Archbishop Diarmuid Martin reflects on past decade

Full interview with head of Dublin diocese by Patsy McGarry

The Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin will be 10 years in that role on Saturday next, April 26th. He reflects on the past decade in an interview with Religious Affairs Correspondent Patsy McGarry.

What was the high point of the past 10 years where you are concerned?

“It was the way in which the peoples in our parishes rallied after the Murphy report (it investigated the handling of clerical child sex abuse allegations in the Dublin archdiocese and was published in November 2009) and the establishment of robust child protection facilities. It was very impressive to see how people took responsibility to address a problem and a challenge which they didn’t cause. The 2012 Eucharistic Congress was an important event. Will it go down in the corporate memory of Ireland as did the 1932 Eucharistic Congress? The answer is no.”

And the low point? "The Murphy report. The most traumatic experience was the gathering and acquainting myself with the information involved with the report, as well as listening to victims, which is still going on. Listening to the trauma brought on them, families, spouses and children…The Murphy Commission couldn't have worked if we hadn't co-operated. Some say gardaí and HSE got off light. We provided information and I haven't the slightest remorse about having done that. I believe it was absolutely important that it come out. Looking back, the most frightening for me is that we had, at the same time, 10 serial (clerical) paedophiles active in the archdiocese of Dublin (in 1970s). There's no way you can say that was system's failure. That was a terrible thing. It's very hard to explain it."


Critics of the Murphy report have been busy of late. What's your view of them? "There's a certain revisionism of the Murphy report abroad. I have no mandate to defend Judge Murphy but there was a reality there. If people don't say that shouldn't have happened then I don't know what world they belong in. The Pope himself has said that he wants to take/assume a responsibility within the Church for what happened. There can be no denial of that and there can be no denial that the Church in which that happened had got it severely wrong.

“It didn’t seem to dawn on them (revisionists) that if you wanted to get a priest who has a wide understanding of what went on with the Murphy report I could have had something to say. I was never asked by any of them. In some cases I’m clearly criticised in public and what I’m finding is that these people are doing exactly what they accuse the Murphy Commission of doing, they’re giving me no right to reply.”

What about those who say the aftermath of Murphy wasn't handled well? "People are saying that maybe we didn't do enough to deal with the trauma of priests. That's a fair criticism. But the trouble was the atmosphere afterwards became so difficult that it wouldn't have been easy to do that. A lot of priests were genuinely traumatised but a polarisation came out of that. Meetings held were not about the Murphy report, which was about children who were abused. Much of the reaction was about church personalities not about the children".

“What upset me after publication of the Murphy report were the sort of bland apologies. It just wasn’t to me the sort of reaction that should be coming from a situation within the Church of Jesus Christ. The sort of things said to me included `I studied law and in all my course there was never mention of paedophilia.’ Paedophilia isn’t a crime. Rape, the sexual abuse of children are crimes. In Archbishop McQuaid’s time canonical trials took place. We had a priest arrested in the 1950s for child sexual abuse. It was well known that child molesters were at high risk in prison because they were considered the lowest of the low, which means there was an awareness in legal circles that child molesting took place.”

Were you surprised the resignations offered by Dublin's two remaining auxiliary bishops after Murphy were not accepted by Rome? "That's a story which will be told when the archives are opened. All I can say is this is that the majority written on this is pure speculation. It doesn't tell a very complicated story. Most of what is there is speculation and it's wrong."

How are relations between you and the two auxiliary bishops concerned? "We have good working relationship."

What of the 2010/2011 apostolic visitation sent by Rome after Murphy to investigate the Irish Church? "It set expectations it was never going to realise and I think there are lessons to be learned for future events of that kind. It actually, in some ways, delayed reforms in the Irish church because, somehow or other, it created the impression reform would come from outside where in the long term the changes and the reforms are beginning to take place now. This is not just with the appointment of new bishops, it's going on in parishes. To some extent the apostolic visitation froze the Irish church at a particular moment and that isn't a criticism of those who carried it out, maybe a criticism of those who planned it. But, for the future the Irish church has to find the answers for the Irish church and where it has done so it has done so well, with the National Board for Safeguarding Children (NBSC).Towards Healing, etc. for instance."

