Seriousness of intent evident in papal choice of heavy hitters


The strong line-up of the planned visitation may be marred by Irish diaspora roots and the lack of any lay person, writes PATSY McGARRY, Religious Affairs Correspondent

THERE HAS never been anything like it where the Catholic Church is concerned. It is fair to say that the decision of Pope Benedict to send in nine such “heavy hitters” to investigate the Irish church is a strong indication of the seriousness of his intent when it comes to addressing the clerical child sex abuse crisis in the church. And not just in Ireland.

The recent Vatican apostolic visitation to the international Legionaries of Christ congregation, founded by the deceased (and now established as disreputable) Fr Marcial Maciel, involved just five prelates, none of them at cardinal rank.

But where the team of apostolic visitors announced for Ireland yesterday is somewhat marred is in its composition. All are children of the Irish diaspora, mainly from North America. On the positive side, this may allow for greater insight into the culture of the Irish Catholic church but it may also, unconsciously even, allow for a less than detached approach to aspects of that culture which so easily tolerated the cover-up of clerical child sex abuse, and on such a scale.

Another drawback is that the apostolic visitation team does not include a lay person. Yet, as we saw with the recent annual report from the Irish Catholic Church’s own National Board for Safeguarding Children (NBSC), it is a virtual army of lay Catholics which is now at the child protection barricades in parishes and dioceses across Ireland.

And there remain serious questions over one of those named yesterday when it came to his own handling of clerical child sex abuse cases. The inclusion of Cardinal Murphy O’Connor would seem to indicate that the Vatican has a reply to that question posed on St Patrick’s Day by Cardinal Seán Brady in Armagh Cathedral. It followed newspaper revelations the previous Sunday that, in 1975, Cardinal Brady had conducted canonical investigations into child sex abuse allegations against Fr Brendan Smyth. He believed the two teenagers making the allegations and swore them to secrecy as part of the canonical process. On St Patrick’s Day then, when reflecting on renewal in the Church, he said: “None of us knows where that new beginning will lead. Does it allow for wounded healers, those who have made mistakes in their past to have a part in shaping the future?”

Following yesterday’s announcement from Rome that Cardinal Murphy O’Connor will lead the apostolic visitation to Armagh archdiocese, it would appear the Vatican’s answer to Cardinal Brady’s St Patrick’s Day question is a resounding “Yes”.

This is emphasised even more so when it is realised that Cardinal Murphy O’Connor, who was Cardinal Brady’s equivalent in England and Wales where he had been primate before retirement in April 2009, would too have been perceived as something of “a wounded healer”. He also endured slings and arrows over his handling of clerical child sex abuse allegations.

His primary difficulties where that issue was concerned centred on his decision in 1985, when he was bishop of Arundel and Brighton, to move Fr Michael Hill to the chaplaincy at Gatwick airport, even though he knew the priest had a history of child abuse.

He had removed Hill from ministry for 18 months because of abuse allegations but then allowed him back to work as a chaplain at Gatwick airport where Hill abused another child.

Hill was jailed for five years for that offence in 2002.

Speaking to this newspaper on the matter when visiting Dublin in October 2002, Cardinal Murphy O’Connor said: “I should not have appointed him . . . All one can do is apologise”. He said he could only admit ignorance of the gravity of the issue at the time and the danger to children.

Interviewed on BBC2’s Newsnightprogramme around the same time, Cardinal Murphy O’Connor again acknowledged he made a “grave” mistake in his handling of the Hill case.

On the plus side, it was Cardinal Murphy O’Connor who set up the group under the chairmanship of retired judge Lord Nolan which prepared the strict child protection guidelines for the Church in England and Wales published as the Nolan report in 2001 and implemented since.

To complete the parallels where the two primate cardinals are concerned, it was under Cardinal Brady that all the current child protection guidelines were prepared and implemented by the Catholic Church in Ireland and it was also under Cardinal Brady that the church’s effective child protection watchdog, the NBSC, was set up.