Church not the only creature in our fog of abusive past


LIKE THOUSANDS of ordinary Catholics, this week I came close to despair. There is only so much that we can take as, time after time, revelations are forced out of church leadership, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

The incalculable damage will take decades to repair. The only positive aspect is that lay Catholics are slowly realising that if the church is to survive at all, it will be through the efforts of the people in the pews, and of much-battered faithful priests.

People who complain that the church is being unfairly singled out have a point and yet, in another way, are missing something. One reason why they are wrong was expressed eloquently in the Irish Catholicnewspaper letters page this week by Fr Patrick McCafferty, himself a clerical sex abuse survivor. “Abuse by a Catholic priest, who by virtue of his ordination, acts as ‘another Christ’ ( alter Christus) and in the person of Christ ( in persona Christi) has a particularly obscene, blasphemous and sacrilegious dimension,” he wrote.

Another reason they are wrong is because the church seems singularly incapable of admitting wrongdoing unless forced into it. It is truly a case of “with leadership like this, who needs enemies?”

Cardinal Sean Brady has said that the “drip, drip” of information must stop. Yet he never told us himself he had a direct involvement with Fr Brendan Smyth. How different it would have been if he had told us everything years ago.

To consign abused children to enforced silence was wrong, wrong, wrong. However, this was a time when secrecy ruled everywhere in Ireland, where the “whatever you say, say nothing” culture made the Omertà-practising Mafia look like amateurs.

Without in any way wishing to “blame the victim”, parents did not go to the police either, and often with good reason – the desire to protect their already grievously damaged children from having to undergo the publicity and scrutiny of criminal proceedings, in a society disposed to think well of priests.

In fact, for a young priest, Sean Brady managed to persuade his bishop to act with great speed. Within three weeks, Brendan Smyth’s licence to practise as a priest had been removed. The tragic truth still remains that if Sean Brady had gone to the Garda, so much heartbreak and damage would have been prevented. His failure to “challenge the culture”, to step outside clerical thinking, had appalling consequences.

Yet anybody fair-minded would have to admit that if “challenging the culture” is the standard, there are swathes of Irish society in deep trouble, including many in the justice and health systems.

While accepting the anger at the church is completely legitimate, there are still startling degrees of hypocrisy in our society. The Health Service Executive (HSE) is to carry out an audit of the church – the same HSE that was excoriated by the Murphy report because it estimated it would take 10 years for it to produce any useful information on clerical abuse, so useless was its recording system.

The HSE practises secrecy about deaths of children in its care, and has “lost” hundreds of immigrant children. Martin McGuinness also showed a deep irony deficit when he called for the cardinal’s resignation. Not only is this a man who has progressed from virtual terrorist status to legitimate politician through being forgiven for his own past support of violence, but his own leader did not blow the whistle on his brother.

In contrast, in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded “truth and clarity” about sexual abuse committed by priests. But she also said it makes no sense to limit any investigation to the church as child sexual and physical abuse was a broader problem affecting all of society. One of the biggest scandals in Germany concerns an elitist, secular, “progressive” school in Odenwald where 100 pupils were systematically abused by eight teachers, with nary a cleric in sight.

Sean Brady, in his address in Armagh Cathedral, said something of importance. He asked whether there was room for a “wounded healer”, someone who has failed and learned from that failure. The short answer – in southern Irish society in particular – is no. Yet that may not be a good thing for Irish society. Every culture that has had to face up to horror, at some stage is faced with a stark and deeply unpalatable choice. Do you continue to harbour enmity or do you forgive? The need to forgive is true in Northern Ireland, it is true in South Africa. It is true everywhere.

Milan Kundera, in Testaments Betrayed, says something wise and compassionate. Man is not in the dark but in a fog. “He sees 50 yards ahead of him, he can clearly make out the features of his interlocutor, can take pleasure in the beauty of trees that line his path, and can even observe what is happening close by and react. Man proceeds in the fog.

“But when he looks back to judge the people of the past, he sees no fog on their path . . . their path looks perfectly clear to him, good visibility all the way. Looking back, he sees the path, he sees the people proceeding, he sees their mistakes, but not the fog.”

There is a harsh and vindictive streak in Irish society, but there is also a deep vein of understanding of flawed human nature. Forgiveness is possible, but only if we are told the truth, the full truth, and with no taint of mental reservation.

It is a desperate tragedy that no one now believes that there are no more historical skeletons in the church cupboard. I don’t, and I don’t know anyone else who does.

Until the church can show sincere repentance by confessing what it has done that was either just plain wrong, or that would be judged harshly by today’s standards, trust will be impossible to restore. The “fog” we can understand and forgive, but deliberate obfuscation, even by omission, is a disaster for everyone.