01May Vatican loud on liberals but silent on abuse, writes Fintan O’Toole

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

We are witnessing the cruel humiliation of a generation of clergy that deserves better THERE’S A column I would have written a few years ago, but can’t be bothered to write now. It was a reliable old standby about the latest abuse of power by the institutional Catholic Church. It would be fuelled by anger and by expectation – rage at the hierarchy’s latest folly but an implicit hope that the innate decency of Irish Catholicism would some day be allowed to blossom. There was something real at stake in this argument – the church’s hold on Irish public culture was so strong that everything it did mattered.

I thought about writing one of those columns in response to the Vatican’s censuring of five priests – Brian D’Arcy, Tony Flannery, Gerard Moloney, Seán Fagan and Owen O’Sullivan – simply for saying what most Catholics actually think about celibacy, women priests and homosexuality. But I couldn’t find either anger or hope. All that’s left is a double dose of sadness – for a generation of idealists; for a society in need of moral leadership that is being given just one more, all too familiar dose of the most abject cynicism.

What we’re seeing now is the sadistic humiliation of a generation of clergy that deserves better. At a simple human level, there’s something genuinely tragic in the fate of these priests: not just those who have been silenced but all their like-minded colleagues. These were once young men and women, mostly in rural Ireland, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. They were infused with the energy of reform and renewal. The priesthood still had glamour, and it was still tied up with familial snobbery, social prestige and institutional arrogance.

But there was also a promise of something more: that the institution to which they were drawn was changing, opening up, moving away from cult-like obedience to obsessive sexual doctrines. It was engaging with deep questions about power and poverty. And it was reasonable to think that this process was sure to continue, to imagine that by 2012 the church would long since have made its peace with democracy. These young men and women may have been naive, but they were not contemptible. Their families and communities invested in them their often meagre resources of pride and hope and idealism. They returned that investment, in many cases, by expanding the narrow horizons of the world from which they had come. Especially those who worked in developing countries brought back experiences and ideas that made Ireland a richer, more complex place. The relative success with which new migrants were integrated in the last decade, for example, owes much to their influence.

These people don’t deserve to be called to heel like errant lapdogs. It is easy to say that they should refuse to follow orders or just walk away from an abusive institution. But that would be to walk away from the only adult life they’ve known. It would be to write off decades of work and sacrifice – to accept that the most profound decision of one’s life was based on a delusion. It’s desperately sad that what should have been a noble story in Irish life should end so cruelly.

But there’s also a sadness for Ireland itself. Our society hardly needs yet more hypocrisy, another layer of self-serving cynicism. The institutional church disgraced itself by systematically covering up child abuse. It is almost beyond belief that its final conclusion from that trauma – the real outcome of all those apologies and visitations – is that the true problem is some mildly liberal articles in Reality or the Sunday World. This is the institution that told us that it was unable to control child rapists in its ranks because it couldn’t just issue orders. Remember Cardinal Cahal Daly writing to the parents of a victim of the hideous abuser Brendan Smyth: “There have been complaints about this priest before, and once I had to speak to the superior about him. It would seem that there has been no improvement. I shall speak with the superior again.”

Remember the stuff about how bishops were lords in their own dioceses and religious orders were their own kingdoms? When priests were raping children, the institutional hierarchy was wringing its hands and pleading “what can we do?” The Vatican was very busy and very far away.

But when a priest makes some mild suggestions that women might be entitled to equality, the church is suddenly an efficient police state that can whip that priest into line. The Vatican, which apparently couldn’t read any of the published material pointing to horrific abuse in church-run institutions, can pore over the Sunday World with a magnifying glass, looking for the minutest speck of heresy. An institution so stupid that it thinks its Irish faithful is more scandalised by Brian D’Arcy than by Brendan Smyth is not worth anyone’s anger. It is doing a far better job of destroying itself than its worst enemies could dream of. All we can do is mourn the passing of a strain of decency and hope in a society so inured to hypocrisy that one more example is neither here nor there.

