Sorrows: a Reflection on the Case of Cardinal Brady, by Brian Fahy
Cardinal Sean Brady, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, is seventy-two years of age now. He seems to be a kindly man, a good man. But he is under fire. Calls for his resignation have been made following a recent television documentary about child abuse in Ireland forty years ago, when the then Father John Brady was the notary at an enquiry into allegations of abuse against a paedophile priest. Father Brady took his notes and passed then up the chain of authority and that was his part in the matter. But the matter was so serious, that it now looks as if he was remiss in his duty to ‘do more’ than simply record conversations and interviews.
The Vatican is resisting calls for his resignation, but the latest news says that an auxiliary bishop will be appointed to assist the Cardinal, with automatic right of succession. That looks like a subtle and silent way of easing the Cardinal aside. I think it would have been better for the Cardinal to resign as a symbolic act of sorrow for the failings of the Church in this matter, and for his own smaller role in that failure.
The Church is looking at the issue from its own point of view, and is still practising the habit of self-defense. Having just watched the documentary, I now see the issue through the eyes of the victims in this story, with all the desolation that has dogged their lives since they were abused in their earliest years. The documentary did not attempt to attack or ‘kick’ the Church in any way. It was a fair reporting of events of long ago. The resignation of the Cardinal, if done properly, could be a great act of sorrow on behalf of the Church in Ireland.
The issue of the Church and sexuality has set me thinking. In this particular story, the story of child sexual abuse, it is clear that the Church did not know what to do or how respond to the allegations that a priest was interfering with young boys. Why was that so? Because sex and sexuality were never publicly spoken about. The only time that sex came into the public domain was during parish missions when the priest would roar condemnation on the things of the flesh. In the mind of the Church sex was bad.
Young boys who showed an interest in becoming priests were taken from their families and educated in special colleges, junior and senior seminaries, with never a chance to grow up in a normal world. Meeting and socialising with members of the opposite sex never happened for many of these boys, and they emerged into the world without any human maturity in this regard. What potential disasters were waiting the opportunity to happen in those secret lives?
An extra danger in this matter of education was the fact that the religious orders in the Church operated their own systems, practically independent of the power of the bishops. The quality of education and culture in those smaller seminaries left a lot to be desired. These places often went ‘under the radar’ of clerical quality control. In the recent cases, Fr Eugene Green was a Kiltegan priest, who was reassigned from Africa to the wilds of Donegal, and Fr Brendan Smyth was a Norbertine priest, from the monastery of Kilnacrott in Cavan.
During the education process in the seminary, you had to wait until your final years to be introduced to the big boys world of sexual morality. The books used for this moral study were in English, but the section on sexuality remained in Latin. As Peter Kay might say, “What was all that about!” Sexuality was so dangerous and the subject matter so delicate, a foreign language, and a dead one at that, had to be employed to keep the subject at a safe distance.
All sexuality was associated with sin, and sin was relegated to a dark roomed confessional, where things were whispered into ears, where absolution was given, all was swept under the carpet, and people emerged into the light of day to fall and fall again.
All clergy were celibate, and that is another dark area of life. How many celibate men are healthy in their sexuality? How many have been prevented by their training from even being able to mature into healthy adults? What do they know of sexual relationships if they have been expressly forbidden, by the church system, from ever having close emotional ties?
Another huge consideration in this sad affair is the fact that the Church did not consider itself subject to the law of the land. As a holy institution, commissioned to preach the glorious gospel of Christ, what would it have to do with wrongdoing or criminal behavior? Nothing, surely. The law of the land was for ordinary people to keep or be kept by. But holy priests and bishops were above all that by their very calling. When some rare misdemeanor occurred, it was important to contain it, deal with it, keep it from the eyes of the world, and carry on.
It was in such a culture that Father John Brady, and all his contemporaries, myself included, were raised. The world we lived in was the ecclesiastical world, a small self-contained arena of life, away from the realities of the bigger, wider world.
The world of today is far healthier in its open conversation about all things. The world is no better at getting things right. The public culture about sexuality is very unhealthy and damaging to people. So the world has nothing to boast about. But the public standards of accountability are well voiced and the world’s critique of the Church is a good opportunity for all to grow in honesty. It is important to ‘see ourselves as others see us’.
Father Brendan Smyth died of a heart attack, one month into his prison sentence. His body was taken back to the monastery of Kilnacrott, and his funeral took place ‘before dawn’. He was buried in the monastery ground, and his grave was covered with concrete, to prevent vandalism. What a dark ending to a dark and tragic tale. But the victims of his crimes live on, struggling to come to terms with the terrible things that happened to them as children. We need to keep our attention focused on these victims, and work to shed light on the world of dark deeds.
The strands of this story that now embroil Cardinal Brady cannot simply be cut, like cutting a ribbon, and the culture of the Church that allowed these things to happen has not vanished overnight, like early morning mist. All our lives are overshadowed now by the stories that have emerged.
The television documentary has done a good job in showing us, as in a mirror, a reflection of ourselves. We need to look at ourselves and look steadily into that glass. Robert Burns knew that it was a grace, a gift of God, to be able to see ourselves with the eyes of another.
Some people are calling for the resignation of the Cardinal. The Vatican feels it necessary to defend its image, and refuse that call. A sideways move is their response. Another way would be to watch that documentary again, and chose to perform an act of sorrow, maturely and freely, and to resign as a symbol of the church’s failure, and of our own part in it.
We were a conditioned people. Isn’t everybody! But we can learn to recognize fault and failure, and to say the prayer that we have greatly sinned through our most grievous fault. And pray for mercy.
Brian Fahy May 2012