Anyone who thought the Vatican’s inquiry into the state of the Catholic Church in Ireland was going to be a mere formality got a rude awakening with the announcement May 31 of the high-powered team that will lead the apostolic visitation.
In his pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland on the issue of clerical abuse in March, Pope Benedict XVI announced that some Irish dioceses, seminaries, and religious congregations would be subject to an apostolic visitation. Few could have expected that such an A-team of prelates would be assembled to conduct the inquiry.
Any one of the appointees—Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the retired archbishop of Westminster, Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Archbishop Thomas Collins of Toronto, and Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa, Canada—would have been an impressive choice to lead a visitation. The fact that five such influential men have been appointed is a clear sign that the Vatican means business. A signal too, perhaps, that the Holy See appreciates just how dramatic an effect the abuse scandals have had on the Church in Ireland.
In recent years six Irish bishops have had to step down under pressure over their mishandling of abuse allegations. The Primate of All-Ireland, Cardinal SeÁn Brady, has also been under fire after it emerged that he was aware of the activities of notorious pedophile Father Brendan Smyth as far back as 1975. Cardinal Brady did not denounce the abusive cleric to the civil authorities, and Father Smyth went on to abuse for almost 20 years before being convicted in 1993. Despite this, Cardinal Brady has vowed he will lead renewal of the Church and not resign, instead asking the Pope to appoint a coadjutor bishop to assist him.
Rome has looked on with a mixture of dismay at the Irish hierarchy’s handling of the abuse allegations and apparent inability to get a handle on the crisis. The controversy has split the once fiercely unified Irish bishops’ conference (IBC), with some bishops publicly squabbling in the media. Three times in the last year senior Irish bishops have been summoned to the Vatican to discuss the issue.
The caliber of the visitors indicates that Rome has had enough of the fumbling and infighting and sees the need for decisive and swift action.
In addition to the prelates, the inquiry into religious congregations will be conducted by two priests and two religious sisters appointed by Rome. Religious life in Ireland has suffered the same fate as many other western countries, as some congregations have agonized over a crisis of identity and the subsequent collapse of new entrants. The visitors will have to proceed carefully: a recent report found that most congregations’ average ages ranged from the mid- to late-70s. Nevertheless, the fact remains that many congregations continue to suffer from the absence of a sense of mission, and this is something the visitors will have to address in their final report if there is to be any future for religious life in Ireland.
New York’s Archbishop Dolan has been charged with investigating seminaries and houses of formation for aspirant priests. As a former rector of Rome’s North American College (NAC), Dolan is well-placed to assess the state of priestly formation in Ireland. Five years ago the Vatican asked him to lead an apostolic visitation of American seminaries as a result of the sexual abuse crisis in the US, but he refused, arguing that his responsibilities as archbishop of Milwaukee took precedence. That he agreed this time, despite serving in the even more complex Archdiocese of New York, suggests the Irish situation is regarded as critical not only in Rome, but among bishops around the world.
A radical assessment of the seminaries will be crucial in kick-starting any meaningful process of renewal. Despite the numerous reports into clerical abuse in Ireland, no one has successfully uncovered what went so dramatically wrong in the training of priests that allowed a culture of abuse and cover-ups to reign in an institution supposedly founded on a gospel of love.
One potential reform that has been discussed is a restructuring of Irish dioceses. With a total population of less than six million people (87 percent of whom are Catholic) Ireland has 26 dioceses and more than 30 bishops. Austria, a country with a similar Catholic population, has just 12 dioceses. The visitors, who are due to arrive in Ireland in the fall, will first assess the four metropolitan archdioceses before moving on to the smaller dioceses, a process that is expected to take a matter of months.
It’s hardly a coincidence that each of the five archbishops chosen to lead the visitation is of Irish descent. This background surely gives them a head-start in the cultural limitations and advantages of Irish Catholicism that they must now try to renew.
Despite the scandals the fundamentals for the Church in Ireland remain good. Eighty-seven percent of Irish people continue to describe themselves as Catholic, and Mass attendance, which has remained at a steady 47 percent for almost 10 years, shows no sign of having been affected by the crisis. Parents continue to choose a Catholic education for their children in huge numbers, and a recent high-profile campaign by aggressive secularists to have Catholics upset by the scandals renounce their faith has seen fewer than 1,200 defections. A recent opinion poll found that 70 percent of Irish people remain in favor of keeping the constitutional protection of the right to life for the unborn.
Perhaps the most dramatic impact of the scandals has been the collapse in the Church’s moral authority. Episcopal commentary on matters of public morality, once much sought after, is now more likely to provoke anger than interest. Catholics have had to look on helplessly as their Church is humiliated by a series of self-inflicted blows.
Apostolic visitations rarely trigger seismic ecclesiastical shifts overnight. But what the Irish visitation might provide is the opportunity for Irish Catholicism to recalibrate itself and, with some valuable outside assistance, once and for all get a handle on this painful chapter and chart a vision for a Church renewed.