Thursday, December 31, 2009

Vatican has questions to answer on abuse scandals

Vatican has questions to answer on abuse scandals

BY ANY reckoning, 2009 has not been a good year, North or South.

In Northern Ireland, it seemed at times as though the bad old days were rising up again like a malign spectre to mock our optimism and complacency.

Dissident republicans murdered two soldiers and a police officer, actively targeted other security personnel, issued a range of death threats, and carried out numerous “punishment” shootings and beatings. Failed bomb attacks and hoax warnings periodically disrupted towns, villages and city centres, along with the everyday lives of hapless commuters and resident communities. There was a weary dawning that the dissidents are more than just a minor irritant; they pose a real and growing security threat.

Constant bickering and jockeying for supremacy signalled an end to the DUP and Sinn Féin honeymoon period – such as it ever was – and awakened us to still another harsh reality: we can’t take the political process for granted either.

Racist and sometimes murderous sectarian attacks; the recession and consequent job losses; general economic insecurity and necessary belt-tightening: it all made for a bleak year in the North.

Aside from security concerns, the Republic had it even worse. The naked greed and ineptitude of a once cosy cabal of bankers, property speculators and politicians finally killed off the Celtic Tiger and brought the Southern economy to its knees.

Resulting in hard recessionary times, with talk of youngsters having to emigrate to earn a living, reminiscent again of a dark dreary past thought to have been consigned forever to the dustbin of history. When the “Hand of Henry” ruined the Republic’s chance of a place at the World Cup finals, it seemed perversely fitting to an already demoralised and dispirited people.

Overshadowing everything, and what will define 2009 after all else is forgotten, was the publication of the Ryan and Murphy reports, detailing decades of sexual and physical abuse of children by priests and nuns of the Catholic Church in Ireland. The litany of abuse was horrifying enough, but how far the church went, often in collusion with agencies of the State, to cover up crimes, protect perpetrators and disparage the claims of victims was also truly shocking.

The church does not learn lessons easily. Except for a few notable individuals, such as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, it has continued to behave badly. Damage limitation and eventual re-establishment of the position of the institution remains its prime consideration. Almost every statement issued has contained a line or two about the dire need to restore public faith in the integrity of the church.

Actually, the dire need is for complete openness and honesty and justice and recompense for victims; and where at all possible for criminal charges to be laid against perpetrators and those who aided and abetted them, either by action or deliberate inaction. If faith in the integrity of the church is restored as a byproduct of that, then so be it, but it shouldn’t be an aim in itself.

Worse have been the Pontius Pilate-like machinations of the Vatican to try to ensure that ultimate responsibility does not land at its door. Just as in Ireland, it is determined that similar horrific revelations in, among many other countries, the United States, Canada, Australia, the UK, France, Italy, Austria, Poland and Argentina, be faced up to and dealt with by the local church. We are meant to believe that the Catholic Church is an autonomous entity wherever it has a problem. In the United States, the Vatican has sought and been granted diplomatic immunity against numerous legal claims that it be held responsible for incidents of abuse by priests.

It is in this wider context that one should view the refusal of the papal nuncio in Dublin to reply to correspondence from investigators for the Murphy commission, and never mind subsequent waffle about proper diplomatic channels not having been gone through. This deliberate distancing of itself by the Vatican has more than monetary concerns at its root – though holding on to its treasures is doubtless of major concern. By insisting on local responsibility the Vatican is engaging in a large-scale damage limitation exercise.

In Ireland, as in every other country affected, the public and media focus is understandably local, as is the notion of where solutions must lie. That is precisely how the Vatican wants things to remain. If it were even once to admit any measure of responsibility then the focus would immediately shift to Rome. Realisation would follow that the issue of child sex abuse and cover up by agents of the Catholic Church is far from a set of local problems but a worldwide phenomenon that demands fundamental change from the top downwards. The danger for the Vatican is that people may lose faith in the centre, rather than in just a few relatively peripheral individuals. Some monetary recompense and the sacrifice of a few bishops is a small price to pay to ensure that the Vatican remains immune. Untouched and unchanged, as secretive and as powerful as ever.

Happy New Year. Let’s hope 2010 is a better one.

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