The NBSC seems to be in difficulty? "I think it has done a great job. Ian Elliott (retired chief executive) did extraordinary work. He certainly was the right man in the right place at the right time. Only a person with his dogged determination would have got the systems going. Everybody recognises that. I have great confidence in Teresa Devlin, also a person of great integrity. I would hope that the credibility of the board is not weakened. That isn't in the interests of anybody. But there are tensions."

Are there difficulties where brother bishops are concerned? "You'd have to ask them. I would be considered at the bishops' conference as speaking in a forthright manner but I think bishops respect that. When serious problems arise I am turned to as well. I've no personal problem with any individual bishop."

What about your well-known reluctance to return to Dublin? "I'd spent most of my life in a very different world. I was happy in various positions I had. I felt that maybe somebody who was closer to the realities of being a diocesan bishop would be better. I know my own limitations and, somebody said, if I don't feel up to it I should resign. None of us are perfect. I know where my abilities and talents are and where my lackings are and as time goes on I'm more aware of these."

And now? "We've just finished the third Council of Priests that has taken place in my time. Our Council of Priests meets more regularly than most Councils of Priests. It does a good deal of business. It shapes pastoral planning. Parish pastoral councils came from them, parish pastoral workers came from them, a re-look at the financial system came from them, this time a revision of the deaneries to incorporate more lay people into running them…these all came from the Council of Priests. We also took up problems of priestly life. I don't make up decisions on my own. Someone said parish pastoral councils was my idea. It wasn't.

Have you enjoyed the job? "Yes. I am doing 40 Confirmations this year and it's great meeting, listening and talking to people at an important moment in their lives. You see I like my native city, always did. I'm very much aware of the fact the archdiocese of Dublin isn't just Dublin city. I've really tried to ensure that the services the diocese provides are the same quality in big towns such as Athy, Wicklow and Arklow."

What about the rumour that you may be en route back to Rome at Pope Francis's request? "That was a perception greatly cultivated by a number of journalists on the basis of, effectively, clerical gossip. Anybody who tries to interpret Pope Francis's ideas doesn't know what they are talking about. Pope Francis reveals his intention when he has done it."

Looking at Ireland now what do you think where attitudes generally are concerned? "We have to develop a mature relationship with our past, our present, with secularisation and with the strong commitment and interest of people of faith in this country, who are still there. We have to find ways which are creative, which allow each of us to flourish in our own traditions. And also to flourish in public in our traditions.

What about pluralism in schools? "I took a lead because I believe we will only have pluralism when, in schools, there's a plurality of patronage which allows people of different traditions to flourish within their tradition and that those who want a faith-based education will be allowed to have that and those who want something different, they also have a civic right to have that provided for them. It doesn't mean that Catholic schools would simply be Catholic ghettoes. No one would want that.

“We’ve given a lead but are still running into difficulties and challenges, usually around local issues. Maybe, for the future, a more robust collaboration between the Department (of Education) and the Church would make these things move a little quickly. Consultation is a slow process and it isn’t moving quickly

The demography of Ireland is quite complex. Demographers will say that by 2050 the population may come back to the mythical eight million figure and more than of those will live on a narrow strip along the east coast, which means a huge number will be in the archdiocese of Dublin. We have more children under four than we have people over 70 in Dublin. We have an ageing population and a very young population. Talking to one parish priest the other day he had 330 baptisms last year, that’s 10 school classes. We have to be looking at that.”

