Concerns about the possible intervention of the Vatican in the future ownership and ethos of the new National Maternity Hospital (NMH) have been raised with the Minister for Health Simon Harris by Amnesty International Ireland.
Executive director Colm O'Gorman said he had set out fresh questions in a letter to the Minister this week, focused on the transfer of ownership of the NMH to the religious-owned St Vincent's Healthcare Group.
"One significant issue which we have not seen addressed is the question of possible intervention by the Vatican regarding issues of both ownership and ethos of the facility," Mr O'Gorman told The Irish Times.
Mr O’Gorman said the Sisters of Charity was an institute of pontifical right, meaning it was under the ultimate authority of the Pope.
“It is not clear to us that the Sisters of Charity are able to give assurance that they will not be required to enforce Catholic ethos in a hospital owned by them, without having received assurances themselves from the Holy See that they are free to do so.”
He said he would like to know if such assurances had been sought from the Vatican authorities.
Pope Francis is due to visit Ireland in the summer of 2018.
Mr O’Gorman also said it was “not inconceivable” that the Sisters of Charity could be wound down at some point in the future due to declining membership, or because the Vatican decided that was appropriate “for any reason”.
He said his understanding of canon law was that the only way the congregation could cease to exist was if “the Holy See suppresses it”.
In such circumstances he outlined that Canon Law was clear the “temporal goods” of the religious institute would be disposed of by the Pope alone.
“This would obviously include any asset of the congregation including property, monies, shares and securities or companies in their ownership.
Questions of independence
“In such a scenario, we would be interested to know how the State could ensure that the hospital remained part of Ireland’s public health system and fully free to operate independently of religious ethos”.
He said he was concerned that his questions be addressed to avoid any delays in the building of the hospital because it was so desperately needed.
Sr Agnes Reynolds, a member of the St Vincent's Healthcare Group board and member of the Sisters of Charity, said last month the €300 million hospital due to be built on the St Vincent's campus in Dublin would "always respect the rights of the mother and the baby".
The congregation has failed to meet its full financial commitment to a redress scheme for victims of institutional child abuse, having paid €2 million of the €5 million it promised to contribute in 2009.