independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

David Quinn: Visitation could act as shot in arm for church

The first thing everyone needs to do is take a deep breath. The Apostolic Visitation of senior bishops and religious to the church in Ireland is not going to revolutionise everything overnight, or maybe ever.

Ultimately it's going to be up to Ireland's Catholics to fix the Catholic Church in Ireland and the most the Apostolic Visitors (the 'A Team'?) can do is push things in the right direction.

Their first and most essential task will obviously be to ensure that the church's child protection policy is sufficiently robust and is being properly implemented diocese by diocese and religious congregation by religious congregation. In this regard, their first port of call will have to be Ian Elliott who runs the church's child protection office.

As I never tire of pointing out, Mr Elliott is a Presbyterian from Northern Ireland. It's important to point this out because given his background no-one can plausibly accuse Elliott of being an 'insider', or of being the hierarchy's lackey.

No-one in the country knows better than Mr Elliott how well or how badly the church is implementing its child protection guidelines. In the latest annual report from his office, Mr Elliott pointed out that things have greatly improved in the last couple of years. But he will know better than anyone, which dioceses and which congregations need a particularly close look, if any.

The visitation is also going to need to show that it has teeth. People need to know that if it finds serious failings in any given diocese or religious order, it will recommend to Rome that the heads responsible will roll. If not, then the visitation will be dismissed as an exercise in window dressing.

The team also needs to beware of bishops or congregations or seminaries building facades, or Potemkin villages to fool the visitors into thinking everything is just fine.

In a way, each of the members of this inspection team being sent by the Pope is like an explorer being parachuted into a jungle with no map and where they know no-one. They will be met by the local chief -- that is the bishop or head of a congregation -- but they're also going to have to find local guides they can trust.

That won't be easy, but nonetheless they will need to find independent-minded priests and lay-people who can show them around.

They're also going to have to watch out for people who might have personal grudges against the local bishop or congregational head.

In addition, they're going to have to watch out for people who will complain that the church still hasn't implemented the supposed reforms of the Second Vatican Council. These are the same people who, in the name of the council, managed to persuade bishops throughout the world to abandon canon law because it was too 'legalistic'.

This happened in the late 1960s and, as the team will discover if they read the Murphy report into abuse in the Dublin archdiocese, one of the big problems in the archdiocese in terms of how it responded to abuse allegations isn't that canon law was used, but that it wasn't used!

If they read that report closely, they will also find that a grossly disproportionate number of the abuse cases happened in the 1970s and 1980s.

Indeed, what they'll find is that the child protection systems now in place are probably a lot better than they think.

The church here has been exceptionally bad at broadcasting this fact.

In addition, while allegations are still being made against priests, the incidents themselves mostly happened in an increasingly distant past. The general public almost certainly believes things are still out of control.

In fact, of the allegations received in the year or so up to the last report by the national child protection office, none related to an incident that took place in the last nine years. Almost no-one knows this, not even most priests and bishops, let alone the public.

Briefly, what else can the inspection do? It can try to breathe some new life into St Patrick's College, Maynooth. The man charged with the task of inspecting Maynooth is Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, and there is no better person for the job.

The two Canadians on the team, Archbishops Thomas Collins and Terence Prendergast, could do a lot worse than to tell Cardinal Marc Ouellet, their fellow Canadian newly in charge of the Congregation for Bishops in Rome, that Ireland needs a few more bishops who will offer strong, confident leadership. In fact, child safety aside, nothing is more important.

I said don't expect miracles from this visit. But, if done properly, it can be a real shot in the arm for the Irish church. If it can ensure our child protection system is in order, restore a bit of zeal to Maynooth, and prompt Rome into giving us a few more genuine leaders, it will have achieved as much as anyone can reasonably expect.

Irish Independent

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