Nuncio's recall is serious for church-State ties


ANALYSIS:Relations between Ireland and the Vatican may be worse than is immediately apparent in the wake of the Taoiseach’s speech, writes DERMOT KEOGH

WHEN I first read the speech by Taoiseach Enda Kenny regarding the Cloyne report, I wrongly concluded it had been delivered following widespread consultation within government departments, and that it was rooted in a carefully worked-out diplomatic strategy.

I know now that neither was the case.

The most senior officials in the relevant Government departments – people with wide experience and knowledge of church-State diplomacy – were not consulted, and there was no carefully crafted diplomatic plan. The speech, more scattergun than sure shot, ignored the checks and balances of an administrative system which has served this State well since its foundation.

It was hardly part of an Irish Government grand strategy to force the recall of the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza – unprecedented in the history of relations between this country and the Holy See. The archbishop had served in that position only since February 22nd, 2008.

But longevity is not the issue here.

The Holy See has a policy of seeking to preserve diplomatic relations intact even in the most trying and difficult of circumstances. Keeping an envoy in residence through revolutions, dictatorships and authoritarian regimes is part of the risk of working in the diplomatic profession. The diplomatic service of the Holy See is no exception. Diplomats have risked their lives, and paid with them, in upholding professional values and protecting the interests and citizens of their respective countries. The apostolic nuncio to Burundi, archbishop Michael Courtney, from Nenagh, was assassinated on December 29th, 2003, while in the service of the Holy See.

Why, therefore, would the Holy See recall the Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland when the secretariat of state [foreign ministry of the Holy See] has left in position apostolic nuncios to serve in countries where clergy and bishops have been murdered by the government authorities, as in Argentina, in the latter part of the 1970s? One might, at random, add historical examples from the Nazi and Fascist periods in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.

I cite these in an effort to underline the significance of recalling a nuncio from Ireland at this time. It must be emphasised the Holy See has not broken off diplomatic relations with this country. The nunciature in Dublin still functions, but without its head of mission.

This is as significant a drawback as it is a rebuff. Dublin and the Holy See, not wishing to make a bad situation worse, have politely attempted to minimise the importance of the recall in public. The contents of the respective diplomatic bags may tell another story.

What precipitated that action may be viewed by many in Ireland as over-reaction by the Holy See to just criticism by an Irish head of government. However, observing what has transpired, senior officials in the secretariat of state would have felt stupefaction at the tone and content of the Taoiseach’s address. Historically, Ireland simply did not behave in that way. When there were differences between Dublin and the Holy See, normal diplomatic channels had been used to conduct discussions between the two sovereign states.

The Taoiseach’s speech was a radical departure at a number of levels. Firstly, there were unintended discourtesies which anyone familiar with the workings of the diplomatic world would regard as serious. When speaking formally as head of government in parliament, the Holy See will have come to expect from Dublin a more guarded and precise use of language.

The depiction of the culture dominating “the Vatican to this day” as dysfunctional, elitist and narcissistic is hardly language associated with a speech by one head of government addressing another. Such scattergun language might have wounded, but would not have provoked a recall démarche.

But the key to the recall lies in another part of the speech which spoke of “an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an Inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic . . . as little as three years ago, not three decades ago”. The Taoiseach also spoke of the “rape and torture of children” being downplayed or “‘managed’” by the Holy See “to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and ‘reputation’.”

Based on the words quoted above, is the head of the Irish government accusing the Holy See of deliberate and wilful efforts to prevent his government from dealing with clerical child sexual abuse? Are those accusations being addressed to the Holy See as an entity of the international system? If so, what is quoted above goes much further than stating the Holy See did not act robustly, expeditiously and in a timely fashion to oblige the Irish church to provide disclosure and mandatory reporting.

Is the speech making the Holy See formally responsible for the perpetuation of clerical child sexual abuse in Ireland? In that context, the recall of the apostolic nuncio from Dublin was not a petulant over-reaction. It was the only course open to the Holy See, given the gravity of the charges being laid against it by the head of the Irish Government.

While an official reply is being carefully drafted – with the help of Archbishop Leanza – it ought to be clear that the current conflict between the Holy See and the Government should not be allowed to deepen.

However, the speech has had unforeseen consequences which makes the chances of that happening all the more likely. An editorial in China News, for example, quotes the text of the Taoiseach’s speech to justify the repressive policy of the Chinese government towards the Catholic Church. This is an abuse of the Taoiseach’s speech. It will make for interesting exchanges between the Irish Ambassador in Beijing and the Chinese foreign ministry. It will also keep the chargé d’affaires at the Irish Embassy to the Holy See busy in the latter days of August.

Dublin now awaits the return of Archbishop Leanza to say his formal goodbyes (he has been posted to the Czech Republic) and to deliver the Holy See’s response. Reading the two documents side-by-side – the Taoiseach’s speech and the response of the Holy See – will make for an interesting contrast in styles. The document from the Holy See is bound to be an exemplar of high diplomacy, its content having relevance way beyond the shores of this small island.

Standing back from the world of high diplomacy, it is vital to keep a clear focus on what happened in Ireland regarding child sexual abuse. The Irish State, Irish society and the churches – the Catholic Church to the fore – must face up to their lamentable failure to protect children over the past 90 years.

In the Cloyne report there is reference to a primary school principal – whom I once had the pleasure to teach – who, in the late 1990s, withstood the might and complicity of Catholic Church authorities in that diocese, and at the very highest level, to discharge her duty of care to her students. Threatened with being taken to the “highest court in the land”, she would not yield to demands which would have put boys in her charge in danger of being abused by a priest. Facing calumny and detraction, she still would not yield. It was a lonely and a singular stance.

In reviewing the history of the past 90 years on this island, why – confronted by such widespread child sexual abuse – were there so few “righteous gentiles” in church, State or society ready to stand up and speak out in the face of such an unspeakable, pervasive evil?

Dr Dermot Keogh is Professor Emeritus, University College Cork

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