Opportunity knocks when things fall apart

Sat, May 12, 2012, 01:00

‘A CRISIS is a terrible thing to waste.” This adage, coined by economist Paul Rohmer and adapted by Obama adviser Rahm Emmanuel, suggests that when everything seems to be falling apart, there are opportunities to do things differently and better.

The phrase keeps running through my head recently. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland report on the Fr Kevin Reynolds case, and the way that RTÉ has reacted, to me is a perfect example of a waste of a crisis.

It is being spun as a one-off failure, and I believe that Aoife Kavanagh is being scapegoated in order to maintain this fiction.

Helen Shaw, former head of RTÉ radio, and currently head of award-winning transmedia company Athena Media, is very interesting on this. (See her blog at www.athenamedia.ie/ blog/)

Quite rightly, Shaw says: “The emphasis on the reporter . . . and the media’s portrayal of her as ‘shamed’ and ‘disgraced’ obscures the fact that layers of management lay between her and the programme’s transmission. She had an executive producer, a head of department and a head of division above her, and they had RTÉ legal affairs advice.”

It is convenient to lay the blame for a disastrous series of attitudes and decisions on one person: convenient and wrong.

We have proof of reckless management and journalism in this case. Are we really to believe it is the only instance?

Irving Janis’s work on groupthink dates from 1972. But apparently it existed in only one team in RTÉ, and then only in one 4½ minute segment.

It is a pity the catalyst for the investigation involved a Catholic priest, and not some other equally glaring lapse. It is, therefore, easier to hide behind the idea that the media is being unfairly attacked in an attempt to undermine the excellent journalistic work that has been done in revealing clerical sexual abuse of children.

However, that’s just bluster. As Conor Brady pointed out, whenever people begin to act with one mind, and disregard contrary voices, groupthink has taken over. A view of priests as all likely to lie is just one symptom.

The irony is, the more media people become defensive, the more evidence they provide that groupthink is a real problem. A former Irish Times editor and a former head of RTÉ radio fully acknowledge its existence but others are still in denial.

If RTÉ management does not fess up to its disastrous failure, its neglect of both enforcement of standards and of proper training for agenda-free reporting, this crisis will have been wasted.

Groupthink exists everywhere. We are all prone to it, this writer included. That is why it is vital to acknowledge it. Powerful organisations do not encourage independent thinking.

Which brings me to the assembly sponsored by the Association of Catholic Priests that I attended this week. It was extraordinary to see 1,000 people who care passionately about the church’s future gather together.

There were many fine inputs, but I was particularly struck by two given by women. (See: associationofcatholicpriests.ie/category/assembly/).

Theologian Cathy Molloy made an excellent distinction between matters of discipline and matters of dogma, and took a swipe at media reporting that failed to see the difference in relation to the priests who have been censured or silenced.

I hope that Aoife McGrath, who has a doctorate in theology, will not take it amiss when I say that not a word she said could be construed as unorthodox.

Given the age profile of the assembly, there were rueful smiles when she said that for her, the second Vatican Council “was a moment in history, not a direct lived experience”. She heard about the council only when she began to study theology.

She talked about three things: real belonging, active participation and shared calling. She said that in her experience, many committed Catholics, even those carrying out essential tasks, still view themselves as not really being full church members, or dismiss what they do as “helping out Father”. Worse, they are happy with this idea.

Until lay people see themselves as central members, with responsibilities and gifts, the church will be impoverished.

I would hate to misrepresent what went on, though. It was clear that many of those attending had a radical agenda that went far beyond anything to be found in the documents of Vatican Two. For some there Rome is the Evil Empire, and nothing else.

However, and again I don’t wish to cause offence, it seemed to me that at least half the participants would not have been there if the perfectly orthodox teaching of Vatican Two had ever been implemented properly.

Leaving aside the question of women priests, many lay men in the church are often just as disenfranchised as any woman. Thriving parishes fear a change in priestly personnel as all the energy and life can be dissipated by a new and disapproving parish priest. Where in church teaching can that be justified?

Change could start with lay people having their proper voice and roles. For some that won’t be enough, and reconciling the different visions of what a church should be will be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

But for others it would be such an improvement that it would qualify for first-class miracle status.

There is a deep crisis within the Irish Catholic Church but there is also an opportunity for growth and change.

Let this crisis not be wasted.

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