The Catholic Church in the United States owes its sister church in Ireland a great deal. It was the Irish who first brought our faith to these shores in great numbers, providing the nascent American church not merely with faithful lay Catholics in the pews, but with clergy on the altars, nuns in the convents, schools, and hospitals, and bishops in the chanceries. Sharing this common heritage, the Irish and American churches remain similar in many ways.

Now that the Murphy Report (formally, “The Commission of Investigation Report into the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin, July 2009”) has been issued by Judge Yvonne Murphy and her government commission, we can discern yet another similarity—a saddening and dispiriting one. For it is clear that for more than two decades, simultaneous tragedies of episcopal malfeasance played out in both the U.S. and Irish churches, as bishops in both countries systematically mishandled allegations of child sexual abuse committed by their priests.

The Murphy Report raises painful questions, and none more so than the one asked by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin. “How,” asked Martin after reading the report, “did those with responsibility dramatically misread the risk that a priest who had hurt one of those whom Jesus calls ‘the little ones’ might go on to abuse another child?” The bishops were far too willing, Martin judged, to accept “excuses, denials, and minimizations” from abusive priests. As a result, still more children were abused. “Efforts made to ‘protect the church’ and to ‘avoid scandal,’” he concluded gravely, “have had the ironic result of bringing this horrendous scandal on the church today.”

How in the world did bishops in both the United States and Ireland miss the obvious fact that you could not put a known child abuser near children and expect him not to offend again? How did they not know that allowing an abusive priest to continue working in his Roman collar meant giving him a badge of trust that helped him victimize still more children? Clear in retrospect is that both Irish and U.S. bishops took refuge in the treatment option, convincing themselves that a dash of therapy would fix their broken priests. Before the era of widespread therapy, the longstanding practice had involved little more than sending the abusive priest away for a spiritual retreat, accepting his protestations of repentance and reform, then reassigning him to the opposite end of the diocese where, it was hoped, no one knew him. In theory, the treatment option represented an advance, but in practice it had a fatal flaw: in Ireland, as in America, when bishops sent a priest away to a treatment center, they did not always give the center all the crucial information concerning the priest’s history. As the Murphy Report states, “This inevitably resulted in useless reports.” Hence the well-publicized exchange between the Institute of Living in Hartford and Edward Egan, who as bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut, had routinely cycled abusive priests through the Institute for treatment and subsequent reassignment.

The epicenter of the clerical sexual-abuse scandal in the United States was the Archdiocese of Boston, and the Murphy Report chillingly parallels the Massachusetts attorney general’s 2003 “Report on the Sexual Abuse of Children in the Boston Archdiocese” (PDF). Indeed, reading the Murphy Report after one has read the attorney general’s report feels like being a passenger in a car heading off a cliff: the abyss looms, and there’s nothing you can do to avert disaster. The two reports reveal all too clearly that both the American and the Irish bishops valued their clergy over their people—they gave the interests of the ordained priority over the needs of the baptized, as Archbishop Martin of Dublin succinctly put it. Both used the mask of treatment to enable priestly offenders to be reassigned.

The parallels continue. Just as the U.S. bishops ignored canon law in handling priest child abusers, so did the Irish bishops. And the reasons given for doing so were the same. The Irish bishops, like their American counterparts, preferred a therapeutic approach to a legal one. The Murphy Report notes that the relevant law (canon 1341) “was interpreted to mean that bishops are required to attempt to reform the abusers in the first instance.” Compounding the problem, in both Ireland and America, was a crucial lack of understanding by the church’s canon lawyers of how the church’s penal law could and should be applied to pedophiles. Finally, the report says, the Irish bishops—like their U.S. counterparts—“did not feel Rome was supporting them in dealing with this issue.”

The Massachusetts attorney general’s report blamed the widespread abuse of children in the Boston Archdiocese on “an institutional acceptance of abuse and a massive and pervasive failure of leadership.” For six decades or more, successive archbishops, bishops, and others in positions of authority exerted “tragically misguided priorities,” acting with “misguided devotion to secrecy,” and choosing again and again “to protect the image and reputation of their institution rather than the safety and well-being of the children entrusted to their care.” The Murphy Report quotes this conclusion and adds that “unfortunately the same conclusion could be reached about the Archdiocese of Dublin,” where “the welfare of children, which should have been the first priority,” was sacrificed for “the avoidance of scandal and the preservation of the good name, status, and assets of the institution and of what the institution regarded as its most important members—the priests.”

