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Reform and Renewal for the Catholic Church in Ireland

Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin

By an accident of history, or some mysterious move of the Holy Spirit, it has happened that I was in graduate school in capital cities of the church when the Clerical Sex Abuse and Cover-up Scandals hit the press in the last decade. When the firestorm that started in Santa Rosa spread to Boston and the rest of the U.S., I was in Washington, D.C. at The Catholic University of America. This time around I am at the Angelicum in Rome as the Church in Europe begins to do public penance for the same sins.

There are some significant differences. Eight years ago, one cause of great suffering for people who loved the Church was the abject

failure of most of its leadership to respond with absolute clarity and contrition. In 2002, the Dallas Charter finally implemented norms simliar to those that Archbishop Hunthausen of Seattle had pioneered back in 1985 after the very first media scandal of sacerdotal sex abuse. But I have no recollection of any leading bishop standing up publicly and denouncing the evil committed by fellow bishops. If an effort was made to reprimand even the most grevious offenders, bishops who protected predator priests, it was done behind the “mafia-like code of silence” that was described in the U.S. Bishops’ own commissioned study of the scandal.

By contrast, when Ireland became the first country in a wave of European church scandals, Dublin’s Archbishop, Diarmuid Martin, did not hold back from publicly calling on fellow bishops to resign if they had been indicted or implicated by the state’s criminal investigation. He has not hesitated in stating simply that the Church had sined, in its highest levels of leadership, and that healing required real admission of guilt and an openness to change.

That seems to me all that most people want – a little honesty, and a clear sense that 1) the Church’s leadership recognizes the full extent of the problem, 2) the bishops are willing to take to task their own numbers as appropriate, and 3) all of this is absolutely transparent. It is not enough to protect us against the priest predators in the first place, which the U.S. Bishops’ Conference policies seem to have been doing admirably well, where implemented, but the final piece required is to hold accountable those who allowed this all to happen in the first place.

Today, Archbishop Martin wrote an extended letter that was published on the archdiocesan website, detailing his thoughts on the situation and his vision for renewal. It is honest and straightforward, and touches on a number of critical issues. If every bishop were so committed to living the Gospel with such humility and transparency, I think the millions who love Christ and his church, but have been hurt by their “shepherds” would begin to heal and return to the life of faith with a renewed spirit that the church has not seen in a long time.

Archbishop Martin admits he is disheartened and discouraged about the “level of willingness to really begin what is going to be a painful path of renewal and of what is involved in that renewal.” This makes him one of a small handful of bishops publicly in solidarity with most Catholics I know – whether lay or ordained, secular or ecclesiastical, traditional or progressive.

“ Why am I discouraged?  The most obvious reason is the drip-by-drip never-ending revelation about child sexual abuse and the disastrous way it was handled.   There are still strong forces which would prefer that the truth did not emerge.  The truth will make us free, even when that truth is uncomfortable.  There are signs of subconscious denial on the part of many about the extent of the abuse which occurred within the Church of Jesus Christ in Ireland and how it was covered up.  There are other signs of rejection of a sense of responsibility for what had happened.  There are worrying signs that despite solid regulations and norms these are not being followed with the rigour required.”

He acknowledges a deeper root, a contributing factor – people in Ireland have been catechized but not evangelized. Similar to the graduates of Catholic schools in the U.S. they know about the faith but do not live it. He laments the  growing division between parish and catholic school, and the failure of most parishes to engage young people, who he says more and more find the parish “alien territory”.

He discusses the church’s communications strategy, which critics had labeled as “catastrophic”, he responds,

“My answer is that what the Murphy report narrated was catastrophic and that the only honest reaction of the Church was to publicly admit that the manner in which that catastrophe was addressed was spectacularly wrong; spectacularly wrong  “full stop”; not spectacularly wrong, “but…”   You cannot sound-byte your way out of a catastrophe.”

How refreshing to hear, simply, “we were wrong.” Not, “we are under attack”, or “why are you picking on us, there are other abusers too!”, et al.

He engages the whining “defenses” of the Church offered by some and dismisses them easily. It does not matter if sexual abuse by priests is only a small percentage of abuse over all, or if the culture of the late 60’s was more sexually permissive, or if “experts” then did not share the view of experts now on the cause and potential cure of abuse. The Church has always known good from evil, and in too many cases failed to choose the good.

“The Church is different; the Church is a place where children should be the subject of special protection and care.  The Gospel presents children in a special light and reserves some of its most severe language for those who disregard or scandalise children in any way.”

Tied into the necessary renewal of the parishes, he speaks plainly about the need for the renewal of seminaries and priestly formation, unreservedly identifying clericalism as one of the root sins that must be eliminated if we are to move on from this crisis.

“Renewal of the Church requires participation and responsible participation.  I have spoken about the need for accountability regarding the scandal of sexual abuse.  I am struck by the level of disassociation by people from any sense of responsibility.  While people rightly question the concept of collective responsibility, this does not mean that one is not responsible for one’s personal share in the decisions of the collective structures to which one was part.

We need to take a radical new look at the formation of future priests.  I am working on plans to ensure that for the future in Dublin our seminarians, our prospective deacons and our trainee lay pastoral workers in the Archdiocese of Dublin will share some sections of their studies together, in order to create a better culture of collaborative ministry.  The narrow culture of clericalism has to be eliminated.  It did not come out of nowhere and so we have to address its roots in seminary training.   We also have to ensure that lay pastoral workers understand that all mission in the Church is calling and requires a self-understanding which is theological in essence.”

Despite his discouragement with the prophets of doom and despair, the protectors of pedophiles, and those still in denial about the true nature of these sins, he ends with a note of hope:

“The Catholic Church in Ireland, as I said, will have to find its place in a very different, much more secularised culture, at times even in a hostile culture.   It will have to find that place by being authentic and faithful to the person and the message of Jesus Christ.  The agenda for change in the Church must be one that comes from its message and not from pressure from outside and from people who do not have the true good of the Church at heart.  We all have reasons to be discouraged and to be angry.  There is a sense, however, in which true reform of the Church will spring only from those who love the Church, with a love like that of Jesus which is prepared also to suffer for the Church and to give oneself for the Church.”

The full text of the Archbishop’s letter can be read here.


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