Last week, in an impassioned speech delivered from the floor of the Irish parliament, Prime Minister Enda Kenny offeredsome hard sayings about the Vatican's handling of clergy sexual abuse in Ireland. Kenny said that therecent report on the scandal in Cloyne "excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day." So much for Joyce's "Ireland my first and only love / Where Christ and Caesar are hand and glove!"The Cloyne report examines the diocese's handling of abuse allegations between January 1, 1996, the year Irish bishops established procedures for dealing with abuse claims, and February 1, 2009 -- well after the institutional church came to realize the gravity of such crimes. According to the report, two-thirds of allegations during that period were not forwarded to the police, as required by the Irish bishops' own '96 guidelines.On Monday, the Vatican recalled its apostolic nuncio to Ireland. Fr. Ciro Benedettini, vice director of the Vatican press office, explained that Rome wanted to consult with the nuncio about its response to Cloyne. But there was another reason. As Benedettini elaborated, the decision was not unrelated to "some degree of surprise and disappointment at certain excessive reactions. By Friday, it was reported that the Vatican would replace the nuncio.

Benedettini wasn't the only one shocked and dismayed by Kenny's speech. Last Sunday, a priest in County Louth gave the following headline to his column in the parish bulletin: "Heil Herr Kenny!" The priest wrote: "No Pope here.' Is this the way forward for a new and better Ireland?"

Catholic journalists soon started asking similar questions. In his column "Erin Go Bonkers" (get it?), George Weigel declares Ireland "the most stridently anti-Catholic country in the Western world." But it's Kenny's "rant" that was "hysterical" and "rabid," on Weigel's telling. He suggests replacing all of Ireland's bishops -- with men from other countries, if necessary, men "who know how to fight the soft totalitarianism of European secularists." Clearly the Irish church's most immediate threat.

In a post titled "The Anticlerical Hysteria Sweeping Ireland," at America's In All Things blog, Austen Ivereigh calls Kenny's speech "bizarre" and "rambling." Ivereigh points out that the Cloyne Report criticizes the Vatican for a 1997 letter from the apostolic nuncio [.pdf] "in which he questioned whether the 1996 guidelines drawn up by the Irish bishops were compatible with canon law, notably the idea that church officials should be obliged to pass on all and any allegations to the civil authorities." Of course, as Ivereigh emphasizes, that is no longer the thinking in the Vatican. He continues: "Nothing justifies" Kenny's "broadside, which conveniently glosses over the state's failures over abuse -- also highlighted in the [Cloyne] Report -- or the Commission's findings that the state's guidelines on abuse are more opaque and difficult to understand than the church's." Yet, according to Ivereigh, this dark cloud has a silver lining:

The good news about Cloyne -- a small rural diocese in Co. Cork -- is that its failures were first spotted by the Church's own safeguarding watchdog, which brought them to light in December 2008. Judge Murphy, then investigating Dublin, decided to extend her probe to Cloyne. Bishop Magee was stood down, and the Church -- as the Cloyne Report clearly acknowledges -- cooperated fully with the investigation.

Leaving aside Ivereigh's own bizarre remark about the size and location of Cloyne -- presumably he didn't intend it to comfort those who were scandalized by the report's findings -- it certainly would be disappointing for the prime minister of Ireland to criticize the institutional church for its failures in addressing clergy sexual abuse while glossing over his own government's mistakes. Just as it would be foolish of him to name the hierarchy's shortcomings without acknowledging its successes. It's a good thing, then, that he didn't. Kenny:

I must note the Commission is very positive about the work of the National Board for Safeguarding Children, established by the Church to oversee the operation by Dioceses and religious orders. The Commission notes that all Church authorities were required to sign a contract with the National Board agreeing to implement the relevant standards and that those refusing to sign would be named in the Board's Annual Report....

There is some small comfort to be drawn by the people of Cloyne from the fact that the Commission is complimentary of the efforts made by the Diocese since 2008, in training, in vetting personnel and in the risk management of Priests against whom allegations have been made.


But if the Vatican needs to get its house in order, so does this State.The Report of the Commission is rightly critical of the entirely unsatisfactory position which the last Government allowed to persist over many years.The unseemly bickering between the Minister for Children and the HSE over the statutory powers to deal with extra-familial abuse, the failure to produce legislation to enable the exchange of soft information as promised after the Ferns Enquiry, and the long period of confusion and disjointed responsibility for child protection within the HSE, as reported by the Commission, are simply not acceptable in a society which values children and their safety.

For too long Ireland has neglected its children.

Does that sound hysterical to you? More or less hysterical than declaiming Ireland as the most anti-Catholic country in the Western world? What about this:

The rape and torture of children were downplayed or "managed" to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and "reputation."Far from listening to evidence of humiliation and betrayal with St. Benedict's "ear of the heart," the Vatican's reaction was to parse and analyse it with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer.This calculated, withering position being the polar opposite of the radicalism, humility and compassion upon which the Roman Church was founded.

No doubt, many church critics have exaggerated the import of that 1997 letter. But when at least one Irish bishop tells the press that he interpreted it as an instruction not to inform civil authorities about allegations against priests, can you blame them? What about when one considers the fact that the letter communicated the concerns of the Congregation for Clergy, then headed by Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, who in 2001 praised a French bishop for covering up for a priest he knew had abused several boys? Or when the '97 letter is read in light of a 1984 letter from the Congregation for Clergy (then run by Cardinal Silvio Oddi) to the bishop of Tucson ordering him notto release the personnel files of priests accused of misconduct (not necessarily sexual abuse) to civil lawyers?

