Reading the silence: reflections on a buried report


OPINION: A priest on the staff of one of the seminaries described in the papal visitation report reflects on its methodology

WHEN THE Report of the Apostolic Visitation of the Irish Church made the headlines recently, I thought back to the origins of the visitation.

It was first mentioned by Pope Benedict, in his 2010 pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland.

Near the end of that letter, the pope stated that the visitation was “intended to assist the local church on her path of renewal”.

That was just a couple of paragraphs after he had told the bishops of Ireland: “Only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and good will of the Irish people towards the church.”

From those words alone, I think it’s pretty clear that Pope Benedict’s mandate has not been fulfilled by those to whom it was entrusted.

The end product of the visitation is a document that is, by all appearances, considered unpublishable. With the exception of a very small number, not even the bishops of Ireland have been given the report. So much for complete honesty and transparency. So much for ownership of the task of renewal.

And how can the local church possibly be assisted on her path of renewal by a document that has been buried, but has been surfacing in the form of leaked copy? It is alarming beyond words that Pope Benedict’s pastoral concern for Ireland has been so poorly served that transparency is now deemed impossible.

A document that is offered as a gift to a church on its path towards renewal should not be leaked: it should be freely offered to all. If it can’t be, then it’s hardly a gift. The mere fact that the notion of “leak” is applicable speaks volumes. There will always be a place for honest conversation away from the glare of public attention, but if everything is covert, then we have a problem.

Let me state immediately that I do not blame the few Irish bishops who have seen the report. Perhaps the only sane thing to do with toxic waste is to bury it – or to send it back where it came from. Nor, for a moment, would I call for publication of the document. The decision to bury it has, presumably, been taken for good reason.

While my take on the issue is purely personal, I have been a member of the staff of an institution which is mentioned in the visitation report. I would find it understandable if my concerns were to be suspected, or even dismissed outright, as a kind of defensive posturing.

But this brings me to the greatest irony of all. Like most professionals who apply themselves seriously to their task, priests and religious are open to correction and learning, but whatever valid teachings, corrections or insights the report contains have been silenced along with the rest of the content. Whatever wisdom is there has, alas, found itself in the wrong company. The wheat has been pulled up with the weeds.

Even as I write these thoughts, I feel the urge to do a reality check. Have I missed something? Surely the picture can’t possibly be so bleak? As it happens, a reality check is to hand, in the shape of the official summary of the visitation report, published a couple of months ago.

At the risk of understatement, the summary now looks distinctly anodyne. If anything, it serves to confirm the impression that the real report is about as helpful as a hatchet in the hands of a surgeon.

In his 2010 pastoral letter, Pope Benedict also made a heartfelt pastoral outreach to the priests and religious of Ireland. To them, he openly acknowledged: “I know that many of you are disappointed, bewildered and angered by the way these matters have been handled by some of your superiors.” How sadly applicable these words are to the present situation!

Where and how did we acquire such expertise in the replication of patterns of institutional failure?

When and how will we learn that the way to justice cannot be paved with collateral damage inflicted by grand restorationist projects?

Will we ever learn that no amount of covert cruelty can generate the faintest hint of transparent kindness?

That said, I remain hopeful for the future of Irish Catholicism. I believe that hope can be based squarely on at least two factors: need and gift. Arguably, the need has never been greater, and it’s beyond argument that the Gospel is as great a gift as ever. There are other signs of hope, including the many indices of robust health that are to be found in Irish Catholicism today, some of which were evident at the Eucharistic Congress.

Our church may, at times, lurch with all the clumsiness of Peter’s attempt to walk on water, but if we believe that the Lord is at hand, then we can learn to dispense with both manic zeal and overwhelming anxiety.

But right now, the visitation report – buried though it may be – is stalking the Irish Church with all the sensitivity of an ecclesiastical Godzilla. Perhaps even now, it could be sent back, with a respectful request for a considered revision, one that is leak-proof because it is intended to be offered freely; an open statement of the truth, that would honour rather than hinder the Holy Father’s mandate of pastoral concern for the Catholics of Ireland.

Fr Chris Hayden is a priest of the Diocese of Ferns