During a meeting at the Vatican in 1946, Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini—the future Pope Paul VI—told Ireland’s ambassador to the Holy See, “You are the most Catholic country in the world.” The ambassador, Joseph Walshe, enthusiastically telegrammed back to Dublin that he believed the country’s relationship with the Holy See was of “a very special character.”
Just a couple of years later, the Irish government formally invited Pope Pius XII to make Ireland his home in the event that the communists won the Italian general election of 1948, to which the Pope is reported to have said, “Ireland is the only place I could go to—only there would I have the atmosphere and the sense of security to rule the Church as Christ wants me to rule it.”
Relations between the Holy See and Ireland have been severely tested since those heady days. A great strain became apparent recently when Rome recalled papal nuncio Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza as a mark of protest following scathing criticism of the Holy See by senior government ministers, including the Prime Minister Enda Kenny. The government in Dublin is now proposing a law that would punish with imprisonment priests who refuse to reveal information about child abuse heard in the confessional.
Tension began to mount after the publication of a government report into the mishandling of allegations of abuse made against priests in the Diocese of Cloyne. It was the fourth judicial report into allegations of abuse made against priests and religious in Ireland, and it tragically uncovered the same pattern of inertia, cover-ups, and disregard for the suffering of innocent victims revealed in the other reports. Crucially, however, the Cloyne Report revealed that authorities there were mishandling abuse allegations as recently as 2008—12 years after the Irish bishops’ conference adopted tough new measures that included reporting all allegations to civil authorities.
In her 425-page report published on July 13, Judge Yvonne Murphy made only one reference to the Holy See, or rather to a 1997 letter from the then-papal nuncio, Archbishop Luciano Storero. In the letter, Archbishop Storero said the bishops’ 1996 guidelines, particularly with regard to mandatory reporting, gave “rise to serious reservations of both a moral and a canonical nature.”
Judge Murphy described this letter as “unhelpful” and concluded that the intervention “effectively gave individual Irish bishops the freedom to ignore the procedures which they had agreed” to and gave “comfort and support” to those in the Church who were lax on child safeguarding.
Fast forward to a week after the release of the report, and Judge Murphy’s description of the letter as being “unhelpful” had morphed dramatically when Prime Minister Enda Kenny accused the Vatican during a parliamentary debate of adopting a “calculated, withering” approach to child abuse.
“The rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold instead the primacy of the institution, its power, standing, and ‘reputation,’” Mr. Kenny added. In remarks interpreted by some as a direct attack on Pope Benedict XVI, Mr. Kenny said the “Cloyne Report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, and narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.”
Mr. Kenny went on to accuse the Holy See of trying “to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic as little as three years ago” without providing details of what he was talking about. Judge Murphy cited no such example in her report and to this day Mr. Kenny’s official spokesman has been unable to back up this claim, insisting only that the Prime Minister had been “speaking in a general sense.” It’s quite a specific allegation to make “in a general sense.”
Reaction to Kenny’s speech
Mr. Kenny’s motion denouncing the Vatican unanimously passed the lower house of the Irish parliament without a vote. Editorial writers varyingly described Mr. Kenny’s speech as “a watershed,” “ground-breaking,” and “revolutionary.” Things were somewhat more temperate in the Upper House of Parliament, where several senators attempted but failed to modify the Prime Minister’s motion “deploring” the Vatican.
Senator RónÁn Mullen, an Independent member representing the University Constituency, told CWR, “We did not wish to detract from all that was good in the motion. But the motion’s reference to the ‘Vatican’s intervention’ stood out for its dishonesty and hypocrisy.”
“First, and most obviously, the motion concealed the fact that, back in 1997, when the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy expressed its concerns about the ‘mandatory reporting’ dimension of the Irish bishops’ child protection guidelines, there were no national laws or guidelines within which the bishops were required to operate,” Mr. Mullen continued. “There were no meaningful ‘child protection frameworks and guidelines of the Irish state’ at the time the Vatican expressed its view.”
