Church and State relations


THE BISHOPS named in the Dublin diocese report must be made accountable for their behaviour. There is, nevertheless, a danger that in focusing in particular on the position of Bishop Donal Murray, we may miss a central point. Ultimate responsibility for the way in which the safety of children was so recklessly ignored does not lie with any individual bishop. It does not lie even with the Irish hierarchy as a whole. It lies with the Vatican.

We know this because the approach to allegations of child abuse was consistent, not simply between bishops or across Irish dioceses, but around the world. There was a way of doing things – keeping the crimes secret and moving the abusers on to another parish until the whole pattern began to repeat itself. It does not absolve Donal Murray from personal responsibility to say that he was part of this system. Equally, however, the mindset behind the system would not be fundamentally altered by his resignation.

It is in the light of the primary role of the Vatican that we must see the unwillingness of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and of the papal nuncio to respond to requests for information from the Murphy commission. The Taoiseach, in a painfully deferential statement in the Dáil, has endorsed these refusals as acts of “good faith” consistent with diplomatic norms. This submissiveness is entirely inappropriate to the leader of a republic, some of whose most vulnerable citizens have been grievously harmed by the policies and practices of the Holy See. It also shows either an unwillingness or an inability to grasp the nature of the scandal with which his Government is supposed to be dealing.

The Vatican does not do things lightly. When it refused to deal with the commission except through diplomatic contacts at the level of one state to another, it was not being precious. It was asserting a claim that is crucial to its efforts to avoid the consequences of its own policies. The insistence on being treated as a state rather than as a church is the key to its claim of sovereign immunity. The context for this claim is a case in the US in which the circuit court of appeals ruled that the Vatican could be sued by victims of an Irish priest. The US supreme court is currently considering whether to hear an appeal from the Vatican, which is hoping to avoid a wave of lawsuits from victims in the US.

It is quite disgraceful that the Taoiseach should play along with this manoeuvre by endorsing the Vatican’s behaviour towards the commission. If the Vatican is indeed to be regarded simply as a foreign state, then it is a state that has colluded in the commission of vile crimes against Irish citizens. Those citizens have a right to expect their Government to mount at the very least a strong formal protest such as the withdrawal of our Ambassador to the Holy See. And if it is not to be regarded as a state, then it should be seen as an organisation with deep roots in this society and therefore answerable to the Irish people for its conduct. Either way, the Taoiseach’s humbly supine posture is as insulting to the victims as it is humiliating to the Republic.