Taoiseach badly served by his speech writers

Mon, Jul 25, 2011, 01:00

OPINION:Enda Kenny defamed Rome and the Vatican, but at least now perhaps the State will get its act together on childcare, writes VINCENT TWOMEY

THE TAOISEACH delivered a powerful speech in the Dáil last week in response to the recently published report by the Murphy commission on the way those responsible for the governance of the diocese of Cloyne failed to deal with accusations of clerical sexual abuse.

It was supremely important that the pain and hurt of the victims be recognised by the State in the person of its first minister. No one but the victims can have even the slightest understanding of the emotional, spiritual, and even sometimes physical devastation caused by such heinous crimes committed by those who were ordained to make Jesus Christ present in our lives. Nothing human can ease that pain.

Yet, I sincerely hope the kind of recognition given by Enda Kenny will give some real solace to the survivors.

It was also important that the Taoiseach recognised in his speech how demoralising all of these revelations for the past two decades have been to the vast majority of priests and religious. The fact is that priests at the coalface, as it were, generally receive warm and generous support from the many faithful who can distinguish between the crimes of their colleagues and the dedication of their man.

We are an aging, clerical force stretched almost to breaking point due to lack of vocations, trying to comfort the afflicted, instruct the young, bury the dead and fulfil to the best of our admittedly inadequate abilities our many other pastoral efforts.

No less important was the recognition given to the millions of Irish Catholics at home and abroad who feel deep shame at what these clerics did and what church leaders failed to do. They have remained true to their faith despite all the “filth” that has erupted in the midst of the church as though from a simmering volcano (to quote the pope in an extended interview he gave last year and published as The Light of the World).

But an important part of his speech, which in its initial reaction the media seemed to have ignored, was the admission by the Taoiseach that the State too had to put its own house in order and his firm assurance that the Government would at last tackle that task.

He announced the imminent publication of legislation to make mandatory the reporting of all such cases to the Garda and other relevant civil authorities. Judging from the reaction of the public commentators, few seem to be aware of the fact that the Irish church already has made it mandatory to report all such cases to the civil authorities (an obligation that is now firmly anchored in the universal canon law of the church).

Even though these Irish guidelines are in place and are, hopefully, being acted upon, they could not be sent to the Vatican for official approbation, I am informed on good authority, because the Irish church guidelines cover two civil jurisdictions in Ireland: only one of them has laws making such mandatory reporting obligatory in civil law, namely that in Northern Ireland. The church is waiting for the State to legislate.

The impression one gets – and this was implied in the speech of the Taoiseach – is that somehow or other the church was placing canon law above civil law! It was quite the opposite: it was a case of the church requesting the State to provide the required civil law.

To quote the Cloyne report: “The commission recognises that the church guidelines were far more stringent that those adopted by the State in that they required that all allegations against priests operating in a diocese be reported to the health authorities as well as to the gardaí [6.36].”

Now we can take hope that, as Kenny promises, the State will get its act together at last. That promise, however, is fraught with danger. The two previous attempts by the State to tackle the situation would not encourage my hopes.

In an attempt to implement a recommendation of the Ferns report, the then-minister for children instructed the Health Service Executive in October 2005 to establish inter-agency committees “composed of representatives of the diocese, the gardaí and the HSE” so that “every suspicion or allegation of clerical child sexual abuse would be brought to its attention [6.36]”.

What happened? Legal and practical difficulties, not foreseen by the minister, brought the whole process to a halt. Then in 2006 a new criminal offence was created in the Child Care Act, namely “reckless endangerment” (of children and vulnerable adults), which I gather is also a crime in some states in the US. In the intervening five years, no one has been brought to court. Why? Was it due to imperfect legislation?

The issue of child sexual abuse is too serious for the State to get wrong yet again.

Other jurisdictions have also had the experience of knee-jerk legislation that could not be implemented (eg the War Crimes Act in the UK, I am told). The stated intention of two Government Ministers to try to get us priests to break the seal of confession by threatening us with sentences of five years’ imprisonment if found guilty will simply not work, apart altogether from the fact that such a law would contradict more than a thousand years of civil legal recognition of the seal.

It would not work for the simple reason that we priests are not only prepared to go to prison but, as other priests – such as St John Nepomuk (a national saint of the Czech Republic) have done – we must accept even death rather than break the seal.