What about the ideological battles between conservatives and liberals in Ireland today? "We have to learn to fight our agendas robustly but respectfully. I still say we're a stage in secularisation in Ireland where there are still what I call adolescent elements, on both sides, who are reacting rather than coming into mature debate. If I look at the debate on religious pluralism in Germany, or in Switzerland, or even in Italy it's a very different type of debate. The religious culture of Ireland is actually very complex and quite original. You can get into a debate and get hit in the face by one side unexpectedly."

What is the position of Irish Catholic hospitals when it comes to implementing measures allowed by the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act? "As yet the Government has to produce guidelines. Hospitals have an ethos. In some cases that ethos is contractual and can't be legally broken. I would hope there'd room for conscientious objection of individuals, which again hasn't been defined. I believe that most of our hospitals have been dealing with the conflicts covered in the new legislation in a very serious manner and one which protects the life and health of all people. We shouldn't lose that."

What of the derogation in equality legislation which allows churches to not employ people in schools and hospital whose lifestyle is deemed not to be compatible with their ethos? I refer to gay people, single mothers, co-habiting couples. "I believe that the more pluralism we have in types of school then individuals who've got problems of ethos or personal questions would be free to find a place where they would be happy with the ethos.

What about teachers in particular? "In the discussion on divesting and pluralism in education not enough has been said about teachers. I'm not happy with somebody who really doesn't believe, being forced to be the religious education teacher in a school. It isn't what I would want in a Catholic school. There has to be a way for teachers to be able to move to the type of school where they would be happier in accordance with their own conscience and convictions. A further complication is that there's nothing more local than the local school and there's nothing more complex than teacher politics. If we want to move forward into a truly pluralist system, then we have to find ways of accommodating people and of everybody taking a courageous stance over their convictions."

How do you see the future of the archdiocese? "At the moment the number of priests has gone below 400 for first time. Of those about 130 are retired, out of ministry, sick, so on. For 199 parishes we've got about 250 active diocesan priests. The age ratio very high. We have the support of religious congregations in 20 or so parishes. We have at the moment one parish without a priest.

In the past year liturgies are well attended with real participation. There’s something happening with very strong lay participation. I can’t explain this but in the past 12 months this has become more visible to me. The decrease in priests’ income, that’s stabilising. In some areas there’s been a stabilisation in Mass attendance. Are we stabilising at too low a level? I think we are. This is where we need a much stronger missionary outreach, particularly to young people, to help them feel within themselves what we felt at their age in an understanding of faith and commitment.

“We have to reach out to that strange gap between faith and public life. Right across Europe you have a group of people, who even enter politics, faith-driven in that their concept of politics as a service comes from their faith. To some extent the Church retreated from a strong cultural presence because the strong cultural presence we inherited was not the right one and was being rejected, and therefore we might be retreating back away from that.

“The diocese that I came into is a very different diocese today. It is a better diocese. I don’t look for praise for leadership. I’m not doing it, priests are doing it. Despite everything we have enough priests to continue for a number of years. We’re not in the dramatic situation of Latin America and so on. I think the parish of the future will look very different. And many of the things priests are doing will be done by others. The priest will be the one who will lead the liturgy but even the liturgy will be different. Going out to the parishes I’m finding this is already taking place and it isn’t a devaluation of the role of the priest. It’s a different relationship. If that develops and flourishes I think we’re going to have a more vibrant, a smaller church.

“I’m getting older (69). I don’t have the energy I had. We have to get a younger generation within the church who are going to be the leaders in this. It won’t be the way we did things in the past. It won’t be running institutions.

How many of the recent Popes did you know personally? "I didn't know Pope John Paul. I would have met him. I didn't know Pope Paul VI well but I would have known Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict and this Pope."

What about Pope Francis? "The thing that fascinates me about Pope Francis is this ability to see the rigorism and laxism he mentions. We (in Ireland) came from a very rigorist tradition. The tendency is that we might move into laxism now. Pope Francis has this amazing ability to place himself in the grey area in between and to say the rigorist and the laxist have both got it wrong and that all of us are sinners and all of us are journeying. We've to find a new way of talking about this and a new way of being the Church.

