Vatican meeting with Irish bishops disappoints victims

The unprecedented Feb. 15-16 meeting in Rome of Ireland’s bishops with Pope Benedict XVI was never going to solve at a stroke the crisis over their mishandling of clerical sex abuse. 

But it was an opportunity to draw some of the sting from last November’s Murphy report, an independent commission’s investigation led by Judge Yvonne Murphy into the Archdiocese of Dublin’s cover-up of allegations against priests between 1975 and 2004. 

It was, after all, the first time the pope had summoned an entire hierarchy in response to clerical sex abuse. Expectations ran high. Yet abuse survivors were angry and depressed at the absence of concrete actions, and the headlines dismissed the meeting as a whitewash. 

No concrete actions 

The two-day meeting consisted of Ireland’s 24 bishops taking seven minutes each to give Pope Benedict their analysis. Afterward, a Vatican statement pulled no punches: This was “a grave crisis” that “has led to a breakdown in trust in the Church’s leadership.” At its root was “the failure of the Irish Church authorities for years to act effectively over cases of sexual abuse against young people.” The pope “challenged the bishops to address the problems of the past with determination and resolve, and to face the present crisis with honesty and courage.” 

Yet no concrete actions were spelled out beyond the promise of a Lenten letter from Pope Benedict XVI, expected this month. Abuse survivor groups had been hoping, at the least, that the resignation offers of four bishops named in the report would be accepted, although it would have been unusual for this to have happened in such a meeting. Nor was it ever a realistic possibility that Pope Benedict would agree publicly to meet abuse survivors as part of the summit. When he has done so, it has been privately, behind closed doors. 

But what made abuse survivors angry was the evident rebuffing of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin. After the Murphy report exposed a pattern of cover-up of sexual abuse in the Dublin archdiocese, Archbishop Martin openly criticized fellow bishops for their failures, and publicly urged those blamed in the report — Dublin auxiliaries at the time — to examine their consciences and offer to step down. 

The suggestion was popular with abuse survivors, but it angered a number of the bishops, whose fury has been on display in letters leaked recently to the Irish Catholic newspaper. 

‘A defeated man’ 

Going into the meeting, Archbishop Martin assured victims’ groups that he would relay to the pope their demand for the resignation of more bishops, and would encourage the pope to arrange a meeting with abuse survivors. And he boldly predicted that the meeting would lead to a “very significant reorganization of the Church in Ireland.”  

But once in Rome, Archbishop Martin faded. The Vatican statement made no reference to a reorganization, nor to bishops standing down, nor even to the culture of collusion that had so endangered young people. Archbishop Martin was conspicuously absent from the press conference afterward, and he made no comment once he returned to Dublin. 

Several days after the Rome meeting, Archbishop Martin met abuse survivors, one of whom afterward described him as “a defeated man.” Marie Collins told Irish broadcaster RTE News: “He told us he had passed on our concerns to the pontiff, but that none of them were addressed.” She added: “I think Rome looks on the unity of the bishops as far more important than anything else.” 

Archbishop Martin denied his wings had been clipped. But he did downplay expectations of Pope Benedict’s Lenten letter. 

“The nature of the letter the pope will write may not be exactly what people are expecting,” he said. “We shouldn’t be putting our hopes in any individual moment in what I believe was a process.” 

Confronting the cause 

At the heart of the abuse survivors’ disappointment at the meeting’s outcome was its failure, in their view, to admit and confront the real cause of the scandal — the clerical culture of secrecy and cover-up that sacrificed young people on the altar of the Church’s good name. Ireland’s bishops, with the exception of Archbishop Martin, whose three decades as a Vatican diplomat have left him untainted by the scandal, have admitted misjudgments and mismanagement.  

But they have been reluctant to accept collective responsibility. Four Dublin auxiliary bishops mentioned in the report — Donal Murray, James Moriarty, Eamonn Walsh and Raymond Field — did eventually offer to resign, but insisted that the former archbishop of Dublin, Cardinal Desmond Connell, was responsible for the way allegations against priests were brushed under the carpet. The view of survivors is that those bishops’ failure to resist the culture of cover-up implicates them, and only by their resignations can the Church accept responsibility for that failure.  

The difficulty Dublin’s former auxiliaries have with accepting this idea was obvious from the statements and homilies they made on the First Sunday of Lent. There was plenty in them of the sin and evil of child abuse, and much on how new guidelines prevent it happening again; but nothing about their own failure to use canon or civil law against abusers. 

Pope Benedict, too, has blamed a “weakening of faith” for the abuse, which implies individual, rather than collective, failure. By insisting that the Irish bishops unite to resolve their differences over the Murphy report, he has also made large-scale resignation less likely in the months ahead. 

This is, of course, a crisis of a local Church; and it was unrealistic for abuse survivors to look to the pope to solve it. But given the divisions within the Irish bishops’ conference — between Archbishop Martin and his supporters, who believe that all bishops are implicated in the culture of cover-up and should resign, and the former auxiliaries of Dublin and their supporters, who believe they are being scapegoated — the pope’s stance can only be read as weakening Archbishop Martin. 

The turning point? 

But then, Pope Benedict may have a longer-term plan. His forthcoming letter could yet make the case for bishops to examine their consciences and resign; it could announce the appointment of a papal legate to investigate what went wrong and what can be done; and there may still be a shrinking of the Irish Church’s top-heavy episcopate as part of the “reorganization” heralded by Archbishop Martin. But the papal letter is being talked up as a “theological reflection” on the causes of abuse, a call to changes deeper than merely structural ones. 

This makes him vulnerable to further criticism by abuse survivors and disillusioned Catholics, who will see in it yet more inaction. But if it dares to identify the real cause of the crisis — episcopal collusion and institutional idolatry — Pope Benedict’s Lenten epistle could yet be the turning point, the moment when the Irish Church finally confronts the sin behind the decades of denial. 

Austen Ivereigh writes from England.

Call to repentance (sidebar)

“[Lent] is a time for undoing, insofar as this is possible, the damage our sins have done, for what is done and what we have failed to do. It is a time for a new beginning.” 

— Bishop Colm O’Reilly of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise at a Mass for the Irish bishops in St. Patrick’s Church in Rome.