Of course, Kenny's critics are right to say that proposals requiring priests to report abuse disclosed during confession must be rejected by Irish lawmakers -- as a violation of religious freedom and of common sense. But no one ought to be surprised that a Catholic country so convulsed by clergy abuse for so long would, after another in a string of damning reports on the scandal, find itself seeking desperate measures.There was also a hint of desperation in David Quinn's response to Kenny's comments. Writing in the Independent, Quinn also called Kenny's address hysterical. "In the sort of language normally associated with a Richard Dawkins or Ian Paisley, he accused the Vatican of 'dysfunction, disconnection, elitism...narcissism' and effectively of not caring about the 'rape and torture of children.'" Hasn't it already been established that dysfunction, disconnection, and clericalism (usually characterized by elitism and narcissism) significantly contributed to the Catholic Church's sexual-abuse crisis? Is there a better word than narcissistic for Cardinal Sodano's Easter 2010 performance? What do you call the game of canonical hot potato that was played between Rome and local bishops over how to handle accused priests, if not dysfunctional? Were some Vatican officials something other than disconnected when, throughout the 1990s and even as the 2002 wave of U.S. scandals broke, they dismissed the abuse crisis as an American phenomenon?

Yes, Kenny claimed that even today's Vatican is "dominated" by a culture that enables abuse. That's probably going too far. But by how much? The Irish people have seen four state inquiries into clergy abuse, which have cost them 134 million. It's not as though compiling those reports has been a cake walk. As Patsy McGarry points out, "None of this would have been necessary had the Catholic Church here [in Ireland] and in Rome co-operated fully in establishing the truth."When it came to the investigation of the Diocese of Ferns, for example, "abuse files on five further priests which should have been presented to the inquiry remained unavailable until an accidental discovery in the summer of 2005 when the Ferns draft report was already completed," McGarry writes. And in May 2009, the Ryan report concluded that a climate of fear, created by pervasive, excessive and arbitrary punishment, permeated most of the institutions and all those run for boys [by the Christian Brothers]. Children lived with the daily terror of not knowing where the next beating was coming from. Just five days before that report was published,the Christian Brothers sent a letter to the redress board denying abuse allegations. The next month the Christian Brothers released a statement expressing their regret for sending such a letter. And in January 2008 the retired archbishop of Dublin sued the current archbishop to prevent him from turning over documents to state investigators. Amazingly, in 2006 the Vatican could not manage toacknowledge correspondence from the Murphy commission. "Instead," McGarry writes, "it complained the commission did not use proper channels." So the next year the commission followed proper procedure, asking the nuncio to forward correspondence to Rome. Silence. Again in 2009,the commission contacted the next nuncio, including a copy of the draft report. No reply.Kenny's critics have complained that he unfairly blamed Rome for the faults of the local church. Apparently they either don't grasp that apostolic nuncios are officials of the Vatican appointed by the pope or they don't know how uncooperative some have been.

Is it any wonder, then, that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin recently admitted that after reading the Cloyne report the first emotion that came to him was anger?

Some years ago I was criticized in some Church circles for speaking of strong forces still present in the Church which would prefer that the truth did not emerge. There are signs, I said, of subconscious denial on the part of many about the extent of the abuse which occurred within the Church of Jesus Christ in Ireland and how it was covered up. There are other signs of rejection of a sense of responsibility for what had happened. There are worrying signs that despite solid regulations and norms these are not being followed with the rigour required.

Much has, thank God, been undertaken within the Catholic Church to address the facts of the past and to improve safeguarding procedures. Much has, thank God, been undertaken within the Catholic Church to address the facts of the past and to improve safeguarding procedures. The Catholic Church in Ireland is a much safer place today than it was even in the recent past.Much is being said, on the other hand, that despite words the Church has not learned the lessons. Both statements are true.

Last week, in a televised interview, Martin said, "Those who felt they were able to play tricks with norms, they have betrayed...good men and so many others in the church who are working today, I am angry, ashamed and appalled by that.Visibly shaken, Martin confessed, "I find myself asking today, can I be proud of the church that I'm a leader of? His admission won the ire of Phil Lawler, director of Catholic Culture, who called it "hardly a statement calculated to boost Catholic morale." Is that what Irish Catholics need right now? An episcopal pep talk? Surely, Lawler, a Boston native -- a fact he mentions often, so you know he really gets the sexual-abuse crisis -- remembers how well that strategy served bishops in the past, not to mention the faithful. Or at least what's left of them.And that's the point, isn't it? Archbishop Martin is presiding over the most dramatic period of attrition the Irish church has ever seen. Perhaps it's more convenient or comforting to focus on Kenny's overreaching claims. It's important to correct them, and more important to make sure priests are not compelled to break the seal of confession.

But Kenny is giving voice to the greater pastoral and ecclesiological crisis that his archbishop -- in his refusal to strike a defensive pose -- is trying to address. Kenny's anger isn't about a single incident, a single letter, a single report. It's about a long history of abuse that was enabled locally and internationally by a church -- comprising clergy and laity alike -- that for too long looked the other way.The failure of some Catholic journalists to recall that larger context, to the point of misrepresenting important parts of Kennys speech, eerily echoes the institutional defensiveness that landed the church in this mess to begin with. That view of history should not be repeated -- or abetted.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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