Blaming the Vatican

An independent review of the handling of sex-abuse complaints in an Irish diocese chastised a retired bishop and his top aide. But Irish politicians pointed fingers at the Vatican, and their unsupported accusations provoked a chill in the ordinarily friendly relations between Dublin and Rome.

In a long-awaited report on the handling of sex-abuse charges in Ireland’s Diocese of Cloyne, released on July 13 by the Irish government, an independent commission severely chastised diocesan leaders—in particular, a bishop who resigned last year—and charged that Vatican officials had encouraged clerical indifference to the abuse problem.

The 400-page report, issued by a committee headed by Judge Yvonne Murphy—who had earlier headed a similar investigation into abuse in the Dublin archdiocese—broke new ground in that it studied more recent cases than previous investigations. The report found that even after the Irish bishops’ conference had approved guidelines for handling sex-abuse complaints, the Cloyne diocese failed to follow those rules.

Between 1996 and 2005, the report found, there were 15 credible complaints about sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Cloyne, which “very clearly should have been reported.” Only six were.

Irish justice minister Alan Shatter said that the findings of the Cloyne report were “truly scandalous,” and charged that the Irish hierarchy had failed to carry through on the promise of abuse policies approved by the bishops in 1995. Frances Fitzgerald, the minister for children and youth affairs, observed that the Cloyne’s record of reporting only six of 15 credible complaints was a travesty. “That’s very nearly two-thirds of complaints unreported, uninvestigated, and unprosecuted,” she observed.

The primary focus of the report’s criticism was Bishop John Magee, who resigned last year as complaints about the Cloyne diocese multiplied. The bishop showed no interest in enforcing the guidelines of the episcopal conference, the report said, and very little concern for the protection of children.

Although the Cloyne diocese theoretically supported the Irish bishops’ guidelines for protecting children, the report found that diocesan officials were “never genuinely committed to their implementation.” Msgr. Denis O’Callaghan, the chief aide to Bishop Magee, was unhappy with the guidelines and blocked their implementation, the report said. The Cloyne diocese continued to flout the guidelines of the episcopal conference until as late as 2009.

The report added a very negative view of Vatican officials’ attitude toward the abuse problem in Ireland, noting that the Congregation for Clergy had not approved the Irish bishops’ guidelines. Vatican officials “gave comfort and support” to those who, like Bishop Magee and Msgr. O’Callaghan, resisted the guidelines, the report charged; and the same officials were “entirely unhelpful” to Irish bishops who took more aggressive action against abusive clerics.

The Cloyne report was particularly scathing in its treatment of Bishop Magee. A longtime Vatican official himself, the bishop had served as private secretary to three different popes (Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II), and was widely regarded as a rising figure in the Irish hierarchy when he was appointed to head the Cloyne diocese in 1987 at the age of 50. He resigned under pressure in March 2010. The report also mentioned that Bishop Magee had been cited for “boundary” issues himself, because of embraces that the bishop said were considered normal gestures in the Roman society to which he had become accustomed. After the release of the report, Bishop Magee issued a statement apologizing to those who were harmed by clerical abuse, and conceding that he should have taken a more active role in confronting the problem.

Archbishop Dermot Clifford of Cashel and Emly, who took over from Bishop Magee as apostolic administrator of the Cloyne diocese, remarked that the publication of the report marked “a very sad day for all the priests and people in the Diocese of Cloyne.” Apologizing to abuse victims, and thanking the authors of the report, the archbishop was frank in his criticism of the former diocesan leaders. He was “appalled” that proper guidelines were not in force until 2008, he said. He emphasized that both Bishop Magee and Msgr. O’Callaghan have now retired, and stressed that the Cloyne diocese is now fully committed to child-protection policies. Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh, the Primate of All Ireland, agreed that the report “represents another dark day in the history of the response of Church leaders to the cry of children abused by Church personnel.”

Anger aimed at Rome

Although the primary focus of the report’s criticism was Bishop Magee, the references to Vatican involvement caught public attention—especially the attention of government leaders. Foreign minister Eamon Gilmore summoned the apostolic nuncio in Dublin, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, for an urgent meeting on July 14, to express the Irish government’s displeasure with the Vatican’s handling of the issue. After his meeting with Gilmore, Archbishop Leanza declined to take questions from reporters, but read a brief statement affirming the Vatican’s commitment to “all the necessary measures to ensure the protection of children.”

