For Catholic Americans, watching the sex scandal disaster unfold in Ireland is a horrible case of déjà vu. The Irish Church, already reeling from a decline in vocations and Mass attendance, has virtually imploded with wave after wave of sex scandals, government investigations and scathing assessments of ecclesiastical cover-up.
To date, the resignation of one bishop has been accepted, and four other bishops have offered to resign, but the Vatican has not taken them up on their offer. Pope Benedict XVI in February held a summit with 24 Irish bishops to review the situation, and a pastoral letter to the Irish Church is to follow. But early reviews of the summit have not been positive, and victims’ groups are already calling it a whitewash.
As U.S. Catholics will remember, the slow drip of revelations regarding abuse records and investigations only makes the experience more tortuous, but the institution — guided by lawyers and a deep instinct for self-preservation — tends to respond grudgingly, further eroding trust and often obscuring the fact that much progress is being made in terms of safeguards and investigating past claims.
One man who apparently tried to learn from the American experience was Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin. An esteemed Vatican official and diplomat, he was away from Ireland for many years before his appointment to Dublin, and he arrived with a clean slate. He has been bluntly honest in his assessment of the situation, has urged fellow bishops to resign,and has tried to offer a degree of transparency as the investigations have unfolded.
For his heroic efforts, our correspondent reports this week, he apparently has been marginalized and the status quo has been more or less maintained (see Page 5).
It is unfortunate that the Irish Church has not learned more from the American experience. First and foremost, the laity want to know that the bishops “get it,” that they understand the horror of what was tolerated or covered up, that they respond to the crisis as human beings with sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews, that their shame and their anger is palpable, and their sorrow is convincing and not just “Church speak.”
There needs to be a clear sense of accountability that is dramatic enough to force even the most obtuse pastor or bishop to recognize that institutional public relations does not hold a candle to safeguarding the innocent.
This does not mean that priests themselves should feel abandoned or their rights trampled. Cardinal Avery Dulles warned in 2002 that the bishops risked doing exactly that, and recent history has suggested that many dioceses most afflicted by scandal have also suffered the most from clergy morale problems.
The Vatican is certainly responding better than in 2002 when one official suggested this was all evidence of anti-Catholic bias in the media. The media may be biased, but the Church handed them the club with which they beat us. We can only pray that the recent Irish summit was not a missed opportunity for the Vatican to make clear that it has its own zero-tolerance policy for bishops who fail as shepherds to protect their flock, or worse, betray their own vows.
Finally, the scandals are evidence of a great loss of faith, and proof of a pressing need for renewal, as are the overall rates of child abuse in our society, the collapse of marriages, the plethora of abortions, the shame of pornography. The scandals may ultimately lead to a sort of purgation of a dark and festering sinfulness that was corrupting the Church from within. Only a heartfelt repentance and penance, however, can lead from this horror to renewal and resurrection.