Senator Jim Walsh, a member of the main opposition Fianna FÁil party, agrees. “Clearly our government should have asked the Vatican to explain the motivation for the concerns it expressed back in 1997,” he told CWR. “The Prime Minister should have awaited that response before delivering his DÁil broadside at the Vatican and before deciding to ‘deplore’ the 1997 concerns expressed by Rome.”
Father Vincent Twomey, a respected moral theologian who has been vociferous in his criticism of obstructionist bishops, believes there was much that was praiseworthy in Mr. Kenny’s speech.
“It was supremely important that the pain and hurt of the victims be recognized by the state in the person of its first minister,” he said. “No less important was the recognition given to the millions of Irish Catholics at home and abroad who feel deep shame at what these clerics did and what Church leaders failed to do. They have remained true to their faith despite all the ‘filth’ that has erupted in the midst of the Church.”
But Father Twomey objects to Kenny’s attack on the Holy See. “[Kenny] claimed that only three years ago, the Vatican tried to intervene in the affairs of the Irish state in these matters,” Father Twomey said. “But he had no specific incident in mind—so why make such a reference?”
Father Twomey also believes that the Irish media has played a role in trying to blame Pope Benedict for the inertia and reckless behavior of some Irish bishops. He refers to a newspaper article accompanied by an image of the Pope at the time of the Prime Minister’s speech. “That image summed up the Irish media’s general attitude to the Pope. It was an image of the Pope fully vested for Mass, miter on head, crozier in hand. Imposed on this image was large red stamp like that on a passport with the words: Persona non grata.”
“That is the message Mr. Kenny’s speechwriters conveyed in the DÁil,” Father Twomey said. “This is nothing less than at attack on what very many Irish citizens hold dear.”
Not everyone within the Church was as disappointed with Kenny’s speech. The recently-formed Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), a dissident group that represents about 10 percent of Irish priests, enthusiastically welcomed the intervention. ACP leader Father Tony Flannery said: “Many of us priests are very frustrated with the way the Vatican conducts its business. To hear someone in the position of the Taoiseach [Prime Minister] speak so strongly, so eloquently, and with such dignity in challenging the Vatican was good.”
Father Flannery’s brother is Prime Minister Kenny’s chief strategist Frank Flannery, a fact that has led some to question whether the Association of Catholic Priests may have had a hand in the speech. “It’s surprising that Mr. Kenny’s speech was vociferous in criticizing the Vatican based on an assumption that the Holy See was at fault, while at the same time there is ample evidence of the failings of local bishops, which Mr. Kenny didn’t mention,” according to David Quinn of the faith-based think-tank the Iona Institute. Mr. Quinn believes that the Prime Minister’s speech “offered comfort and support to some within the Church in Ireland who would like to see this crisis as another excuse to blame Rome while the egregious failings clearly happened in Ireland.”
The Vatican’s response
Following Kenny’s speech, the response of the Holy See was almost immediate. Within days papal nuncio Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza was recalled, a formal diplomatic gesture aimed at registering a high-level protest. Rome’s official response came on September 3. Within hours, Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore had dismissed the 25-page response as “too legalistic.” In light of that assessment, it is hard to fathom what exactly the government wanted in a formal response to a judicial report. The Vatican response said “it has significant reservations that the speech made by Enda Kenny…in particular, the accusation that the Holy See attempted to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign democratic republic, is unfounded.”
The statement added that the Holy See in no way hampered or sought to interfere in any inquiry into cases of child sexual abuse in the Diocese of Cloyne. Furthermore, the Vatican said that at no stage did the Holy See seek to interfere with Irish civil law or impede the civil authority in the exercise of its duties.
The Vatican also disputed the claim that Irish bishops sought but failed to obtain recognition from Rome for the framework document on responding to abuse allegations. It said Irish bishops did not, under canon law, seek recognition for the 1996 guidelines, therefore the Holy See cannot be criticized for failing to grant what was never requested in the first place.
Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin described the response as detailed and comprehensive, and expressed his hope that it would be understood and not be an “occasion just for added polemics.”
The archbishop also issued a challenge to Prime Minister Kenny to explain what he was referring to when he said the Vatican was trying to undermine investigations into abuse in Cloyne.
