumbed to populist pressure.)
In turn a number of false accusations that destroyed priests’ reputations compounded the general vulnerability of priests and made them deeply suspicious of bishops’ intentions, damaging, sometimes irreparably, the trust between priests and their bishops.
But to return to the main point, it’s important to say, though, that Martin at the removal of the remains the previous evening had publicly admitted that he had his differences with O’Mahony and had graciously placed on record the gratitude of the diocese for the ‘extraordinary work’ O’Mahony did over the years and the way he ‘had touched the lives of so many people’.
It seemed a pity, though, that Martin was unable to attend the funeral Mass of his auxiliary bishop, because ‘he was in Rome’. And many, I imagine, found it strange given that O’Mahony had served for almost 40 years as a bishop in Dublin, that the meeting in Rome would be regarded as the more important of the competing obligations.
Nothing new in that. Bishop James Naughton of Killala (1912-50) – the first bishop in Ireland to condemn the 1916 Rising (and a committed Cumann na nGaedheal supporter) – when his public role demanded public contact with politicians for whom he had little political sympathy would develop a sudden interest in some passing event in the far end of the diocese and answered invitations with the telling phrase ‘on duty in Erris on that day’.
It would I think, have honoured Pope Francis’ injunction for honest debate if Archbishop Diarmuid Martin had attended the funeral rather than ‘go to Rome’ but in fairness (as he averred himself) it was probably better, all things considered, that he left the space for family and friends to grieve their loved one.
At the same time, in the political sphere you had tribunals that went on for years (costing enormous amounts) in order to allow persons who were in danger of being criticised to have every possible legal defence deployed and explored. These kind of delays came to be seen as unacceptable. You had religious orders prevaricating and delaying for years on the matter of paying their share of compensation to victims of abuse. Should a defence “ethos of the time” have been allowed in the case of cover up of child abuse and failure to act? The Bible is quite clear and specific as to what standards should apply. If that avenue were explored it would show just how far the whole clerical church had deviated from gospel teaching, giving in to group-think. Is a defence of “group-think” possible? One might reflect too on the treatment that was often (invariably?) handed out to young women teachers (in Catholic schools) who became pregnant outside marriage. Immediate sacking of course. No defence allowed.