News Analysis

Friday 29 August 2014

Vatican's finest can't bridge deep schism

Sam Smyth

Published 26/11/2011 | 05:00

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Clerical high-flyers (l to r): Thomas Collins, Sean Patrick O'Malley, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Timothy Dolan, and Terrence Prendergast

LAST March a committee of clerical high-flyers was assembled to compile a report for the Vatican on the state of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

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The committee of five included some of the most eminent English-speaking prelates in the international church.

Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston examined the Archdiocese of Dublin and Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Emeritus Archbishop of Westminster, went to the Archdiocese of Armagh.

Thomas Collins, the Archbishop of Toronto, headed to the Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly.

Terrence Prendergast, the Archbishop of Ottawa, went to the Archdiocese of Tuam, while Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, investigated seminaries and institutes of theology.

The five were despatched here in a belated response to the publication, two years ago today, of the Murphy report, which reached damning conclusions on clerical sex abuse and its cover-up in the Archdiocese of Dublin.

The report was an appalling indictment of the church and the reckless irresponsibility of the Catholic hierarchy and the State.

The size of the task the five prelates encountered can be gauged by the fact that 10 months on, their report has yet to be published.

In fact it could be some months into the new year before it sees the light of day.

If the Vatican response lacked speed, the eminence of the five prelates was intended as an indication of how serious Rome was taking the situation.

The message from the Vatican was that the brightest and best had been sent here to deal with the crisis.

Cardinal O'Malley met 250 people individually or in groups and many of the meetings ran well over their scheduled time in the Dublin Archdiocese.

The prelates visiting the four Archdioceses listened intently to those who had been abused by priests and the religious and they reaffirmed the church's remorse.

But there was disquiet about Archbishop Dolan's approach to dealing with seminaries and institutes of theology and the working document used by the five prelates.

Lecturers in moral theology were asked to provide copies of their lecture notes. An article in the influential 'Tablet' magazine highlighted the lecturers' concerns.

"The working document refers repeatedly to the need for an awareness of child abuse and protection issues. It also refers to homosexuality and asks how faculty members watch out for signs of 'particular friendships'."

The 'Tablet' article continued: "One could ask whether this implies that there is some link between homosexuality and child abuse, a view that would be largely disparaged as intellectually flawed."

'The Tablet' wrote about the need for a meaningful report that would be part of a new beginning for the Catholic Church here.

"If that does not happen, committed Catholics will walk," the publication said.

Despite the high-powered nature of its authors, it is debatable whether their report, when it eventually does arrive, can do anything to arrest the decline in fortunes of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Previous interventions have done little to stem the flow of controversy.

The Vatican parachuted Archbishop Diarmuid Martin into Dublin in 2003 to take over the crisis management of a church shamed, bewildered and broken by child-abuse scandals.

But eight years on, his task is as hard as ever.

In the past year, the Archdiocese of Dublin saw its income drop from €66.2m to €59.4m. And it can only get worse; the Archdiocese has paid out €13.5m in settlement and legal fees for 172 abuse cases and another 155 actions still have to be heard.

Collections at Mass fell further when parishioners -- and some clergy -- suspected that money was being diverted by the Archdiocese to cover the costs of abuse.

The decline in collection revenues, which are essential to the running of parishes, forced Archbishop Martin to publicly deny the money had been used to settle claims from abuse victims.

Mass attendances have plummeted to an estimated 20pc of what they could be in some Dublin parishes and the Archdiocese is seeking new ways to raise money.

Not only is the Archbishop dealing with a rapidly decreasing flock and dwindling coffers, but he also has to contend with rumblings of unhappiness among his own priests.

Priests' pay has been cut by 15pc over the past two years. A curate in Dublin now earns around €28,000 a year, less that the lay people -- sacristans and pastoral assistants -- they work along side.

Many clergy and religious have become increasingly disheartened by this fall in status.

The portrayal of the church in the media and by politicians has also sapped morale.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny's speech in July attacking the Vatican effectively severed the church-state nexus in Ireland.

If further proof of this schism was needed, it came with Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore's announcement of plans to close Ireland's embassy in the Vatican.

Events as seismic as these provided proof, if it was needed, that it will take more than a high-profile report for the Vatican to restore the confidence of its flock in Ireland.

Irish Independent

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