Attacks on the Vatican soon become commonplace among Irish politicians. Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny denounced what he called “the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism—and the narcissism—that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.” Justice minister Alan Shatter added that an unofficial Vatican response to the Cloyne report’s criticism, issued in a statement by Father Federico Lombardi of the Vatican press office, was “disingenuous.” Ireland’s parliament, the DÁil, passed a resolution charging that the Vatican had interfered with the Irish bishops’ investigation of sex-abuse complaints.

Neither Kenny nor Shatter responded to the substance of Father Lombardi’s statement. The Vatican spokesman had pointed out that in declining to approve policies that the Irish bishops had approved in 2005, the Congregation for Clergy had sought, not to scuttle the Irish bishops’ initiative, but to avoid conflicts with the Code of Canon Law. 

In an address to the DÁil, Kenny vowed that he would move forward with a proposal to require priests to report any evidence of sexual abuse, even if they heard it in a sacramental confession. Dismissing Catholic warnings that such a requirement would force priests to violate the sacramental seal, Kenny said that the Church’s own law has “neither legitimacy nor a place in the affairs of this country.”

“This is not Rome,” the Taoiseach said. “This is the Republic of Ireland in 2011—a republic of laws.”

In his blistering speech, Kenny argued that Pope Benedict has shown no respect for civil law. He quoted the Pontiff: “Standards of conduct appropriate to civil society or the workings of a democracy cannot be purely and simply applied to the Church.” As Irish columnist David Quinn pointed out, that quotation was pulled out of context, from a 1990 document on the vocation of the Catholic theologian; then-Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pontiff, was arguing that truths of the faith cannot be decided by majority vote. That argument, Quinn noted, has nothing to do with the subject of the Taoiseach’s tirade, and in citing it Kenny was distorting the public perception of the Pope’s stance. The intention, quite obviously, was to inflict maximum damage on both the Vatican and the Pope regardless of the facts.

The first Vatican defense

In his initial response to the Cloyne report, Father Lombardi had emphasized the Vatican’s determination to deal effectively with clerical abuse, and reminded Irish readers of the “intense feelings of grief and condemnation” that Pope Benedict had expressed when he addressed the subject in a 2010 letter to the Church in Ireland.

While he said that a more complete reply to the Cloyne report would be forthcoming, the Vatican spokesman felt obliged to address one particular charge against the Vatican, involving a 1997 letter in which the late Archbishop Luciano Storero, then apostolic nuncio, informed the Irish bishops of concerns the Congregation for the Clergy had expressed about a proposed policy of reporting all abuse accusations to civil authorities. That policy “gives rise to serious concerns of both a moral and a canonical nature,” the nuncio had cautioned. Archbishop Storero’s letter, the Cloyne report charged, “effectively gave individual Irish bishops the freedom to ignore the procedures which they had agreed and gave comfort and support to those who, like Msgr. O’Callaghan, dissented from the stated official Irish Church policy.”

Father Lombardi observed that the 1997 letter

…emphasizes that, according to information received from the Congregation for the Clergy, the [Irish bishops’] document “Child Sexual Abuse: Framework for a Church Response” lent itself to objections, because it contained aspects that were problematic from the point of view of compatibility with universal canon law. It is only fair to remember that this document was not sent to the Congregation as an official document of the Bishops’ Conference, but as a “Report of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Advisory Committee on Child Sexual Abuse by Priests and Religious,” and that its foreword stated: “This document is far from being the last word on how to address the issues that have been raised.”

The fact that the Congregation raised objections was therefore understandable and legitimate, taking into account Rome’s competence with regard to the laws of the Church, and—although one can argue about the adequacy of Rome’s intervention, in relation to the seriousness of the situation in Ireland at the time—there is no reason to interpret that letter as being intended to cover up cases of abuse. In fact, it warned against the risk that measures were being taken which could later turn out to be questionable or invalid from the canonical point of view, thus defeating the purpose of the effective sanctions proposed by the Irish bishops.

“Moreover, there is absolutely nothing in the letter that is an invitation to disregard the laws of the country,” Father Lombardi added. “The objection the letter referred to regarded the obligation to provide information to civil authorities (‘mandatory reporting’), it did not object to any civil law to that effect, because it did not exist in Ireland at that time (and proposals to introduce it were subject to discussion for various reasons in the same civil sphere).”

In diplomatic language, Father Lombardi was making a point that no leading Irish politician cared to acknowledge: At the time when the Irish bishops were discussing mandatory reporting of sex-abuse allegations, the Irish government had no such requirement.