The Massachusetts report did not merely analyze the problem; it went on to identify the specific bishops who in its view bore responsibility for mismanaging the state’s child sexual-abuse crisis. At the top of the attorney general’s list was the cardinal archbishop of Boston, Bernard Law. Also cited were the auxiliary bishops of Boston who collaborated with Cardinal Law: Bishop Thomas Daily, who left Boston in 1984 to become bishop of Palm Beach and later bishop of Brooklyn; Bishop Robert Banks, who left Boston to become bishop of Green Bay in 1990; Bishop Alfred Hughes, who left Boston to become bishop of Baton Rouge in 1993, then archbishop of New Orleans in 2002. In addition to these three men, all of whom have retired in recent years, the report cited two men still active: Bishop William Murphy, who left Boston in 2001 to become bishop of Rockville Centre, New York, where, at the age of sixty-nine, he still serves as ordinary of the diocese; and Bishop John McCormack, who left Boston in 1998 to become bishop of Manchester, New Hampshire, where he is approaching the mandatory retirement age of seventy-five.

In similar fashion, the Murphy Report identifies the bishops considered by the commission to have mishandled the sexual-abuse crisis in the Irish church: Dublin auxiliary bishops Ray Field and Eamonn Walsh; former Dublin auxiliaries James Moriarty, Donal Murray, and Martin Drennan; and the retired cardinal archbishop of Dublin, Desmond Connell.

But there is one critical difference in the treatment bishops received on opposite sides of the Atlantic. In the Boston shipwreck, only one bishop resigned, Cardinal Bernard Law, and the notion that he has been punished seems dubious. Within months, he was in Rome, sheltered by friends, resident in the Apostolic Palace, and finally, in May 2004, appointed by Pope John Paul II to be archpriest and canon of the Basilica of St. Mary Major—where he still resides, in a grand apartment adjoining the Basilica, with a chauffeured Vatican limousine, living on income from the Basilica’s endowment, and serving as a member of the powerful Congregation for Bishops, which recommends episcopal appointments. Hardly a penitential retirement, in other words. In contrast, in Ireland, four of the five bishops named in the Murphy Report have tendered their resignations. Only Bishop Drennan, currently of Galway, has not—and he is under severe pressure to do so. (So far, Rome has accepted only one of the resignations.)

What accounts for this difference? Why did the Irish bishops who gave solace to pedophile priests step down, while the American bishops who did the same went on happily with their episcopal careers? The answer, in a phrase, is “fraternal correction.” Archbishop Martin of Dublin has made it his job to see, for the benefit of the church in Ireland, that those who allowed known pedophile priests to continue harming children will not remain in the active episcopacy of Ireland. Martin announced publicly that if the bishops found culpable in the Murphy Report did not resign, then he would petition the Holy See to remove them. His basis for doing so was clear. There is not much doubt that bishops who continually reassigned pedophile priests had themselves violated canon law—specifically, canon 1389, §2, which holds that “one who through culpable negligence illegitimately places or omits an act of ecclesiastical power, ministry, or function which damages another person is to be punished with a just penalty.” This surely applies to the bishops, whose failure to commence a canonical penal process against known priest pedophiles clearly harmed the subsequent victims of these priests.

To petition the Holy See to remove bishops who protected pedophile priests would have been a courageous act by a courageous archbishop. Such episcopal courage was by and large lacking in the United States, and perhaps that obvious failure of the American episcopacy is what drove Archbishop Martin to act in Ireland. This is not to say that the man who was president of the USCCB when the crisis broke in 2002, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, now of Atlanta, showed no courage in pushing the bishops to act; or that there were not individual bishops, such as Archbishop Donald Wuerl, then of Pittsburgh, who deserve our praise for dealing forthrightly with this issue in their dioceses. But sadly, no U.S. bishop did as Archbishop Martin of Dublin did, practicing fraternal correction to protect the church, its people, and especially its children, publicly naming bishops who had not protected the young, and asserting that these bishops would have to go.

