'Scapegoating' of bishop will not help healing process

Tue, Dec 1, 2009, 00:00

OPINION:There are many respects in which Bishop Murray has served the Irish church and its people well

THE EASIEST thing to do in the present circumstances is to keep silent to avoid causing offence or attracting adverse comment. But as we have been reminded by the reports on child sex abuse, silence does not necessarily serve truth. Nor can one wrong be righted by another.

Having worked closely both with victims and perpetrators, I am in no way oblivious to the horror of this crime and its lasting damage. Over the past 10 years I have been openly critical in particular of the failure of church leadership to acknowledge the systemic and cultural weaknesses in the governance of the church which colluded with and facilitated child sexual abuse.

Bishop Donal Murray has in effect handed over to the people and priests of his diocese the decision on whether he should remain. Theologically, this can be justified; canonically, he must be satisfied he can lead his diocese effectively.

However, the view of the people and priests of Limerick diocese is not to be confused or equated with popular public opinion as influenced, interpreted and reported by the media.

Unfortunately, some bishops, when asked to comment on Bishop Murray’s position, have failed to make this important distinction. In fact, we are in the unprecedented position of senior Irish bishops, however inadvertently, contributing to the impression that it is ultimately a matter of public opinion and media pressure as to whether bishops should step aside.

Regrettably, none of these bishops has acknowledged that there has been corporate failure by them all, and that the very manner in which the office of bishop on this island was and is exercised is in need of thorough scrutiny and review.

No church leader has yet acknowledged the fact that if much more open, accountable and participative decisionmaking processes are needed with regard to child protection, it follows that such processes are also needed with regard to other aspects of the church’s governance and mission, and that this should be urgently investigated. No bishop has yet acknowledged that it is, in fact, the integrity of the office of bishop that is now on trial.

It is for the priests and people of Limerick to judge how good a pastor of their diocese Bishop Murray has been. It is significant that to my knowledge no bishop has yet sought to influence the court of public opinion in its trial of Bishop Murray by recalling the many exemplary ways he has served the Irish church in almost 30 years as a bishop; this, despite the fact that they have relied heavily on his international standing as a scholar especially regarding faith and culture issues and Catholic education. No doubt well-deserved plaudits from his colleagues would follow if Bishop Murray decided to resign.

It is one thing not to protect someone who has done wrong; it is another to collude in his scapegoating. There are many respects in which Bishop Murray has served the Irish church and its people well, and this should not be forgotten when the focus is on his failings and when resignation is being considered. Or is it the accepted view that an episcopal resignation would make it easier for the media circus to move on?

Not all mistakes made by bishops have received the full glare of publicity and not all bishops who have been rightly publicly criticised have acknowledged their failings as fully as Bishop Murray. The church has more to learn from those who have made mistakes and learned from them than from those whose mistakes have not yet come to light or who have refused to acknowledge failure.

As far back as 2002, Bishop Murray openly acknowledged the seriousness of his having failed to investigate satisfactorily what subsequently turned out to be a clear case of horrendous child sex abuse. I do not believe scapegoating him now will serve the healing of victims or of the church. What is needed instead is a commitment by all the Irish bishops to an open, self-effacing and rigorous inquiry into all aspects of ecclesial governance; an inquiry inclusive of the diversity of Catholic opinion which takes into account not only important critical findings by State tribunals but also theological reflection on the true nature of the church and the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.


Eamonn Conway is a priest of the Tuam diocese and professor of theology at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick

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