Attack on the confessional seal

Nevertheless, the drumbeat of criticism continued, and government leaders underlined their tough new attitude with an insistence that they would not allow the secrecy of the confessional to limit the scope of new legislation to require reporting of all sex-abuse complaints.

“The point is, if there is a law in the land, it has to be followed by everybody. There are no exceptions, there are no exemptions,” said children’s minister Frances Fitzgerald. Quickly dismissing the sanctity of the confessional, which has been recognized by governments for centuries, Fitzgerald said: “I’m not concerned—neither is the government—about the internal laws, the rules governing anybody.”

“The law of the land should not be stopped by a crozier or a collar,” Prime Minister Enda Kenny added.

Ian Elliott, the head of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church, disagreed. While welcoming the legislation in principle, Elliott said that there was no need to challenge the confessional seal. “To break it would antagonize relationships,” he warned, and the Catholic Church would certainly fight against passage of the legislation as it stands.

“The Catholic Church and the state are on a collision course” on the question, the Irish Times reported, saying that the legislation as it was framed “is likely to encounter significant resistance within the Church.” That was an understatement. Since the Catholic Church requires priests to maintain absolute secrecy about what they hear in sacramental confessions, all priests would face a moral obligation to defy the law.

As the war of words escalated, the Vatican announced on July 25 that Archbishop Leanza, the apostolic nuncio, had been recalled to Rome for consultations in reaction to the Cloyne report “and in particular in the wake of the subsequent reactions”—a clear reference to the angry public statements by Irish government leaders. Father Ciro Benedettini, the deputy director of the Vatican press office, told reporters in Rome that the unusual move should be understood as a sign of “the seriousness of the situation, and the desire of the Holy See to deal with it objectively and with determination, as well as a certain note of surprise and regret regarding some excessive reactions.”

Criticism from within

Meanwhile, from within the Church, a few prominent voices arose to join in the criticism of the hierarchy. For example, Father Vincent Twomey, a former student of Pope Benedict XVI and professor at the Irish seminary in Maynooth, told an RTE radio broadcast that he was “seething with anger” after reading the recent report on sex-abuse complaints in the Cloyne diocese. Father Twomey said that in order to restore public confidence, most Irish bishops should step down.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, who had frequently chided his episcopal colleagues for failing to act aggressively on the abuse issue, charged that Church officials both in Ireland and at the Vatican still had not grasped the need for full cooperation with government prosecutors and investigators. In an interview with the RTE broadcast network, an obviously emotional Archbishop Martin said that he was appalled and angry at the findings of the Cloyne report. “What do you do when you’ve got systems in place and somebody ignores them?” the archbishop asked. He said that there are groups both in Ireland and at the Vatican that have undermined efforts to address the abuse scandal. “I find myself asking today, can I be proud of the Church that I’m a leader of? I have to be ashamed of this,” said the archbishop.

When asked whether all Irish bishops are now complying with policies designed to address the crisis, Archbishop Martin answered carefully: “As far as I know,” and “I hope so.” The archbishop of Dublin—who has often seemed isolated within the Irish hierarchy because of his outspoken comments on the crisis—did not make any statement that could be interpreted as a show of confidence in his brother bishops. He said that regular independent audits were necessary to ensure that Church leaders are carrying out the policies they have approved.

“There are still some small circles that are defying the rules in place for Irish bishops,” the archbishop later told the Vatican Insider. He referred to “these circles, present in Ireland and perhaps in the Vatican, who are still not fully adhering to the rules in place, both the rules of the Irish Church and those of the Holy See.” The archbishop said that true reform will require “a change in mentality, and mentalities cannot be changed from one day to the next.”

Speaking more generally about the sex-abuse scandal, Archbishop Martin said that it points to deeper problems for the Church:

The crisis in the Irish Church is not just a crisis linked to sexual abuse of minors. These are symptoms of a far deeper crisis. This crisis goes far deeper. It is a crisis of faith, a crisis of transmission of faith and in many cases it is also a lack of understanding of the very nature of the Church.

Official regrets

Late in August, Bishop Magee—who had been missing since the publication of the report that denounced his handling of the problem in Cloyne—surfaced again at his home in Mitchelstown.  “To the victims I say I am truly horrified by the abuse that they suffered,” he said in his first interview since the report’s release. “It all came to me very clearly when I read the complete report.”

“And if by my not fully implementing the 1996 guidelines I have made any victims suffer more, on my bended knee I beg forgiveness,” he added. “I am sorry.” Bishop Magee also offered to meet privately with victims.

