Friday, December 11, 2009

Liberal Church wouldn't handle abuse differently
Liberal Church wouldn't handle abuse differently
By David Quinn
Friday December 11 2009

There is a notion doing the rounds that, if only the Church and its theology had been more liberal, the abuse scandals would have been far less severe than they were. There is absolutely no evidence for this. On the contrary, there is some evidence to suggest that they would have been at least as bad.

To begin with, we know from international experience that, whatever kind of bishop was in charge of a diocese, allegations of abuse were handled badly.

For example, one of the most liberal bishops in the United States, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, has been savagely attacked because of his management of abuse cases.

Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston is highly orthodox, meanwhile, and was similarly forced to resign over his handling of abuse allegations.

In this country, Bishop Brendan Comiskey was long hailed as one of the most liberal bishops -- questioning celibacy and the ban on women priests -- and we know what happened in his diocese of Ferns.

Bishop Donal Murray also had something of a liberal reputation in his day, especially back in the 1980s when he was being made aware of allegations against certain priests.

On the other hand, Cardinal Desmond Connell was as orthodox as they come and the Dublin report has delivered its verdict on him too.

Some might suggest that the bishops, of whatever theological stripe, were operating according to some masterplan delivered on high. But the notion that the 2001 Vatican instruction 'Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela' is evidence of such a conspiracy is plainly ridiculous.

The main purpose of this document was to fast-track the laicisation of priests. It does require that internal disciplinary proceedings brought against a cleric remain secret. But it does not forbid co-operation with the civil authorities.

One of the more startling conclusions of the Dublin report, meanwhile, is that the scandals would have been much less severe if the Church had properly implemented canon law -- because offending priests would have been punished.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has said that, from around the 1960s something went wrong in the way the Church dealt with clerical sex offenders.

Apart from the virtual shelving of canon law, what else went wrong is that a punitive approach to offenders was replaced by a therapeutic, 'compassionate' approach.

Conservative bishops were just as inclined as their liberal counterparts to cover up the scandals, but were much more likely to use canon law against offenders before the 1960s. The reforms associated with misinterpretations of the Second Vatican Council put paid to that.

Therefore, let's not fool ourselves into believing that a more liberal church would have handled things better. It was the instinct for self-protection that mostly explains why these scandals were so appallingly managed.

And as we know from child abuse scandals in other organisations both here and overseas, this self-protective instinct is not unique to the Church.

People imagine the Irish hierarchy is made up mainly of arch-conservatives. It isn't. Many of its bishops think like Willie Walsh, but haven't the nerve to express their true opinions in public. If you polled them, probably a majority are in favour of women priests, for example.

We also imagine the Pope picks our bishops. In reality, he only rubber-stamps their appointment. In fact, the bishops pick bishops -- by advancing the careers of priests they feel comfortable with. The pity is that Rome does not pick our bishops more often -- because it wants strong leadership.

Some of our bishops are quite good. But many lack nerve or any real idea of how to advance a Catholic vision. Collectively, they are worse than useless -- because the rule of the lowest common denominator applies.

The Irish Church needs strong, decisive leaders who are truly Catholic in their beliefs and convictions and who have the courage of those convictions, along with the ability to articulate them properly to an increasingly sceptical public.

Until we get such bishops, allied to a strong laity, the fortunes of Catholicism in Ireland will continue to wane.

- David Quinn

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