10 Responses

  1. Mary Booth

    The silence from the Irish Hierarchy and heads of Religious Orders with regard to the censuring of priests by the Vatican is both deafening and depressing. As someone who is struggling to remain loyal to the Church and who has had strong family links with the Redemptorists, I need to hear their views.
    Who or what are they afraid of?
    Mary Booth,( A Struggling Catholic )

  2. Jonathan Park

    I wholly agree with this article. Any other institution, when faced with numerous,similar worldwide instances of abuse of children, would consider that a moral obligation arises making it necesasary to consider and fundamentally review its own basic structures. There ought to be a completely open debate over such basic issues as to whether or not it might be best to allow priests to marry and whether women priests should be ordained. It seems incredible that priests are being silenced for attempting to discuss the issues that people want to be aired.

  3. Con Carroll

    there is no doubt that Cardinal Sean Brady has engaged in criminal activity. by putting children lives at risk, refusing to pass on information to their parents therefore he should resign, and face the rigour of the courts of justice. yet we will have the parade of the Eucharistic Congress.

  4. Marion Murphy

    While this debacle of silencing priests continues on, there is a hostile media out there supporting the pro-abortion lobby & doing everything in their power to bring abortion into Ireland the clergymen within the Church remain silent. Abortion is child abuse too. I still await for the defence of both mother & child on this issue.

  5. mary kelly

    Sadly this is very true. Last night’s programme which showed the appalling treatment shown to a victim of Brendan Smyth was the last straw. Three priests sit in a room – one of them putting disgusting questions to a 14 year old boy, in the absence of his father, while the then Fr Brady took notes. By their inaction more children are abused for years? What kind of person is in charge of our church? For pity’s sake Cardinal Brady, it is time for you to resign.


    How wonderful to hear about your group.

    I too am a devoted to Christ and the Catholic Faith but I have become increasingly disillusioned by the dictatorial, defensive and fundamentalist messages coming from the Vatican hierarchy and alienating so many.

    I pray that our voices will prevail !

  7. Tom Morally

    How can Cardinal Brady possible expect us to believe him when he says it was the Abbot in charge of Brendan Smyth, who alone had the power to act to stop him.
    If Rome could make the abbots in charge of the five priests recently silenced, act so decisively and swiftly, surely it could have done likewise if it so wished in the case of Brendan Smyth.

    Making mistakes (as clearly the Cardinal did) is regrettable, trying to pass the blame on to others is inexcusable and taking the people of the catholic church for fools, is downright insulting.

  8. Gene Carr

    Mr O’Toole talks about an era following Vatican II of moving away from ‘obsessive sexual doctines’ and egaging now with questions of ‘power and poverty’. As someone who grew up in the 1950’s and 1960s, I saw it differently. The church did not seem to me to be ‘obsessed’ with or opposed to sex as such, but rather opposed raising Eros to the status of an idolatrous cult, which, as has always happened, would tolerate no ‘strange gods’ besides itself and would demand human sacrifice. The rage against the ideal of celibacy is hardly suprising, since within such a cult it must seem the ultimate blasphemy. We laymen and women in those days were discerning enough to perceive the difference between the sacramental ideal of sexuality, and negative Gnostic and Manicaean undergrowths.

    The idea that the pre-Councilar Church had not engaged with issues of ‘power and poverty’ is simply wrong. In the 1950s, we students closely studied the Encyclical letters of Leo XIII and Pius XI (Rerum Novarum and Quadragisimo Anno) and letters such as Mit Brenender Sorge analysing and condemning German National Socialism and other totalitarian monstrosities. What Fintan O’Toole and his fellow ideologues object to is that the Church, while severely critical of capitalism refused to fall for the false promise of Marxian socialism,either in it earlier mass murdering form or its “late 20th Century ‘cultural’ form”. Unfortunately, some clerics seemed to succumb to those temptations.

  9. Kevin Devine

    Here’s something from the Gospel: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” Mk 10:14 I found the text on the “Safeguarding” page of the website of the Diocese of Armagh. Maybe the Cardinal and his staff should read this part of the Gospel

  10. graeme taylor

    A Scottish perspective: The shock, hurt and sense of sickening that engulfs the Irish faithful is understandable and is the human response.
    Abuse is awful and makes it all the worse because it was at the hands of people in positions of trust and authority and the fact many were at the hands of clergy and religious makes it all the more dreadful.
    Catholics know that the vast majority of priests are holy and committed to Our Lord and His church and know that they need to fast and pray for their priests particularly at this time when Ireland ( like the rest of us) is engulfed by militant secularists who seek the destruction of Holy Mother Church.(They won’t win!)
    May Almighty God bless Ireland and her wonderful people.

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