“It could happen a bishop” was the title of a book of reflections published some years back by Bishop Brendan Comiskey, and then the Diocese of Ferns imploded as a litany of abuse and abusing priests came to light — and Bishop Comiskey resigned in disgrace.
It had kept on "happening" for the Irish bishops; the story of clerical sexual abuse has rolled on and on since the early 1990s with regular head-on collisions in which a report is published detailing shameful abuse and a cover-up or a bishop is found to not have co-operated with the civil authorities.
The latest chapter in this appalling saga is the bishops returning on Ash Wednesday from their meeting with the Pope at the Vatican to a near-hysterical atmosphere accusing them and the Pope of window-dressing and participating in a sham.
In Rome, the bishops were talking about penitence and humility, about this being a step on a journey, about learning to listen to each other better and their desire to reassure victims of abuse that they are trying to finally show leadership.
Yet that message, which is I believe genuine, is being drowned out by angry voices — those of victims and priests like Peter McVerry and F.r Brian D’Arcy, who have had enough of clericalism.
The picture of bishops kissing the ring of the Pope in Rome has sent ordinary Catholics into spirals of indignation, the degree of which was once reserved for "West Brits" who might bow and scrape in an audience with the Queen of England. The Irish Catholics who once scorned the English and their Queen now have turned in almost Presbyterian zeal to jeering their spiritual monarch and his medieval customs of deference.
Many feel the papal monarchy, encased behind its high walls in Rome, doesn’t get it just as the Queen of England didn’t get it when she refused to lower her flag to half-mast on the death of Princess Diana. The key issues of a straightforward papal apology and the acceptance of resignations could have been delivered in Rome easily enough, but weren’t. They probably will come, but Rome moves slowly if deliberately.
And this I believe is the crux of the issue --to some extent, the Vatican doesn’t get the need to react to instant crises — if you’ve seen it up-close you’d know why: iI’s a civil servant bureaucracy led by elderly men who have mostly spent their years in academia or administration.
They know that once they try to play the popularity game (Pope John Paul II was the exception that proves the rule) and respond to demands of abuse victims or angry clerics, they open the floodgates and they will end up going from crisis to crisis. That is what is happening to the Irish bishops, until now.
They have been told by the Vatican to be honest and courageous, firm and resolute, and to set a plan in motion for responding to this crisis and to stick by it. It will take time, there will be a hue and cry, but stay the course and you will get there. That is what I believe the Vatican has told the Irish bishops: Start being bishops and lead, stop being led by this crisis.
For example: Returning from Rome, the bishops have been criticized for not getting an apology from the Pope, yet the Vatican says he has apologized before. The Irish bishops were asked previously by some victims to stop apologizing, and as Dublin Archbishop Martin said on Ash Wednesday, “there comes a time when repeating the word apology may even be empty."
Yet even if they had it wouldn’t have been enough.
Renowned social activist priest Fr. Peter McVerry complained on RTE radio with Mary Wilson in reaction to Martin’s statement that the whole Church was too clerical, too corrupt and so on.
He’s right in much of what he says, but this is not the time to be talking about the worldwide reform of the Catholic Church. It’s a time for talking about the reform of the Irish Church, and by attacking the small steps that have been taken by the Irish bishops in Rome, the danger is that you kill off any hope that the leadership of the Irish bishops will emerge to take ahold of this crisis.
As Martin said, it is “going to be a long road of regret and repentance, addressing what happened in the past and what happens today and looking to the future.”
So for Irish people, there is a simple choice and we need to start discussing this.
Do we want the Catholic Church in Ireland to reform itself and go back to basics and be a voice for the poor and lonely, feed the poor, comfort the dying, and so on?
Or do we want to get rid of the Church, get it out of the schools, out of hospitals, and have done with it altogether — in some sense take a cue from Martin Luther’s book and nail our decision to the cardinal’s door?
What we can’t do is constantly berate the bishops for being poor leaders, the Pope for being too Popish, the Vatican for being too clerical and so on.
There is not going to be a wholesale reform of the Catholic Church any time soon, no matter how much we would like it.
There is the opportunity to be constructively critical in helping the bishops and the wider Church here in Ireland get it right, especially with progressive bishops like Martin at the helm. He called on victims not to “lose heart,” but assured them that the hierarchy has “begun something."
That "something" will involve a letter from the bishops read at all Masses on Sunday, a public act of penitence by the bishops during Lent, a listening process with ordinary Catholics in their dioceses, and a letter from the Pope before Easter.
It may not be enough, it isn’t enough, but it is a beginning — and that, despite the anger and betrayal felt by everyone, is a flicker of hope in what have been very dark days.
Garry O’Sullivan is Editor of The Irish Catholic