Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Opportunity missed

Wednesday, February 17, 20104 °C Dublin » THU

ANALYSIS: The meeting with the Irish bishops appeared useful ahead of the pope’s pastoral letter to the Irish faithful, but a glorious opportunity to show respect to victims of clerical sex abuse has been missed, writes PATSY McGARRY

VETERAN VATICAN watchers will not be too surprised by the apparent lack of substance emerging from the “unprecedented”, “historic” and “unique” meeting between the great, the good and the Irish bishops over three lengthy sessions through Monday and yesterday.

But if it looked good – which it did – as an information-gathering exercise for Pope Benedict XVI and his Curia as they prepare a pastoral letter for the Irish Catholic faithful, which we now know will have resonance urbi et orbi, there was also yesterday a sense of glorious opportunity missed.

Why, oh why, did someone not whisper in the pope’s ear that this was just the occasion when he should publicly announce his intention of inviting Irish clerical abuse survivors to visit him in person in Rome, as he had the Irish bishops? Details could have been worked out later.

And Bishop Dennis Brennan of Ferns may not have played rugby but there was more than an element of kicking for touch when he said at yesterday’s press conference by the Irish bishops in Rome in response to such a question, that he was sure the pope would invite such survivors to meet him “when the time is right. They [victims] will tell us that.”

Equally, it became clear at that same press conference that none of the Irish bishops had queried the pope or the Curia on the Vatican’s part in the mishandling of clerical child sex abuse in Ireland. Nor did they ask about the lack of co-operation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the papal nunciature in Dublin with the Murphy commission.

Indeed, when asked about the papal nuncio Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza’s refusal to appear before the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs, Bishop Michael Smith of Meath ventured that media presentation of the matter was “a false one”. Protocol prevented ambassadors from doing such a thing, he said. Yet, when it was pointed out to him that the Israeli ambassador had appeared before the same committee in recent weeks, his response was a rather lame “that’s a matter for him”.

As expected, all five bishops at yesterday afternoon’s press conference spoke enthusiastically about their “unprecedented”, “historic”, “unique” meetings with the pope and the Curia. Bishop Smith, who admitted he had been sceptical about the usefulness of the exercise initially, said that in his 40 years taking part in such meetings, it was “as productive as I have ever attended”.

He was particularly impressed by the pope’s “tremendous engagement” with the discussions.

Bishop Joseph Duffy said the pope was “a marvellous listener”.

None of this was unexpected.

What was new was the information from Cardinal Seán Brady that the pope “recognises that it [clerical child sex abuse] is not an Irish problem, it is not an anglophone problem, it is not a Catholic Church problem,” but instead recognises that it is a problem with a universal provenance.

For far too long, Vatican insiders had been conveying the view that priestly paedophilia was an anglophone issue. Possibly the recent emergence of the issue as a serious one in Germany has prompted deeper reflection.

But two things in the pope’s own communique stood out. The candid sentence “Together they examined the failure of Irish church authorities for many years to act effectively in dealing with cases involving the sexual abuse of young people by some Irish clergy and religious,” was refreshing in its blunt, honest, acknowledgment of the truth. But it must have jarred with some there yesterday.

Equally refreshing was the line later in the communique, which said the pope “expressed the hope that the present meeting would help to unify the bishops and enable them to speak with one voice in identifying concrete steps aimed at bringing healing to those who had been abused, encouraging a renewal of faith and restoring the church’s spiritual and moral credibility”.

The Irish bishops were at such pains last Sunday in media encounters to emphasise their unity. Yes, there had been “tensions”, they said, but these had all been ironed out at a retreat in Knock last week when there was that increasingly popular “open, honest and frank” exchange of views. They were now all singing off the same, and equally popular, hymn sheet, they said.

Clearly, it ain’t necessarily so. Or the pope is wrong.

This issue of “tensions” was in everyone’s face, so to speak, at the bishops’ press conference yesterday. The absence of the Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin had a presence similar to Banquo’s ghost at Macbeth’s table. It hardly seemed an adequate explanation that the Archbishop of Dublin was missing because he had a pressing Ash Wednesday engagement in UCD today. It seemed reasonable to suppose the UCD authorities would have understood had he decided to stay on in Rome with his brother bishops as they addressed the greatest crisis in Irish Catholicism since the Penal Laws were passed.

Indeed, the sole evidence of Archbishop Martin’s presence in Rome since he arrived on Sunday evening was down to the word of his brother bishops and Vatican photographs of the Mass in St Peter’s Basilica on Monday morning and of him meeting the pope shortly afterwards. His invisibility to the lay Irish present in Rome over recent days was equalled only by that of the Bishop of Galway Martin Drennan who clearly was keeping his head well down, the better to ensure it remained in situ.

But if there was disappointment on the part of some at the apparent lack of substance emerging from this marathon encounter between Rome and the Irish bishops, such judgment may be a tad premature. Without encouraging ridiculous expectations in the context, it seems only fair to await Pope Benedict’s pastoral letter to the Irish faithful and see what it contains.

His encounter this week with some of the more sanguine of the Irish bishops might prompt him to language and initiatives he had not intended previous to this week. He might also insist on a unity they dare not contemplate. This pope has engaged with the issue of clerical child sex abuse in a way his predecessor would not. He may surprise us yet. Let’s hope so.

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