“People are quite surprised at some of the things he says. He’s not saying he’s changing the Church’s teaching. He’s saying `look, we live in this world, me as Pope included, of not really living up to the teaching’.

"He has certainly, with regard to the Vatican, brought about change which is quite radical. And he has done it in unusual ways. He has shown a real sense of governance. He had done what the great CEOs do, he has changed the whole atmosphere of a place where people are more proud to belong to the organisation. He has done that by charism and by dedication, but he has also shown a very sharp sense of governance. His moving to Santa Marta isn't simply that he likes to live in communion.

“He has broken down a whole system of people who managed access to him and he hasn’t relinquished on that. He’s still very, very determined that he’s not going to be pushed into the system. You can see in certain parts of the Church a great unease about this man because they simply don’t know what next and they’re right. The leaders in policy there are not the heads of the dicasteries (Roman Curia) but eight cardinals from around the world.”

Is it likely that there will be greater emphasis under this Pope on decision making at local level? "I think there will. If you listen carefully to him he wants to hear what is happening at the local level but he's not saying everybody go their own way. He has said no local church should go off on its own. He's renowned for listening, for gathering but he's quite strong about his own responsibilities."

You met him last week. "I've met him a couple of times. I met him at synods and he knew who I was but he always refers to a conversation we had in Quebec (2008) during the Eucharistic Congress then. But I don't know him in the way I would have known Pope Benedict, who I know on a personal level. I would have known Pope John Paul on a work basis but the present Pope is always very affectionate towards me."

Were you surprised at speed with which the canonisation of Pope John Paul II is going ahead? "There's a certain wisdom in canon law that indicated you don't rush into canonisations, but I've no particular difficulty. Saints are not perfect people. They're people who tried to live in a saintly way but they would all have their characteristics. It is interesting that Pope Francis decided to have the two canonisations together (of Popes John XXIII and Pope John Paul II). He's never explained that.

The interesting thing is that most people today don’t know who Pope John XXIII was. I remember watching his election on television. It was before RTE existed. When I was born we prayed for Pope Pius and our Archbishop John Charles. I was 12 or13. Seeing this chubby Pope who didn’t seem nearly as perfect as Pius XII had been presented. Then the idea of him going out to prisons and hospitals, whereas the previous Pope had been the prisoner in the Vatican. There are, in that sense, many similarities between Pope John and this Pope

Pope John was only a few days pope when he started talking about the Vatican Council. Both of these popes (Francis and John XXIII) within days were making decisions. They both had an idea as to what they wanted to do. They weren't totally baffled and surprised."

Pope Francis has called for a poor church for the poor. How is that compatible with Archbishop's House in Drumcondra? "My living quarters are smaller than his (Pope Francis). He uses the Vatican, he receives people there all the time. My staff is half that of my predecessor. I probably cook more meals for myself than he did. I look after myself, do my own shopping. I also have to ensure those 100 something priests who are retired that they are supporter and get the quality of support they need. That's not easy today."

What changes do you see Pope Francis bringing about. "I think more a change in the atmosphere in which people are being asked to live, than a change in teaching. But that is not to be underestimated. It would be a more realistic way in which all of us will understand we're all imperfect in the way we live. It's saying to everybody you take responsibility for the way you live."

Of the Popes you knew what were they like? "All were very, very different. Pope Benedict worked for Pope John Paul but is also a very different man. Benedict is a man of very deep intellect and extraordinary sensitivity. Pope John Paul was a very practical man. He was also a very sensitive person, a man who always wanted to say thanks to anyone who helped him. It was quite humbling. The amazing thing about this Pope is that the man I remember (from before) was very quiet, reserved. He didn't have that sense of reaching out that he has now. In that sense he has changed and he has changed at the age of 78 which is quite a remarkable achievement.

“Both Pope John XXIII and Pope Francis are similar. Both wanted to open windows and blow away cobwebs. This man wants even the windows that don’t open to transparent.”

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times