By Joe Leary
Special to the BIR
Are the continuing controversies surrounding the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland as serious as they sometimes seem? After a 1,500-year history of strength and fidelity, has the Church been weakened so much that political leaders now find it advantageous to call for the resignation of its leader, Cardinal Sean Brady, for his role as a young priest-clerk in a tribunal investigating an abusive priest 37 years ago?
The answer to both questions is “yes.”
Sexual abuse of young children by a few Catholic priests, and almost as importantly, the subsequent attempts by the church in Ireland and in Rome to keep such behavior secret and out of public knowledge, have caused, and are continuing to cause, the nearly complete skepticism and distrust of the church by many in Ireland. Irish politicians, who depend upon voter approbation to maintain their power, sense these sentiments and criticize the church at every turn.
Ireland and the Irish are experiencing very difficult years of change. As one result of the economic collapse, the people elected a new government, which was formed on March 9, 2011. The party in power for many years -- Fianna Fail – was reduced to a weak shadow of its former glory with less than 20 delegates in the Irish Parliament. A new coalition of the Fine Gael party and the Labor party came into power.
Four months later, on July 11, 2011, a special government-appointed commission issued an extremely critical report of the local Catholic Church’s handling of sexual abuse incidents by priests in the Cloyne Diocese of Cork. Known as the Cloyne Report, it claimed, among other things, that Bishop James Magee and Monsignor Denis O’Callaghan deliberately lied in their attempts to cover up the priests’ abuse.
The reaction was explosive. In deploring the report, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, the newly elected prime minister, criticized “the dysfunction, and elitism that dominates the culture of the Vatican to this day.” He continued: “The historic relationship between the church and state in Ireland can never be the same again.”
According to a July 25, 2011, article in the Irish Times, Kenny accused the Vatican of downplaying the rape and torture of children in order to uphold its own power and reputation. It is hard to imagine an Irish leader saying such a thing if he did not think that many of the Irish people believed it, too.
In fact, Irish leadership was so upset with the refusal of the Vatican and local Irish clergy to acknowledge sexual abuse and the cover- up described in the Cloyne Report that on Nov. 3, 2011, the government announced the closure of the Irish Embassy at the Vatican. The reason given was economic -- “We will save money.” Diplomatic relations would now be managed out of Dublin. Now this was a shock! Whether done in anger or not, the closing was a major insult. That decision has been reviewed several times in these last months, and the government has announced the embassy will not reopen.
Since the Cloyne Report was issued, the papal nuncio at the time has been withdrawn and a new one appointed. Equivalent to an ambassador, the new papal nuncio is Archbishop Charles Brown, a 53-year-old American who was born in New York. His low-key style and former relationship with Pope Benedict could help the Irish Church and most view his appointment as a very positive sign from the Vatican. He has a lot of work to do.
And yet more trouble has occurred. Early last month, the BBC ran a documentary entitled “The Shame of the Catholic Church” that detailed the repeated abuse by a priest named Brendan Smyth and implied that Sean Brady, a young priest in attendance at the investigation in 1975, should have, on his own, gone around his superiors and proclaimed Smyth’s guilt to all.
Whatever the merits of that charge, to some Irish politicians it was just another instance of a cover-up, and they immediately began to suggest that the-now Cardinal Sean Brady resign his position. Brady is the primate of the Catholic Church in Ireland – North and South. He is actually located in the North, in the City of Armagh.
Taniste Eamon Gilmore called for his resignation. The Taniste is equivalent to an American Vice President except that he has formal duties and is also the Foreign Affairs Minister. Gilmore said that while he always believed in the separation of church and state, in this case he personally felt that Brady should resign. Most other politicians – North and South – were a bit more temperate, suggesting that Brady should consider his position. But almost all of them felt the necessity to speak out. It is highly unlikely that the cardinal will resign as a result of this type of pressure. He has said he would like to leave his position in two years.
In the meantime the Irish people are led politically by men and women who are very angry and critical of the way the Roman Catholic Church has dealt with the clergy abuse tragedy. They are outspoken and willing to bitterly condemn the leadership of a church that has been seriously weakened and may never again be an important factor in Irish life.