Sovereign impunity


THE REMARKABLE double-barrelled broadside at the Catholic Church delivered by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the Dáil was both eloquent and courageous on his part, and well-deserved on the church’s. It marks, as has been widely observed, a historic turning point in relations between this State and the Vatican, crystallising in an explosive, defining moment the reality over two decades of the growing estrangement between the church and the Irish body politic, little by little, issue by issue. This message from Catholic Ireland to Rome has also reverberated around the world.

Mr Kenny’s words on Wednesday are doubly significant. They represent not just the entirely appropriate defence of the Republic and the supremacy of its laws by its democratic representative, but a painful personal act of defiance, by a practising Catholic and member of the Christian Democratic political family, of church expectations – indeed, requirements, in the case of “faith and morals” – of Catholic legislators. Et tu Brute!

That has made his stance all the more shocking and powerful, not least because of the sense, widely shared, that this is not a personal flight of fancy but an expression of the furious anger he has felt from his political base, middle Ireland, conservative Catholic Ireland.

And what of the charges to which the Vatican must respond? Over the top, as some apologists suggest? Mr Kenny did not elaborate beyond the claim that the Cloyne report “exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry”, clearly a reference to the snubbing of the Dublin commission by Rome, and the subsequent outright refusal of the papal nuncio to assist the Cloyne commission. The nunciature “does not determine the handling of cases of sexual abuse in Ireland and therefore is unable to assist you in this matter,” Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza had written disingenuously.

That non-co-operation was profoundly obstructive and certainly not peripheral to the inquiries’ remit. The opening of the files in Rome would have demonstrated – will yet demonstrate – the deeply embarrassing reality that the Vatican, at all stages, has had a far greater and earlier knowledge of the detail and scope of priestly abuse than the appropriate agencies of the State, and just how little it did about it. Hence Mr Kenny’s assertion that “the rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and ‘reputation’.”

And the silence was not just about avoiding such revelations, but driven by what Mr Kenny calls the “gimlet eye” of lawyers. It was an essential element of the Vatican’s worldwide twin-pronged legal strategy to avoid civil litigation. On the one hand it rests behind the dubious diplomatic principle – particularly in the context of the Vatican – of sovereign immunity, the idea that a state can do no wrong. On the other, on the repeated, fictional assertion that the Vatican plays no part in handling abuse.

The undermining of the work of an official inquiry into such serious matters is not the act of a friendly state. Mr Kenny has every right to point it out, and forcefully.