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New Catholic Church leader in Ireland won’t change much - Eamon Martin’s take over from Sean Brady as Primate of Ireland

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Monsignor Eamon Martin
Last week saw the beginning of the changing of the guard in the Irish Catholic Church.   Whether it will mean much of a change in attitude remains to be seen.

The jury will be out on this for a while, but the early signs are not good.

The new man at the top is to be Monsignor Eamon Martin, formerly of the Derry diocese, who was named last week as an assistant to the current head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady.

Brady had requested last year that someone be appointed "to help him with the workload."  The reality, however, was that Brady's position had become completely untenable following the revelations in a BBC TV program last year about his handling of the case of the notorious Father Brendan Smyth back in 1975.

Smyth perpetrated the most appalling child abuse north and south of the border and also in the U.S. when he was sent over there.  He was an obsessional, predatory abuser over four decades from the 1950s to the 1990s  as he was shifted around from parish to parish and even from country to country.

Dozens, possibly hundreds, of children were abused by him. Eventually, he was jailed in the north, and subsequently in the south. His case was so controversial that it led to the fall of the Fianna Fail-Labor government here in the 1990s over the attorney general's handling of Smyth's extradition.

Having brought down a taoiseach (prime minister) back then, it's not that surprising that Smyth, who died in prison here in 1997, is now responsible for bringing down a cardinal as well.

Brady has been clinging on since last year, but he had lost credibility and his position became hopeless. His problem was that he had been involved in the church investigation into Smyth in 1975 after accusations of abuse had surfaced.

This investigation was conducted by Brady and two other priests for the local bishop in the area where Smyth had been operating. Brady, a canon lawyer, has always insisted that his function was simply as a note taker. He passed his report on to the bishop for action and little or nothing was done.

What the BBC revealed last year was that during the investigation one boy had given Brady a list of names of children who were being abused. Brady did not inform their parents.

The program also revealed that the boy remembers that Brady played an active role in the investigation, interrogating the children who had made complaints.  This was confirmed by one of the other priests, who has since left the priesthood. So Brady was not just a note taker.

The questions that were asked during the investigation -- with Brady playing an active role -- were outrageous.  The boy, who Smyth had got to masturbate him during regular visits to his home, was asked if he liked doing this. He was also asked what happened to his body during the sessions and whether he would have done this with another boy or man.

This questioning was not only inappropriate but irrelevant. The boy was only 13 or 14 at the time and so was not old enough to consent.

Apart from his active role in the questioning and his failure to involve the police or to follow through on his report to the bishop, the most damning revelation was that Brady, although he had a list of names of children Smyth had abused, did not contact their parents to tell them. This was unforgivable in the eyes of parents who saw the program, and from that moment on Brady was a lame duck cardinal.

Last year he attempted to explain his actions -- or lack of actions -- by saying that he did everything that was expected of him as a priest back in the 1970s.  But that only made matters worse, and since then he has had zero credibility.

Mind you, all this has not stopped Brady trying to conduct business as usual, with the Catholic Church here a few weeks back condemning "the culture of death" that was being promoted in the developing debate about the introduction of very limited abortion in Ireland.

The church has been adopting its usual stance as the moral guide for the nation, urging legislators not to "exploit" the death of the Indian woman who died in a hospital in Galway last year from septicemia after being refused an abortion during a prolonged miscarriage.

But, of course, it is hard to occupy the high moral ground when your leader has no credibility.  So Brady, 73, has to go, and it is clear now that Rome wants him gone sooner rather than later.

Last week's appointment of  Martin as his "assistant" is supposed to carry Brady up to his planned retirement in 2015, but don't be surprised if he is gone in a few months.

So what of the new man?  Martin's new title is Coadjutor Archbishop of Armagh (Brady is Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland) and at 52 is a virtual teenager in church terms.

When he ascends to the top job he will be one of the youngest men ever to lead the Catholic Church in Ireland. In that sense he is being seen as a clean break with the previous, discredited generation.  He is also an engaging communicator with a relaxed style.

But behind the genial exterior there is a steely conservatism that was immediately on view when the announcement of his appointment was made last week after a Mass in Armagh.   Asked about the current abortion debate, he firmly responded that it was the church's duty to protect life from the moment of conception to the time of natural death.

Flanked on one side by Brady and on the other by the Papal Nuncio, Martin's remarks made it very obvious that although the generations might be changing, there was no change in the message.

So don't expect any discussion of grey areas.   It will be absolutes as usual.   The church will lay down the law. The faithful (what's left of them) will follow.

Afterwards there was a more relaxed gathering in a hall in which the new man answered questions from the media, surrounded by admiring priests, nuns and some children.

There was one particularly revealing moment. In answer to some question, Martin said that he had grown up as one of 12 children in an ordinary family in Derry. There was a momentary pause and total silence.

Then Brady beamed an ecstatic smile and led the applause as all the clerics in the hall clapped and smiled happily. Twelve children!  Isn't that wonderful!

Well, no it's not. It's more than likely the result of the church's ban on contraception.

But then this has always been a very Irish attitude to sex and family size, one encouraged by the Catholic Church. Sex outside marriage is wrong. But once inside marriage, sex is acceptable, as long as it is natural and no contraception is used.

The "big families" that were so common in Ireland until recently were something to be celebrated, even if the family lived on a small farm producing barely enough income for a couple to survive on, or even if the parents lived in a small council house in a town or city and earned barely enough to feed and clothe themselves.   Parental responsibility did not come into it.

It was the state's duty to provide housing, schooling, health care, unemployment benefit if the parents were out of work, and so on.  So there was no reason to limit family size.   In fact the reverse was the case, because the more kids you had, the more benefits you got.

Martin smiled in a slightly embarrassed way as the applause rolled around him. Unspoken in the air hung the idea that the clerics were thinking.   Oh, these Catholic fathers!   They could be rogues! You couldn't be up to them!

This kind of traditional humor is built on attitudes that have bedeviled us here for generations and are still alive and well in the Catholic Church, particularly among traditional Catholics.

It's no accident that the chosen new leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland recently has taken a prominent role in asserting the church's pro-life message.   Last month Martin was at one of the pro-life vigils in Dublin, and in Derry he is coordinating a 40-day campaign of prayer and activism within his diocese to oppose abortion on either side of the border.  Under any circumstances.

Behind the almost casual style he presents, there is a formidable organizer at work. Martin has a reputation as a church administrator of great ability.   His nickname among clerics is “The Machine” because he works so hard and is so thorough about everything he does.

He is young, conservative and tough, even if it's hidden behind an informal, engaging personality.   It's church business as usual, then.

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