An abysmal abdication of responsibility

Tue, Dec 1, 2009, 00:00

OPINION:If Bishop Willie Walsh doesn’t get it, what hope is there for the rest of the institutional church?

BISHOP WILLIE Walsh is a very fine person. Over the years, he has been the most important voice within the Irish Catholic hierarchy for humility and openness. He was the first bishop to really understand the depth of the moral crisis caused by the church’s cover-up of child sexual abuse by clergy. He has since been the only bishop prepared to engage with the need for a radical transformation of the priesthood and of the power structures that made the cover-up not merely possible but inevitable.

This makes it all the more painful to have to ask a despairing question: if Willie Walsh doesn’t get it, what hope is there for the rest of the institutional church?

On Morning Irelandyesterday, a simple but extraordinary fact became clear: Bishop Walsh hasn’t read the report of the commission on child abuse within the Dublin diocese. It is deeply depressing that a man of his intellect and natural compassion reckoned that it was okay to go on national radio and chide other people for allegedly “grossly misreading” a report on such a fundamental issue when he himself had only the vaguest awareness of what it says.

The suspicion that Bishop Walsh has not read the report began to form pretty early in his interview with Cathal MacCoille when he claimed that its findings about his colleague, the Bishop of Limerick Donal Murray, were simply that “somebody said they were uncomfortable about [a priest’s behaviour] and when he investigated it, no allegation emerged”.

This is a rather startling interpretation of the report’s findings. Since those findings in relation to Bishop Murray are detailed elsewhere on this page, I’ll mention just one incident.

In 1994, after the Brendan Smyth affair had made it obvious to everyone how serious the whole issue was, Bishop Murray was sent to look into allegations that a known abuser, Fr James McNamee, then attached to a convent in Wicklow, had been seen with children in his car. Murray was, as the report puts it, “aware of his abusive past and that no monitoring system had been put in place in relation to him”. The full extent of his investigation was a chat with the abuser. Murray “in the course of a general conversation, asked [McNamee] whether he had any concerns about the recent scandals relating to child sexual abuse”.

He accepted McNamee’s denials that he had children in his car. Crucially, he did not tell the nuns in the convent about McNamee’s record as a paedophile. He did not, as the report concludes, seem “to have given any consideration to the risk Fr McNamee might have posed to the altar boys attending the convent”.

On Morning Ireland, Bishop Walsh appealed to anyone who was calling for Murray’s resignation, “if they’re going to speak on that issue to study very carefully exactly the terms of the Dublin report”.

This is a very proper request. Anyone who does as the bishop suggests will be left in no doubt that Donal Murray, in a number of cases, showed little or no concern for the safety of children. No objective reader will believe that Murray is the right person to be responsible for the safety of children as patron of Limerick’s Catholic primary schools.

How could Willie Walsh have decided otherwise? Because, even while urging anyone who wished to comment on Murray’s position to read the report, he clearly didn’t do so himself. Here are his own words: “I haven’t had time to examine it in detail but I do know for a fact that some of the interpretation being put on that against Bishop Murray is a misreading of the report. I do know that from someone who has read in detail the report and I’m satisfied with that.”

So Bishop Walsh knows “for a fact” that the report exonerates his colleague Bishop Murray because someone else who has actually read the document told him so. This is – and it genuinely pains me to say so – an abysmal abdication of moral responsibility. It beggars belief that a senior churchman would not actually read a report like this for himself.

It is mind-boggling that he would then admonish everyone else that they should not comment until they had done so. And it goes beyond the beyonds that he should then chide the rest of us for a “gross misreading” of a document that he has apparently encountered only at second hand.

The depressing thing about this behaviour is that it tells us that the mindset that made the hierarchy collectively such a menace to children has not changed.

There’s the double standard – you can’t comment until you’ve read the report in detail, but I can.

There’s the obfuscation – claiming that the only charge in relation to Murray was in relation to something about which “no allegation emerged”.

And there’s the institutional defensiveness – protecting a colleague is more important than actually engaging with the findings of the report. When this stuff comes from one of the few bishops to offer real hope of change, where can Catholics look for leadership?

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