Genuine reform and the church


THAT GROUPS representing victims of clerical sex abuse should demand the resignation of Cardinal Seán Brady is understandable. It is beyond dispute that his failure in 1975 to report allegations against Fr Brendan Smyth to the police contributed to allowing the latter continue his reign of terror for years. Whether a resignation, although gratifying a desire for holding someone to account, will contribute to protecting children in future or to the dismantling of the Catholic Church’s culture of impunity and cover-up is another matter. Perhaps. But it is not the crucial response.

The real measure of the church’s willingness and ability to face such challenges will not be the number of bishops’ heads on plates, as powerful a symbol as that might be, but the extent of genuine reform in the institution. In that respect the second report of the National Board for Safeguarding Children (NBSC) on Monday and the comments of its chairman, John Morgan, and chief executive, Ian Elliott, provide important and welcome indicators.

Reassuringly Mr Elliott is able to conclude that the board’s work means that “children should be safer today within the church than they once were”, and that “those that seek to harm children should feel much less secure”. That is a modest but probably realistic boast, and he also welcomes the receptiveness of the church to the board’s training as evidence of a willingness to learn.

The report finds that 1,230 of the country’s 1,365 parishes now have at least one trained “safeguarding representative” in place to monitor best child protection practice – some 2,356 have trained – and complete coverage of all parishes “should be complete within months”. Three dioceses, Clonfert, Killala, and Ossory have yet to appoint any, but their naming should provide a powerful imperative to comply.

Mr Morgan rightly, however, put the challenge in a broader context, reflecting wider, more radical criticism of the church’s culture, including Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin’s recent comments. “There is little apparent recognition,” Morgan says, “that Vatican II decisively moved the role of the church lay faithful from collaboration to co-responsibility. A form of collective authority in the safeguarding of children might assist the ushering in of a wider recognition of the principle of co-responsibility.”

His words echo the recent appeal by theologian Hans Küng to the pope, complaining that he had “missed ... the opportunity to make the spirit of the Second Vatican Council the compass for the whole Catholic Church, including the Vatican itself, and thus to promote the needed reforms in the church.”

“Until clericalism is completely behind us, we are not going to see change,” Morgan argues. “Clericalism is the antithesis of what the church is supposed to be about.” And he challenged lay Catholics “to take initiatives, to put it up to church leadership.”

That essential recognition of the necessity for a revolution of lay empowerment in the church remains a battle unwon.