But there are other issues touching on the very nature of a modern democracy. For example, legislation that would deny the sacredness of the seal would also undermine the (broader) principle of “sacerdotal privilege” (ie confidentiality between priest and anyone who seeks pastoral or spiritual help) which is enshrined in Irish jurisprudence (cf. Cook -v- Carroll, 1945).

In turn, any removal of such sacerdotal privilege would totally undermine all other privileges of a similar nature, such as, for example, legal privilege between a lawyer and his or her client.

That privilege is one of the cornerstones of the whole administration of justice in a free, democratic society under the rule of law. The attempt to destroy the seal of confession is a most disturbing development.

But another justice issue was implied by the thrust of some of the Taoiseach’s speech. That is: defamation of character.

The speech opened with an all-guns-blazing attack on “the Vatican” or “Rome” and ended with allusions to the new non-Catholic Ireland which was not that of the Magdalene laundries or industrial schools where the church dominated the State.

The latter may be accepted as an expression of hope shared by all Catholics today, lay or clerical. But the attack on the Vatican used not only highly emotive language but, by quoting the Gospel, St Benedict and the then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in a quote taken completely out of context, appear to point the finger of blame at Pope Benedict XVI. True, he was not named explicitly but the clear implication, it seems to me, was that he ultimately was to blame for the cover-up in Cloyne.

In his speech, the Taoiseach claimed that only three years ago, the Vatican tried to intervene in the affairs of the Irish State in these matters. But in The Irish Timesof Thursday, July 21st, we learn that he had no specific incident in mind – so why make such a reference?

Evidently, the Taoiseach could not have written the speech; where would he get the time, given all the other major crises he and his Government are tying to contend with simultaneously? He was badly served by his speech writer or writers. The giveaway was a quotation from a document issued in 1990 by the then-cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger, titled On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian.

The quotation has one simple meaning – theologians cannot “make” the truth, they can only investigate the truth which is revelation. Neither should they try to impose their personal opinions on the rest of the church by such activities as public demonstrations or statements of dissent, as is legitimate in modern democracies.

The church is not a democracy and has her own principles and rules. Taken out of context and placed in the context of the Cloyne report, the quotation would seem to be “proof” that Ratzinger – the present pope – rejected the State’s laws.

As the Vatican press officer, Fr Federico Lombardi, commenting in his personal capacity, said nothing could be further from the truth with regard either to the past actions or the present intent of the holy father – or indeed of the Vatican, which is more than the pope. He outlined how as far back as 1998, the cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy addressed the Irish bishops in Rosses Point and make it clear to them not to put any obstacles in the legitimate path of civil justice. If, as the Cloyne report tragically testifies, one or other failed to listen to “the Vatican”, then you cannot blame the latter.

In 2001, the then-cardinal Ratzinger issued norms for the whole church worldwide dealing with sexual abuse cases. One of these stated expressly: “Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed.”

It also asked that such cases be reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But after 2001, Cloyne diocese referred only one case to the congregation, as the Cloyne report itself tells us. Therefore, the diocese was disobeying both church and State!

Fr Lombardi also reminded us of the “intense feelings of grief and condemnation expressed by the pope during his meeting with the Irish bishops summoned to the Vatican on December 11th, 2009” in the wake of the first Murphy report on Dublin. “At the time, the pope spoke openly of his ‘shock and shame’ at the ‘heinous crimes’ committed.”

Last Sunday week, one Irish paper carried an article on the Cloyne report. One can argue with the article, which I did not find to be too bad in itself. But any fair-minded person must object to the image that accompanied it – an image that covered almost half of an entire page. That image summed up the Irish media’s general attitude to the pope (there are, of course, exceptions). It was an image of the pope fully vested for Mass, mitre on head, crozier in hand. Imposed on this image was large red stamp like that on a passport with the words: Persona non grata.

That is the message the Taoiseach’s speech writers conveyed in the Dáil. This is nothing less than at attack on what very many Irish citizens hold dear.

Fr Vincent Twomey SVD is professor emeritus of moral theology, St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, and author of (among others) The End of Irish Catholicism?(Dublin: 2003) and Benedict XVI – The Conscience of Our Age: A theological Portrait(San Francisco, 2007)

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