Despite repeated questions, Kenny has still been unable to provide any specific example of such interference.
According to David Quinn, “so far as Irish public opinion is concerned, the government will be able to get away with dismissing the Vatican’s response because the Irish media are as anti-Vatican as the government itself, and because there is no real political opposition on these issues in this country.”
However, Mr. Quinn notes that “the Vatican issued its response in French, Italian, and Spanish as well as in English, meaning it wants the world’s diplomatic community to read it.”
In particular, embassies to the Holy See will read the response, report its contents to their own governments, and “note that Taoiseach’s attack on the Vatican was scatter-gun and badly framed,” Mr. Quinn believes.
So while the attack went down well with public opinion, the view of governments that pay attention to the Holy See is likely to be of a different order. Following the recall of Archbishop Leanza, Ireland is now without a papal nuncio and, purely coincidentally, the position of Irish ambassador to the Holy See is also vacant. This has led some commentators to suggest that Ireland ought to break off diplomatic relations with the Holy See. No one seriously believes that this is about to happen, with a well-placed source in the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) telling CWR, “Ireland is not about to join the ranks of China and Saudi Arabia as being one of a handful of countries that do not have relations with the Vatican.” It is also unlikely that the 26 other member states of the European Union (EU)—all of whom have diplomatic relations with the Holy See—would tolerate Ireland breaking ties with Rome.
A radical proposal
And so a quiet peace of sorts now prevails, and it is expected a new nuncio will be appointed to Dublin before Christmas. But a greater challenge lies ahead. Prime Minister Kenny has insisted that his government will press ahead with a radical proposal that would punish priests with imprisonment if they refuse to reveal any information about child abuse that they may learn in the confessional. It would make Ireland the only country in the world where the inviolability of the sacramental seal is undermined by legislation.
Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald has insisted the law will go ahead. “We have no interest in the rules of the Church; there will be no exemption whatsoever,” she said. “Anyone who is aware of anything to do with child abuse and does not share it with the civil authorities will be subject to prosecution.”
One senior Irish cleric who spoke to CWR on condition of anonymity described the move as “bizarre in the extreme.” He added: “How does the government realistically expect this to work? Quite apart from the fact that no priest would ever betray the sacred seal of the sacrament, will priests be required to get every penitent to fill out a form with their name and address to pass on to the police?”
According to Father Eamonn Conway, head of theology at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, the government has a fundamental misunderstanding of the sacrament. “No change to Irish civil law will alter how the sacrament of penance is celebrated,” he explained. “The confessional seal exists to protect penitents in their relationship with God, not the priest.”
The Irish proposal draws obvious comparisons to similar legislation proposed by Maryland, Connecticut, and New Hampshire in the wake of revelations of abuse mishandling stateside. In each case, however, the bid to attack the seal of confession was defeated, partly because of a backlash by thousands of Catholic voters, who were urged on by their bishops.
Irish bishops have not yet asked the faithful to write to politicians demanding that the proposed law be scrapped, but are understandably engaged in a behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign to urge the government to drop the bid. However, with ministers being so public in their support for the legislation, it’s hard to see how it can be dropped without Mr. Kenny’s government losing face.
David Quinn believes that Enda Kenny is playing a dangerous game. “Historically speaking, laws of this sort have been found almost exclusively in extremely anti-Catholic countries, such as Britain during penal times, or in totalitarian states, which is to say, in states motivated by a wish to put Catholics in their place,” Quinn said. “Does the government really wish to add Ireland to that list?”
It’s hard to know what Pope Paul VI would make of Ireland now. In his pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland in March 2010, Pope Benedict hauntingly reminded Irish Catholics that the scandals “have obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing.” Undoubtedly, the Church has brought many of its current woes upon itself, but the specter of a government proposing such a radical step as attempting to undermine the seal of confession should set alarm bells ringing everywhere. It would indeed be ironic if Ireland, where Catholics survived centuries of persecution for their faith, were to be the catalyst for such a devastating disregard for religious freedom.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!
Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.