Monday, December 7, 2009

Bishops face moment of truth to rescue Church
John Cooney: Bishops face moment of truth to rescue Church
BUDGET Wednesday is also Crisis Day for the Irish Catholic bishops. On the same day that Brian Lenihan unveils his Budget, the bishops will assemble in the former infirmary of St Patrick's College, Maynooth, to confront the biggest ever test of their flawed moral leadership.

This two-day December gathering will be no routine affair. The Murphy report into systematic cover-ups by four successive Archbishops of Dublin of paedophile priests over 55 years, from 1940 to 1995, has guaranteed it will be no jolly pre-Christmas get-together of carol singers.

Swamped by the torrential upsurge of anger, hurt and betrayal from ordinary Mass-going Catholics, the bishops must come up with more than hand-wringing words of contrition and empty promises of change.

Behind closed doors, the bishops will be locked into 'a moment of truth' meeting at which they must agree on a strategy for emergency action if they are to have any chance of regaining a shred of their lost moral credibility.

A sense of alarm was obvious on Saturday in the agitated body language of Cardinal Sean Brady. In his first interview since the Murphy revelations, he openly acknowledged that people are rightly very angry with their Church and with their bishops.

Confessing that church leaders had failed the people, especially the survivors of clerical child abuse, the Primate of All Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh admitted this is the biggest challenge to his leadership and "now is the time for action and accountability and the taking of responsibility for what has taken place".

So what needs to be done? The cardinal, who had been criticised for his silence all last week, revealed he had been active behind the scenes, as is his style of doing church business, and he had also worked out an action plan.

First, he announced that he will accompany the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, to see Pope Benedict XVI in Rome this week, probably on Friday, to discuss the Murphy report, explain the angry reaction in Ireland, and give the Pontiff their views on what should be done.

Significantly, Cardinal Brady said that he and Archbishop Martin would try to convey to Pope Benedict and the heads of various Roman congregations (Vatican government departments) a sense of "the depth of the crisis" for the Irish Church.

The second part of the action plan revealed by Cardinal Brady, an expert in canon law, was the imminent resignation of embattled Donal Murray, Bishop of Limerick and former Dublin auxiliary bishop, whose handling of complaints about paedophile cleric Fr Thomas Naughton was censured as "inexcusable" by Judge Yvonne Murphy.

Cardinal Brady disclosed that last week he had been in contact with Bishop Murray and was confident that "he will do the right thing", though he wanted time and space to announce his decision, ie: the offering of his resignation and its acceptance by Rome. The cardinal said he himself would resign if found to have put children in harm.

In a third move Cardinal Brady gave his public support to Archbishop Martin's written call to existing or former Dublin auxiliaries for explanations of what happened and why in relation to the abuse of children they were obliged to protect. This includes the 'gang of 11' of 18 archbishops and bishops criticised in the Murphy report.

Explanations have been sought by Archbishop Martin from not only Bishop Murray, but also retired bishops Dermot O'Mahony, Laurence Forristal, Fiachra O Ceallaigh and Brendan Comiskey (who resigned as Bishop of Ferns in 2002), as well as current Dublin auxiliaries Eamonn Walsh and Ray Field. Also on Archbishop Martin's correspondence list were two former Dublin auxiliaries, Jim Moriarty, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, and Martin Drennan of Galway. Hopefully, the elusive Cardinal Connell has been written to.

Here is the rub: Cardinal Brady said that not all these bishops were in the same position and it would be necessary to hear explanations "before prescribing remedies". This is a code for further resignations or penalties.

This is a recipe for an episcopal bloodbath, especially as Archbishop Martin has made it clear that he does not want to sit down with colleagues who have not provided satisfactory replies.

On the cardinal's fourth proposed forward action, he wills the Government "to bring on" an investigation into all 26 Irish dioceses. But some bishops may act like Fianna Fail backbenchers did in regard to the Taoiseach's negotiations with the trade unions on non-paid holidays for public servants, and resist.

However, the cardinal has pledged that the bishops will work closely with Minister for Children Barry Andrews in ensuring that it observes the highest standards of safeguarding children.

A possible solution here in these straitened budgetary times is for the Government to mandate the Church's independent Board for Safeguarding Children to undertake this probe both in the Republic and the North. This would be done under the board's Ian Elliott, who earned his spurs last year in 'outing' Bishop John Magee of Cloyne diocese for being derelict in his duty to protect children.

The scene is set for an acrimonious meeting -- a shouting match -- behind Maynooth's closed room. I do not expect Donal Murray will be there but will be already gone.

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