The Irish bishops have returned home after last month’s meeting with Pope Benedict in the Vatican, where they discussed what Cardinal Hummes has described as “the painful Irish happenings.”
We were warned that it would shock us, and it did. I remember the day it was released: I sat watching the news reports with my newborn son asleep in my arms. I became so upset that I had to turn the TV off, though I could hardly see the screen by then.
The question asked constantly in the Irish media has been: what should the Bishops now do? But an equally important question is: what should ordinary lay Catholic people now do? A few weeks after the report, I happened to see a re-run of The Simpsons that, oddly enough, answered that very question. It captured perfectly a common reaction amongst some Catholic laity: there is an unfortunate tendency to sweep the abuse scandal under the carpet, or to only mention it in veiled terms.
In this episode of the cartoon, Bart and Homer convert to Catholicism. Marge abducts Bart and takes him back to her Protestant church. Liam Neeson plays Fr. Sean, a trendy Catholic priest. He says to Homer:
"If I don't get Bart back to the Church, I'll be the worst priest ever! Well, except, you know . . ."
There follows a silence, broken by Homer's cough. After a further silence, Fr. Sean coughs: “ahem.” Cut to the next scene.
The Dublin diocese report meant that we could no longer cut to the next scene. We had to look at child abuse in stark terms: priests took small boys and girls and repeatedly raped and beat them. This happened again and again. Bishops were informed of this and some did nothing, or just moved the priest to a different parish, causing the terror to spread. They also failed to tell the police. Even when informed, some senior police officers just looked the other way.
Since the report, the Irish police have launched a massive investigation. Some of its own senior officers may yet go to jail along with some former clergy. In Ireland, there is public fury and disbelief: some people want revenge against the Church, or even its utter destruction. Many want all church schools to be brought under state control. A lot of people speak like Homer Simpson did when he said to Father Sean: "I'm sick of you teaching my son your timeless values."
But, despite it all, most people in Ireland do want the church to teach their children its timeless values. Despite the horrors uncovered in recent years, the Catholic Church has done many wonderful things in Ireland, and still has a lot to offer us in the 21st century.
The cover up happened because powerful people in Irish society put the welfare of the Catholic Church ahead of the welfare of children. The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, has now pledged to put the victims first. Irish bishops have accepted the report’s core finding: Child abuse was covered up by the church.
Father Brian D’Arcy said he found the horrific details of abuse in the Dublin report “absolutely sickening." He also said: “This is not just in the Diocese, this goes right to the top in Rome.” Like many ordinary Religious, he has been devastated by the scandal. Many are now afraid to wear their clerical collars in public. Many ordinary Catholics find themselves losing faith in the Church. But the primary concern must always remain those who suffered at the hands of abusers.
The Catholic Church in Ireland has at last confessed. Now it has years of contrition ahead of it. It must try to earn the forgiveness of the victims, if it ever can. The child abuse scandal has broken in the United States, Australia and Ireland, but we are just at the crest of a global wave: Now it is the turn of Germany and other countries to face up to this disturbing worldwide phenomenon.
The duty of the Catholic laity is never again to cough, and look the other way. We must look cold and hard at what happened, and do what we can to help the victims. For if there is one maxim to follow to help bring about healing and renewal it is this: the victims’ interests are paramount. Many Irish victims’ groups were bitterly disappointed with the outcome of the Papal summit. Bishop Kirby responded to these concerns saying that he "was saddened that the survivors were disappointed with the outcome of the meeting. Perhaps their expectations were too high.”
Andrew Madden, an abuse victim, replied: "It's not our expectations that are high, it's our standards. Asking that the Pope fully accept the findings of the [Dublin] report is not a high expectation. Asking for an apology on behalf of the cover-up is not a high expectation. Asking for the Pope to accept without further delay the resignation of the three bishops is not a high expectation."
Further controversy has arisen since the Papal summit: Some bishops have asked ordinary laity to pay the compensation bills for victims. Bishop Denis Brennan has asked his flock to contribute €60,000 ($82,000 a year between them every year until 2030, in order to pay a €1.2 ($1.63) million compensation bill.
Many ordinary parishioners are outraged at such requests, as are victims’ groups.
"I would encourage [the Church] to look to its own assets and wealth," said the founder of the One in Four victims' support group. Elsewhere in Ireland, the Church has raised compensation funds through the sale of land and other assets.
Pope Benedict XVI has called the Irish abuse a “heinous crime.” Sadly, the victims were not represented at last month’s Vatican talks. Now at home, the bishops must serve the victims above all else:
They must wash their very feet.
Originally published Tuesday, March 9, 2010