“I feel ashamed that this happened under my watch. It should never have and I truly apologize,” he said. Reiterating what he had said in a brief public statement after the Cloyne report was published, the bishop acknowledged the report’s criticism of his role. He said: “I accept in its entirety the commission’s view that the primary responsibility for the failure to fully implement the Church procedures in the diocese lay with me.”

At the conclusion of his statement, Bishop Magee disclosed that he is now living in a home in Mitchelstown that has been “kindly provided for my use by the diocese.” He ended with a plea: “Now I ask for some privacy.”

If Bishop Magee was entirely repentant, however, his former vicar general was not. In a letter to the Irish Catholic, Msgr. Denis O’Callaghan said that he should have resigned his post in 1996, since he was unwilling to enforce the sex-abuse policies that had been adopted by the Irish hierarchy. He went on to defend that stance.

Msgr. O’Callaghan said that the requirement for mandatory reporting of abuse charges conflicted with the “Christian duty of pastoral care” for accused priests. He pointed out that in some cases, mandatory reporting would have required taking action against priests who were elderly or terminally ill. “The literal guidelines did not allow for any discretion to bishops and their delegates,” he said. The former vicar general reported that the Murphy Commission, which had been so critical of his approach, was aware of his “commitment to pastoral care.” He complained that the commission’s report nevertheless concentrated on the failure to follow the mandatory-reporting rule.

In his letter to the Irish Catholic, Msgr. O’Callaghan consistently used the term “pastoral care” to refer to his efforts to help accused priests. He did not mention “pastoral care” for abuse victims or for young people who might be endangered by the continued public ministry of priests with a history of abuse.

Archbishop Dermot Clifford of Cashel, who has served as apostolic administrator of the Cloyne diocese since Bishop Magee resigned under fire in 2009, agreed that Msgr. O’Callaghan should have resigned in 1996. However, the archbishop expressed his distaste for the stand taken by the former vicar general, saying that Msgr. O’Callaghan’s approach was “not a sufficient response to allegations of child sexual abuse.” He urged Msgr. O’Callaghan to “refrain from any further public comment on this controversy as it will only cause further distress and hurt to survivors of child sexual abuse and their families.”

The Vatican response

On September 3, the Vatican released its detailed response to the Cloyne report and to the criticism of Irish political leaders. The lengthy document expressed “profound abhorrence for the crimes of sexual abuse,” indicated that the Holy See is “ashamed for the terrible sufferings which the victims of abuse and their families have had to endure within the Church of Jesus Christ, a place where this should never happen.” That suffering, the document observed, was attributable to “grave failures in the ecclesiastical governance of the diocese.”  

However, the Vatican response strongly rejected much of the criticism that had been directed toward Rome. Regarding the notorious 1997 letter from Archbishop Storero, for instance, the Vatican pointed out that the Congregation for Clergy had been responding to a request for guidance from the Irish bishops: “The congregation offered advice to the bishops with a view to ensuring that the measures which they intended to apply would prove effective and unproblematic from a canonical perspective.”

The Vatican had never rejected the Irish bishops’ policies, the response noted, because in fact the Irish hierarchy had never submitted those policies for approval. Moreover, individual bishops were free to implement those policies within their own dioceses, at their own discretion.

In careful diplomatic language, the Vatican made the point that the 1997 letter had not encouraged violation of any Irish law, since the country’s law at that time made no provision for mandatory reporting:

Given that the Irish government of the day decided not to legislate on the matter, it is difficult to see how Archbishop Storero’s letter to the Irish bishops, which was issued subsequently, could possibly be construed as having somehow subverted Irish law or undermined the Irish State in its efforts to deal with the problem in question.

Turning to the fiery July 20 speech by Enda Kenny, the Vatican expressed “significant reservations” about the Taoiseach’s language. The response noted that there was “no evidence that the Holy See meddled in the internal affairs of the Irish State,” and pointed out that when the Taoiseach made that charge, “a government spokesperson clarified that Mr. Kenny was not referring to any specific incident.” The Vatican also protested the out-of-context use of the quotation from then-Cardinal Ratzinger.

The Vatican response concluded by acknowledging the “understandable anger, disappointment, and sense of betrayal” felt by many in Ireland as a result of “these vile and deplorable acts and the way in which they were sometimes handled by Church authorities.” Reiterating the Vatican’s sorrow, the statement ended by expressing a desire to continue cordial relations with Ireland.

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