Cardinal Brady’s dilemma: Malachi O’Doherty reflects
Most of us, if we had been priests of Fr Sean Brady’s age in the 1970s would have done as he did. The priest takes an oath of obedience to his bishop. Brady was assigned by his bishop to investigate a fellow cleric who was raping children and to report back. He did everything that was expected of him by the only authority to which he had pledged himself answerable. He ascertained that the odious Brendan Smyth was indeed a paedophile priest making use of children for his sexual gratification. And he spoke to two boys who had been used in that way and he believed them. Then he swore them to secrecy.
All of this, in the practical secular view of a later age was what we would now call collusion in the cover up of a vile crime and the manipulation of victims for the protection of an offender and of the institutional church to which that offender belonged. But what was it in the mind of Sean Brady? It was the exercise of unquestioning obedience and loyalty. It was an outward expression of his faith in the power of the church to do the right thing.
No more could possibly be expected of Brady other than perhaps that he be a person of a type we rarely see, someone of heroic indvidual conscience. You don’t get many of them in churches.
Sean Brady was not a hero on the day he made two boys kneel and swear to keep secret the name of a rapist; he was an obedient priest. And the failing that has to be identified is not in him but in the very system by which he was expected to swear obedience to superiors who were no wiser or more principled than himself. With that oath of obedience a priest divests himself of his conscience and his citizenship and, as this case demonstrates, makes himself untrustworthy. Once he has decided that he will do as he is told by another, then he is no more reliable or admirable than that other. He has agreed to be the tool of an insitution and of its representatives in the hierarchy over him, people who have now been exposed as conniving and dangerous.
So, should Sean Brady resign as head of the church in Ireland, when any other priest of his generation would have done the same as he did? Nothing distinguishes him from his brother priests or they from him.
And that is precisely the problem. As head of the church, though not the direct boss over those other priests, Sean Brady is best placed to make clear that the docile enslavement of priests, to an institution which always knows best, is over. He has said that he wants to stay in his job to mend the church and heal the damage caused but he could do far more good by acknowledging that a priest is answerable to the whole of society and the law, not just to a hierarchy or even to a flock, a congregation. By leaving he would accept that he is properly answerable to the civil order and the secular society which has basic legal principles and expectations of those who hold office. It is civic order to which he owes an apology.
He may have met the standards of a church which expected only that he do as he was told but he failed – as all sworn priests in his position would inevitably fail – to recognise his wider responsibilities to the rest of us. He should not resign to declare himself guilty of shameless management of coverup. In a sense he has almost nothing to be ashamed of there anyway because he acted within the limits his church imposed on him.
If we don’t think we would ourselves have been up to such a brave act of rebellion we shouldn’t criticise him for not managing it either.
But he should resign as the man who should now better understand than anybody how dangerous tthe church’s limitations are. he should resign as a declaration of the responsibility of priests to the wider society they thought they had the right to ignore. Faced with this challenge in the past, Sean Brady said that he would listen to church-going Catholics and take his guidance from them. That is where he went wrong, and it is not far removed from what was most wrong in what he did to those boys for it amounts to wilfully ignoring the standards that a wider society expects of people, particularly of people in power.
There can no longer be a hermetically sealed Catholic church whose priests refer only to their own authority and moral codes. That is what many priests themselves are saying and being silenced for saying. Sean Brady is only the most conspicuous victim of the way in which the church abuses its priests, stripping them of the right and responsibility to hear guidance from anywhere but above, even from their own consciences. It is time he owned up to the damage that has been done to him and through him.