Maurice Hayes: Church needs to throw away the mould to regain moral authority
It has been the sort of year that the best individuals and groups in Ireland can do is to echo the French Revolution theorist, Abbey Sieyes, and claim the triumph of mere survival.
Oddly enough, on the test of where they were this time last year, the Government has done better than most. It has sorted out the banks through NAMA, it has got back into Europe's good books, through Lisbon, and it has carried not one, but two swingeing Budgets. After looking as if it might not last the year, it now look reasonably safe for another, and perhaps for a full term.
In the North the Executive has survived, but mainly it seems by a form of hibernation, in which nothing is agreed, little substantial is done, and the main parties emerge from time to time for a mutual slagging match. The danger is less of a return to violence than a universal turn-off from politics, of apathy and the disillusionment of young people.
Of all the institutions on the island, the Catholic Church has suffered the heaviest, and perhaps irreversible, damage, and its stock has plummeted even more than that of the Irish banks -- and not a NAMA in sight to bail them out or provide stability by freezing the noxious elements, while the main body gets on with recovery and rehabilitation.
The existence of clerical child abuse has been public knowledge long before the Murphy report, especially in relation to a few high-profile cases and mainly, it must be said, through the courage and persistence of a small number of victims. There was the knowledge that victims had been ignored, or worse, that compensation had been paid in cases, that malefactors had been transferred.
What was shattering in the report was the extent of abuse, the number of serial abusers, and the tolerance by the system of their activities at the expense of the victims, and the total lack of compassion as charity gave way to canon law.
It was not even the crimes, but the cover-up. There was the cool pragmatism of taking out insurance to protect the Church from claims by victims, which a more moral regime might have avoided in the first place.
Without in any way condoning the offences, or diminishing the suffering of the victims, it is the failure of the church authorities to cope with the situation which has most disillusioned the public -- and has added to the grief of victims in the process.
There is, too, the appalling implication that Dublin, although the largest diocese, is probably not atypical. An earlier report has shown a similar pattern in Ferns; Cloyne, having shown most of the same symptoms (including Episcopal obduracy) is now under investigation, and another is threatened in Raphoe.
Having failed to handle the original complaints with any degree of competence over a period of years -- as detailed graphically in the Murphy report, the church authorities have made rather a poor fist of handling the fall-out from that report.
The water-drip torture of bishop after bishop bowing to the inevitable has prolonged the agony, has shown an embarrassing level of ambiguity where people had been taught to look for moral certainty, and has done the Church little good. One bishop, in retiring, took responsibility as a member of a general culture at fault -- which seems to spread the net to include all the Irish bishops.
What is needed now is a massive dose of humility, and a strong regime of openness and transparency. The appointment of new bishops will not effect change unless they throw away the mould designed by John Paul II to exclude all those who might rock the boat, who might question Rome, or who might not be "one of us".
A papal letter is likely to fall flat (and into emptying pews). A reorganisation that is merely administrative in reducing the number of dioceses, or introducing box-ticking audits is unlikely to meet the need. The ills of the Church in Ireland will not be cured from the top down, or prescriptively, without the active involvement of laity and religious at all levels in open and frank debate.
There is much to be said for John Cooney's idea of an Irish national synod, provided it is widely based, which would rediscover mission and redefine the role of the Church in a changing Ireland, before beginning to look at organisation and structures. There are serious issues of recruitment to the priesthood which should at least raise the question of women priests, or married priests.
The real danger is of an ethical and moral vacuum, if the Irish people, in disillusionment, jettison one set of values without anything to put in place of the traditional landmarks. That the moral compass should have been found defective is not an argument for proceeding without any moral framework at all.
The challenge for the Church now is to show they can provide the sort of moral guidance society needs.