Irish attempts to grapple with abuse frustrated by Rome

Tue, Feb 16, 2010, 00:00

ANALYSIS:Criticism of the Irish bishops this week should not deflect attention from the role of the Vatican in the clerical abuse scandal, writes PATSY McGARRY,Religious Affairs Correspondent, in Rome

IT CAN only be hoped that today’s discussions in Rome on what Cardinal Claudio Hummes has memorably described as “the painful Irish happenings” will reflect on the role not just of the Irish bishops but also of the Vatican itself.

Rome consistently tripped up the Irish church as it attempted to come to grips with the issue of clerical child sex abuse, and Cardinal Hummes – who is taking part in this week’s discussions with Pope Benedict XVI, his senior curial colleagues and 24 Irish bishops – is uniquely placed to understand just how.

He is prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy which refused to give recognition to child protection guidelines introduced by the Irish bishops in their 1996 Framework Documentand again in their updated 2005 Our Children, Our Churchdocument.

It meant those guidelines were “only guidelines”, as Cardinal Connell memorably told Marie Collins in December 1996, less than a year after that Framework Documentwas published (in January 1996). They did not have to be followed and were not binding in canon law, Cardinal Connell said.

He should know. He was then a member of the Congregation for the Clergy and was known to be unenthusiastic about the Framework Document. His concern was with the risk to the good name of an accused priest.

This lack of recognition by Rome meant that an accused priest could appeal to the Vatican over his bishop’s head if action was taken against him on foot of an allegation of child sex abuse and that, most likely, the priest would win as there was no backing for such a bishop’s action in Rome.

As Cardinal Connell would have been aware there was a precedent for this in an “Irish happening” of the early 1990s. Following a canonical trial it was recommended to Rome that an Irish priest be laicised on foot of allegations of child sex abuse.

The priest appealed the decision to Rome, which decided he should not be laicised but should spend time in a monastery before resuming his priestly ministry. However, in the intervening years between the priest’s making his appeal and Rome’s decision he abused another boy, on foot of which he was jailed. It was then Rome decided to laicise him.

Despite this Rome still refused to give the Irish bishops’ 1996 Framework Documentor their Our Children, Our Churchdocument of 2005 its backing, meaning those documents were not worth the paper they were written on.

As the Murphy report put it: “The Framework Document(1996) was not a norm and therefore was not binding on individual bishops. The Holy See did not formally recognise it either. Victims have expressed disappointment that neither the Framework Documentnor its successor, Our Children, Our Church(2005), received recognition from Rome, thus leaving both documents without legal status under canon law.

“This was in direct contrast to the approach adopted by the Holy See to the request of the American Conference of Bishops, who sought and received recognition for their 2002 and 2006 norms. The fact that a number of the bishops in the USA disagreed with the norms was probably a factor in Rome granting recognition to the USA norms and thus making them binding in canon law.”

The report continued: “Bishops wanted procedures that they could be certain of; they felt extremely vulnerable because in 1996 . . . they were meeting an onslaught of complaints and Rome was pulling any particular solid ground that they had from under them.”

The former chancellor of the Dublin archdiocese, Msgr Alex Stenson, told the commission that “Rome had reservations about its [the Framework Document’s] policy of reporting to the civil authorities. The basis of the reservation was that the making of a report put the reputation and good name of a priest at risk.”

Not content with “pulling any particular solid ground that they had” from under the Irish bishops, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith went on to ignore co-operation with the Murphy commission and, for good measure, its papal nuncio twice refused to respond to commission correspondence.

It is clear Rome itself has profound questions to answer concerning “the painful Irish happenings”.