Bishops can take a tip from US experience


ANALYSIS:As the bishops head for Rome to discuss clerical sex abuse with the pope, an observer of the American situation has advice for the Irish church, writes JOHN ALLEN


As the clerical sex abuse crisis gathered steam in the US, there was a temptation to complain that the avalanche of criticism and litigation against the church wasn’t fair. Some charged that the crisis provided an excuse for people with axes to grind against Catholicism, and that historical anti-Catholic bias in the media and other elite sectors of society was also in play.

In retrospect, all of those things were probably true in some measure, but saying them out loud was usually counterproductive. Such complaints, especially when they came from clergy, aggravated perceptions that the church was more interested in self-defence than in coming clean, and probably emboldened critics to press their case.

There’s ample motive for the church to be contrite, and contrition, coupled with determination to root out the causes of the scandal, is what people want to hear in the first wave of commentary, not something that sounds like an excuse.


In a crisis there’s a natural tendency to want to do something – anything – that might stop the bleeding. Sometimes, however, that urge to act can make things worse.

An example came from the Dallas meeting of the US bishops in 2002. The bishops adopted tough new policies on sex abuse, most of which represented progress. Yet, among the measures was also a norm that provided for removal from the priesthood on the basis of a bishop’s administrative act, with no possibility of formal defence or appeal. Canon lawyers knew that was unlikely to fly in Rome, and indeed the Vatican turned it down.

A summit meeting was arranged between Vatican officials and American bishops to work out a deal, which included the possibility of canonical trials as a way of protecting due process rights. Those new norms were adopted by the US bishops in November and received recognition, or approval, from Rome. Whatever one makes of the result, the delay fuelled public perceptions that Rome didn’t get it, that the bishops didn’t have their act together, and that the church was dragging its heels or was in denial.

The Irish church may need to adopt its own policies or create its own new structures, and there will be pressure to do so quickly. Before taking steps, however, it’s a good idea to make sure everyone’s in sync.


Another temptation induced by the speed at which things move during a crisis is to treat everything as if it’s happening for the first time. As the crisis in the US developed, I can remember talking to friends in Canada who had gone through a similar experience in the late 1980s and early 1990s, who shook their heads at the way we seemed to be repeating their mistakes. Some Americans looking at the Irish situation may have a similar reaction today. One example is the hunt for a “smoking gun” in Rome proving that the cover-up on sex abuse reached all the way to the top, with the usual candidate being a 1962 Vatican document titled Crimen Sollicitationis, a document cited in the Murphy commission report. But Crimen Sollicitationisis a red herring.

Aside from being factually sloppy, the problem with the hunt for a “smoking gun” is that it makes the sex abuse crisis look like a problem of law rather than culture. The church has always had plenty of laws against sexual sin. What Catholicism also had, however, was a deeply ingrained culture of willing to look the other way even when priests engaged in heinous acts, a culture that didn’t give the same consideration to victims, and one which did, indeed, reach all the way to the top. Fixing that culture is not as simple as flipping a switch in Rome, abrogating one law and issuing another.


It’s a fact of life that many people won’t believe the Catholic Church is serious about something until they hear it directly from the pope. Cardinal Seán Brady and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin travelled to Rome in December and the Vatican released a statement saying the pope shares the “outrage, betrayal and shame” felt by many faithful in Ireland. The statement also said Pope Benedict intends to address a pastoral letter to Ireland, laying out “the initiatives that are to be taken in response to the situation”.

That’s obviously a better start than in America, but many Irish may still be waiting to hear the pope speak – if not on a trip, perhaps in a televised address or a session with Irish journalists. It might also be helpful to arrange a meeting for the pope with a group of Irish victims. In general, the pope has taken a more aggressive approach to the crisis than his predecessor in his later years.

If ever there was a moment when Ireland needs to hear and see that determination from the pope himself, this is it.


The atmosphere of crisis in Ireland will eventually lift as the newspapers and talk shows move on to the next cause célèbre. That does not mean, however, the story will be over.

There are now seven dioceses in the US that are bankrupt as a result of financial pressures linked to the crisis. There are other unresolved issues, such as disclosure of church records related to sexual abuse.

One advantage Ireland has is the Murphy commission itself. Lacking any such centralised and independent authority in the US, revelations came out in dribs and drabs – and still do.


After the dust settled in the US, probably the most persistent criticism has been that while the church now has tough – some would even say draconian – policies for priests who abuse, it has no mechanism for holding bishops accountable when they fail to act.

A high-profile resignation or two may diminish some of the pressure, but such moves leave the broader issue hanging. This is tough for any local church, because responsibility for bishops lies in Rome.

Now that it’s clear the crisis isn’t just a US problem, however, there may be a new opportunity to revisit the issue with the Vatican.

When the present crisis abates, there will be a natural desire to move on.

To prevent headaches later, however, it would be wise to ponder some of these thorny matters now, when there’s momentum to address them.

John Allen is senior correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter, an independent Catholic newspaper published in the US. This is an edited version of a longer article first published by the Reporter.

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