The Vatican's response


THE VATICAN in its statement responding to criticism from the Taoiseach acknowledges the “anger, confusion and sadness” of the faithful in Ireland. Unfortunately, its statement shows that it is still struggling to engage with those feelings.

There are a few points of detail on which the Vatican’s response is convincing. It makes a good argument, for example, that the Taoiseach took out of context an apparently damning claim by the then Cardinal Ratzinger that the standards of democratic civil society do not apply to the church. It is entirely legitimate for the Vatican to seek to balance some of the Taoiseach’s more emotive rhetoric and to challenge his claim that as little as three years ago, the Holy See attempted to frustrate inquiries into child abuse. But Irish Catholics, and citizens in general, had a right to expect much more from an institution that sets itself up as the ultimate arbiter of spiritual and moral truth than some effective debating points.

The most notable aspect of the Vatican statement is what it does not contain – any substantial reflection on the Cloyne report itself. While declaring itself “sorry and ashamed” for the suffering of victims, it expresses neither sorrow nor shame for the systematic covering up of abuse by church authorities.

The central issue is a letter from the papal nuncio, Archbishop Luciano Storero, to the Irish Bishops Conference in January 1997. The nuncio described the framework document on child abuse, which urged full disclosure to the civil authorities, as “merely a study document” which could be “highly embarrassing and detrimental”. The Cloyne report finds that this letter gave succour to those within the church who did not wish to comply with the new framework.

In essence, the Vatican’s argument in its response is that the framework was indeed a study document rather than an official and binding statement of church policy. This begs a basic question. Given that the Vatican was heavily involved in the drawing up of the framework document, why did it think a mere “study document” was a sufficient response to such a grave crisis?

The basic weakness of the response is its pervasive air of academic distance. It is heavily freighted, in a manner all too familiar from previous Vatican documents, with references to the fine points of canon law. It still dwells heavily on the need for church responses to allegations of child abuse to be “in harmony with canonical procedures”, as if those procedures had some relevance to child protection.

There is no sense in the document of the moral urgency of ending, once and for all, a corrupt culture of placing the interests of the church as an institution before the welfare of children. In this regard, the Vatican’s statement is more a manifestation of the problem than a response to it. It is quite extraordinary, for example, that the Vatican can say, with a straight face, that “the firm and determined approach adopted by the Irish bishops . . . made it unnecessary for [The Holy See] to intervene further”. Did it really believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that the covering up of child abuse had simply ceased by 1997?

It is hard to avoid the sense that the Vatican is still more concerned with avoiding any admission of legal responsibility than with the anger, confusion and sadness of the faithful. To a moral and spiritual crisis, it has given only a bureaucratic, self-serving and legalistic response.