by Medb Ruane
Saturday February 20 2010
The tangled web of Church-State relations was rarely so knotted as this week, when two events conspired to tease it further. Pope Benedict met Irish Bishops in Rome to discuss the child abuse scandals, especially after the Murphy report.
In Dublin, however, the Pope’s diplomatic representative Giuseppe Leanza decided he was unable to attend the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs to discuss the same sad story. It was extremely unfortunate.
From Rome, people heard that the bishops hadn’t asked Benedict or his Curia why the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and the Papal Nuncio hadn’t co-operated with the Murphy Commission. Instead, Benedict seemed to present the difficulties as a faith-based issue with particular ramifications for the Irish hierarchy.
He said that a weakening of faith “has been a significant contributing factor in the phenomenon of the sexual abuse of minors” and connected the ‘crisis’ to “the lack of respect for the human person” in society. It sounded like a campaign slogan aimed at the wider world, rather than at abusive priests or secretive Church habits.
A lack of respect for the human person struck the Vatican too because no one had invited abuse survivors to Rome. This meant neither Benedict nor his Curia heard any first-hand testimony about what happened in Dublin, as well as in Ferns, Cloyne and elsewhere.
One of the most touching elements of the abuse scandals is how deeply survivors want Benedict to meet and hear them, almost as though there’s a hope that his better judgment will win out after he realises what was done to them. For some, there’s still a deep faith that good will triumph over evil in the Catholic Church.
But the survivors are ignored, reduced to statistics and denied a voice where it matters. Their suffering is voiced, if at all, by representatives of the hierarchies who frustrated them for so long.
The ethical basis for this cutting-off of survivors must be dubious. Indeed, Benedict’s comments about a weakening of faith contributing to child abuse are exactly opposite to the Irish situation, where faith was so strong that people were encouraged to believe their Pope and bishops would act in their best interests. They trusted them.
Not inviting abuse survivors to speak also meant ignoring the human consequences within Ireland’s Catholic community. A door was closed to any words about their feelings of betrayal, as well as the crimes and cover-ups which made it worse.
There was no apology to survivors, nor any apology to the Irish State for years of obfuscation, delay and denial. Instead, there were the beginnings of an attempt to situate the scandal in terms of theological politics, which hark back to old 1960s and 70s rows that were basically power struggles for ideological control of the Catholic Church.
Practically speaking, you’d have to wonder what kind of pastoral letter Benedict could write without survivors’ evidence, given that he’s also closed off official diplomatic routes by failing to instruct the CDF and the Nuncio to work with the Murphy commission and the State, where survivors were given some space to speak. How can he speak to people without listening first?
It’s striking, hearing men such as Andrew Madden and Colm O’Gorman, how deeply abandoned survivors feel by the Church into which they were baptised. Yet these men are also citizens of a Republic which has a duty of care towards them. Brian Cowen and Micheal Martin are more relevant here than Benedict.
The mountain range of theologies, politics, secret documents and papers buries principles underneath, especially those involving the Irish State. The web is so enmeshed it hides enormous questions about the Vatican’s relationship to the State, and the State’s procrastination in seeking acknowledgement and justice from the Vatican on behalf of injured citizens.
If such abuse of Irish citizens had happened in an agency managed by another state — Alliance Francaise, the Goethe-Institut, a tourist board — the lines would be easier to see. If, say, the French or German ambassadors then refused to co-operate with an official investigation, Irish politicians would have to act.
Yet, with the exception of a few, notably Fine Gael’s Alan Shatter, Irish politicians seem content to live with the confusion and to have the public eye kept on how the bishops interact with the Vatican rather than what the State is doing to win the information and redress it needs.
Cowen and Martin should ask why the Vatican and CDF didn’t/won’t co-operate with Irish authorities, and what practical reasons can possibly justify the Catholic Church’s continued role in public affairs, given its lack of respect for the way the State has to conduct itself. Giuseppe Leanza’s refusal to attend the Dail Committee is an insult, in the circumstances.
It’s especially pernicious because local tradition gives the Nuncio the highest status of all diplomats to Ireland, even though only 117 men are eligible to vote in his state.
The message protocol-wise is that if the unofficial leader of the diplomatic corps can ignore the State’s commissions and committees, why should other ambassadors be more respectful? At least, it’s a bad example. At worst, it ridicules the democratic basis of the Irish State.