The Taoiseach got it right but the Vatican gets it wrong once again

By Fergus Finlay

THE gimlet eye of a canon lawyer. Read the "Response of the Holy See to the Government of Ireland" — the Vatican’s response to the criticism levelled at them by Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore — and that’s all you’ll see.

Gimlet eyes. Sharp-faced lawyers. 

Read it in all its painful, pathetic and absurd detail. Then tell me if you can see any real compassion there, any real humility, any real pain at the suffering of victims and survivors. No. It’s 25 pages long and — to be generous about it — roughly a page is all it takes to outline the Catholic Church’s feelings of sorrow and shame at the abuse perpetrated by its priests and covered up by its bishops. The other 24 pages were written by lawyers trying to win on a technicality. 

And since it was published they, and their apologists who have been all over the media all weekend, have been demanding that the Government should respond to their specifics with more specifics. Like some sharp-suited lawyers in the tv version of a courtroom drama, they have tried to put the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste on the defensive with page after page of wearying technicalities. 

Even Archbishop Martin was at it. On RTÉ News on Sunday he was suggesting that the Taoiseach needs to explain what he was referring to when he spoke in the Dáil in July. He said he’d like to know exactly what Mr Kenny had meant by, what he called, a very specific allegation (the allegation that the Vatican had frustrated an inquiry). 

The archbishop told us all that it was important to know, so that we could move forward without having suspicions that there was some other unknown agenda. 

Hello? Is this really the same Archbishop Martin who virtually applauded the Taoiseach’s speech the night it was made — who said his only criticism of the speech was the Taoiseach hadn’t also apologised for the State’s failings towards children? The day after the Taoiseach’s speech, Archbishop Martin did an RTÉ interview where he made dark references to a "cabal" in the Church that was still refusing to address the issue of child protection. 

"What do you do’" he said, "when groups, either in the Vatican or in Ireland, try to undermine what is being done and ... simply refuse to understand what is being done? What sort of a cabal is in there and still refusing to recognise the norms of the church?" 

How can an archbishop, whom we’ve all admired for his forthrightness and his obvious commitment to child protection, say something like that at the end of July, and a month or so later be wondering aloud about whether the Taoiseach has an unknown agenda?

What’s even more dispiriting is to hear him repeating the same essential defence about mandatory reporting that is so prevalent throughout the Vatican document. 

Why should we criticise the Vatican for its attitude to reporting, the argument goes, when so many bodies in Ireland were opposed to mandatory reporting? Why? Could the question be posed another way? Have we no right to expect leadership from the Church in relation to the protection of children, especially when it has always so jealously guarded its right to lead all of us on every moral question? 

When it comes to divorce, or family planning, or abortion, the Church has never felt the need to be silent, or to take its lead from teacher unions or the Association of Social Workers. Why in the name of God did the Church feel the need to be led by others in its duty of protecting children?

Throughout the 25 tedious pages of the Vatican’s response, this kind of specious reasoning is substituted for the shame and compassion we needed to see. Take the whole controversy about the letter from the Vatican that described the Irish Hierarchy’s framework document on child protection as a "study document". 

Boiled into its essence, the Vatican’s defence of this letter is that the Cloyne Commission of Inquiry, and the Government, misunderstood the letter and took it out of context. They go to the most extraordinary lengths to try to establish that the Irish bishops were actually only drawing up a report, (not even the bishops, actually, just a sub-committee) and never sought formal recognition for it at all at all (or "recognitio", in the quaint language of the Holy See). You can’t accuse us of not telling them what to do, because they never asked us properly. 

Isn’t this astonishing?

The Irish bishops were moved to act, the Vatican admits, because of a number of high-profile cases of abuse of children perpetrated by priests in the 1990s. But because they hadn’t got their technical language right, the Vatican can still say, years later, that they were never really asked to approve anything. 

Anyway, the Vatican points out, the application of Canon Law would have solved the problems of Cloyne. They even helpfully set out the fundamental relevant principles in a footnote in their document. Here the first two, only slightly abridged (and you can read them for yourselves if you don’t believe me): 

1. If a bishop has knowledge, and believes it to be true, that one of his priests has committed abuse, he should make careful enquiries about the facts and circumstances; 

2. In making such enquiries he will be very careful not to damage anyone’s reputation. 

IT WOULD make you weep. Was it any wonder the Irish bishops might have thought they need some recognition for a slightly more victim-friendly approach? The fundamental point in all of this is that someone is telling a porkie. The Irish bishops told us that they had put this new framework in place and that it had the full approval of the Church. The Vatican is now telling us that in effect they had never asked for approval at all. Why did our bishops never tell us that the framework hadn’t been approved or recognised? 

Either our own bishops have been living with an untruth all these years, or the Vatican is simply quoting scripture for its own purposes. 

In any event, if our Taoiseach were to ask me for advice on the subject, I’d tell him this: Ignore all those self-serving demands, from the Vatican and their apologists here, that you should get involved in a debate about spurious specifics. They’d love that — they’d love the idea that this whole argument could get bogged down in Jesuitical parsing and analysing of Latin phrases. It’s a joke. 

I said here at the time that Enda Kenny spoke nothing but the simple truth when he talked about the elitism and the narcissism of the institutional church. What he should concentrate in now is that one page or so, where the Vatican says it abhors the crime of sex abuse of children which it admits occurred (and not just in Cloyne) and where the Church admits its sorrow and shame. It is the Vatican’s job, and not the Taoiseach’s, to demonstrate how its sorrow will lead to repentance, its shame to atonement. 

The 24 pages of point-scoring in their document will not achieve either.

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