Frustration with orders sees hierarchy cross Rubicon


Bishops usually respect the internal affairs of congregations: these are not normal times, writes PATSY McGARRY

IT WAS unprecedented. Lines of authority are deeply respected within the Catholic Church. Generally, a bishop does not interfere in the internal affairs of a religious congregation, even those operating in his diocese. And most certainly no congregation interferes where a bishop’s jurisdiction is concerned, anywhere.

But what happened yesterday was an indication of the depth of frustration felt by Ireland’s Catholic bishops at the seeming stubborn silence of Cori, and of the 18 relevant congregations in particular, since Wednesday last.

Cori made a brief sorrowful statement following publication of the Ryan commission report. Over following days it merely reiterated the one-line mantra that the 18 congregations had no plans to revisit the 2002 redress deal with the State.

This happened even as a public storm over the deal, fomented by Opposition clamour and Government hand-wringing, assumed such epic proportions it threatened to engulf the wider church, itself awaiting anxiously two further statutory reports on clerical child sex abuse, in the Dublin and Cloyne dioceses.

Then, at the weekend, Cori felt unable to supply BBC Northern Ireland’s Sunday Sequence programme with a representative for a discussion on the Ryan commission report.

It seemed there would be no one to represent the church on the programme. Further inquiries led to Cardinal Brady’s general assistant Fr Tim Bartlett going forth, like Noah’s dove, to test the waters, while speaking in a personal capacity. We now know he did so with the permission of Cardinal Brady, who was also aware of Fr Bartlett’s strong personal views on the subject.

On the programme, with some prompting by Sunday Sequence presenter William Crawley, Fr Bartlett eventually crossed the ecclesiastical Rubicon and called on the congregations to revisit the deal.

The umpire had struck.

Within a very short time Fr Bartlett’s own bishop, Most Rev Noel Traenor, Bishop of Down and Connor, rushed in where angels might not tread. He praised Fr Bartlett for his views and his courage, ringfencing his priest from the likely consequences of such courage where the congregations were concerned. Then Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan discovered his voice and called on the congregations to contribute more to the State redress scheme for former residents of institutions.

A momentum was building.

Then yesterday the Catholic Church’s two most senior figures in Ireland, Cardinal Seán Brady and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, publicly intervened directly in the affairs of the 18 congregations.

They did so with a difference.

Cardinal Brady said the congregations should revisit the 2002 deal. Dr Martin, in an article for this newspaper, said “there are many ways in which substantial financial investment in supporting survivors and their families can be brought about”.

He continued: “in many ways it is your last chance to render honour to charismatic founders and to so many good members of your congregations who feel tarnished.” It did not go down well with the 18. They decided to prepare a statement. It was brief and terse and offered little comfort to the bishops, some of whom were then meeting in Maynooth.

In that statement yesterday afternoon the 18 said that “rather than re-opening the terms of the agreement reached with Government in 2002, we reiterate our commitment to working with those who suffered enormously while in our care. We must find the best and most appropriate ways of directly assisting them”.

They promised “to meet again in the coming days to explore the detail of our responses”.

Not for turning. Definitely.

Cori issued a separate statement supporting their 18 colleague congregations “in their efforts to find the best and most appropriate ways forward”.

It was Maynooth’s turn to be silent, if for a little while.

There the Irish Bishops’ Conference Standing Committee was reviewing the situation. Then,about two hours after the 18 congregations and Cori had spoken, the bishops produced their own statement. It was demure as a novice nun at prayer.

They made no reference at all to the 2002 deal, or as to whether it should be revisited, or as to whether there were ways “in which substantial financial investment in supporting survivors and their families could be brought about”. None at all.

There were words of grief and regret about the Ryan commission report and an assurance that they would “work closely with religious congregations and institutes in addressing the needs of survivors of abuse and in the healing process”. That was it.

It seems the bishops may have rediscovered their limits once again.