Friday, February 19, 2010

Window-dressing of papal meeting a PR catastrophe
Window-dressing of papal meeting a PR catastrophe
By David Quinn
Friday February 19 2010

We don't know what happened behind the scenes when the bishops met the Pope and his officials on Monday and Tuesday in Rome. Maybe something of substance will come from the meeting in time. For the sake of the Catholic Church in Ireland, it had better.

But taken at face value, the meeting was worse than a non-event -- it was close to a PR disaster, which Archbishop Diarmuid Martin partially rescued when speaking to reporters on Wednesday.

Obviously the meeting was never going to meet everyone's expectations. For example, Bishop Martin Drennan was never going to be asked to resign.

The Murphy report clears him of any wrongdoing and he was not a part of the diocesan administration in Dublin during the era when the diocese was disastrously mishandling abuse allegations.

That era lasted until around the mid-1990s. Its epicentre was the 1970s and 1980s, when there was an almost complete breakdown of authority and discipline in the church in Ireland.

Martin Drennan did not become an auxiliary bishop in Dublin until 1997, which was after the diocese started to get things right, as the Murphy report confirms.

Nor was the meeting ever going to result in the lifting of the celibacy rule, or the ban on women priests, or in the rescinding of the ban on artificial birth control, or in direct election of bishops by the laity, or in any other part of the liberal wish-list that has been the death-knell for every church that has ever adopted it.

In other words, there was no way this meeting was ever going to win general approval and applause. It was always going to disappoint the victims, and it was always going to disappoint the media.

All that said, did it have to be such an apparent non-event? Right at the start, when the bishops first met the Pope, the optics were wrong. They were filmed kissing the papal ring. There is no way they weren't going to do this. It is always done.

One veteran Rome correspondent told a colleague that he has never come across another group of reporters complaining about this gesture, which is simply a mark of respect for the office.

But he didn't count on Irish journalists in their present mood. In their present mood the gesture was equivalent to nationalists having to watch an Irish politician bow to the Queen of England circa 1955. I remind you again that church-bashing is the new Brit-bashing.

Given these realities, this first meeting with the Pope should have taken place in private, away from the cameras. Pope Benedict should have been filmed with the bishops later.

Each bishop was given seven minutes to say something to the Pope about what is happening in Ireland. Each should have been given seven minutes on their own so that they could speak freely. Making them deliver their seven minutes in front of their colleagues was also a mistake.

But the worst mistake was the final one. To simply issue a statement without any action confirmed the worst expectations of the critics and made life much harder for those of us who still care for the church, despite everything.

The statement was fine in its own way. The section that blamed the scandals in part on a "general crisis of faith affecting the church" was misunderstood. Obviously if the abusing priests had a deeper Christian faith, they would not have abused children. Likewise, the bishops would have dealt with the allegations properly.

But the statement had to be more than words. At a minimum it should have announced that the Pope had accepted the resignations of Bishops Eamonn Walsh, James Moriarty and Raymond Field, all of which were offered over Christmas. That is more than six weeks ago.

It should also have announced that every other bishop would examine how he dealt with the scandals that came before him, and that if he dealt with them badly enough, then he would have to offer his resignation as well.

Possibly, it should have announced the appointment of a papal legate to Ireland with the specific task of ensuring that the church's credibility on this issue is restored, and also to conduct a general inspection of the Irish church in its present dilapidated state, and then to report back to Rome about what needs to be done to put it right.

The meeting between the Pope and the bishops this week was actually unprecedented. No Pope has ever before summoned an entire national hierarchy to discuss the issue of clerical sex abuse. In itself, the meeting was a good thing, but what came of it is more important.

Perhaps the Pope is saving up announcing more concrete measures for his pastoral letter to the church in Ireland. Perhaps we should wait until then before judging the meeting.

But at the time of writing, the meeting, instead of being a step forward, looks horribly like the piece of window-dressing its worst critics say it is. We will know for sure in a few weeks.

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