Why didn’t that happen here? Why did no American bishop announce publicly that the issue was not merely one of individual priestly abuse but of episcopal malfeasance, and that those bishops who had facilitated the sexual abuse of children had failed in their canonical duties and would have to resign? One reason, of course, is that there was no Diarmuid Martin in the U.S. church. But there is a larger issue. Even though 2009 is separated by only seven years from 2002, it is also separated by a pontificate; and for all his unquestionable personal sanctity, Pope John Paul II apparently had a blind spot on this issue. He was said to have refused Cardinal Law’s first two attempts to resign, and the care he took of Law in his “retirement” was extravagant. Even more unfortunate was his protection of the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, from credible charges that he had sexually abused seminarians—a decision originally accepted by John Paul II’s successor, then the cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger was perhaps too loyal a subaltern in this case. Only after his election in 2005, with the power of the papacy behind him, did Pope Benedict direct the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to seriously investigate these charges, an investigation that led to Benedict’s imposing a life of prayer and penance on Maciel prior to his death. We now know even more about the misdeeds of this man for whom John Paul II looked the other way.

In contrast to his predecessor’s reluctance, Pope Benedict acted quickly when the Murphy Report was issued. He convened a high-octane summit including Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh, primate of Ireland; Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin; and five curial cardinals, among them Cardinal Prefect William Levada of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the papal nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza. No one knows for sure what was said at this summit. But in public, Pope Benedict’s words have been blunt. Calling himself “deeply disturbed and pained” by the Murphy Report, he has said he shares “the disdain, the feeling of betrayal and the shame of the Irish faithful,” and promises that “the priests who are to blame will pay for it.” Significantly, it was following talks with the pope and other Vatican officials that Archbishop Martin called for the resignation of those bishops who had failed to protect the young. Clearly the archbishop felt empowered by his meeting with the pope. Pope Benedict must now reciprocate and accept all four episcopal resignations.

Let me end by citing yet one more parallel between Ireland and America in the sexual-abuse crisis. In an article last December in the Irish Times, Fr. Vincent Twomey, a former theology student of Fr. Joseph Ratzinger at Regensburg University and now a retired professor of moral theology at Ireland’s national seminary, put primary responsibility for the crisis in Ireland on “the fact that the Irish hierarchy has in effect produced a self-perpetuating mediocracy.” It is the bishops who traditionally propose candidates to Rome, Twomey pointed out, and the process is fraught with politics: bishops particularly powerful in Rome often use their influence to promote “sound men” (in other words, “orthodox”), while blocking those who might rock the boat. “Such a sterile orthodoxy is as far from the truth of Scripture and Catholic tradition as Marxism is from the true plight of workers,” Twomey wrote. It also all but guarantees mediocrity. “Incompetence,” he concluded, “breeds incompetence.” This insight applies equally to America, where for generations the church’s episcopal mediocracy bred bishops unwilling to risk fraternal correction. U.S. bishops influential in Rome, meanwhile, typically used their status to cultivate protégés. It is hardly an accident that all those Law lieutenants named in the Massachusetts attorney general’s report ended up as bishops of their own dioceses across the country.

Twomey’s proposed solution for the Irish church—namely, “some other way of choosing suitable bishops, which will involve some real participation by priests and laity”—echoes something that the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board said six years ago, in our February 2004 “Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States.” The report made twenty-six specific recommendations to avoid a similar crisis in the future. Two in particular foresee precisely what Twomey would identify as major factors in the crisis. “The bishops should be more willing to engage in fraternal correction,” observed the Review Board, “and should appeal to the Vatican to intervene if a particular bishop appears unable or unwilling to act in the best interests of the entire church.” Finally, the board added, “the process for selecting bishops should include meaningful lay consultation.”

At last a hopeful parallel: In both churches, people who truly love their church are proposing similar answers for similar problems. And recent appointments, such as Diarmuid Martin in Dublin and some very good bishops and archbishops in America, do provide a basis for hoping that changes are underway. While we await these changes, however, good priests and laity need to stay alert. We cannot let our bishops go back to business as usual, to the bad old days when an uncritical hierarchy saw evil being done by their fellow bishops and chose to say nothing.


More on the Murphy Report: Cathleen Kaveny, Truth or Consequences
Thomas Lynch, Preaching to Bishops

Nicholas P. Cafardi is a civil and canon lawyer. He is Dean emeritus of Duquesne University School of Law and former general counsel to the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. His most recent book is Voting and Faithfulness (Paulist Press, 2020).

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Published in the 2010-03-12 issue: View Contents
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