Friday 6 December 2019

Michael Kelly: 'Government is building a public hospital on private land - and the Vatican will have final say on what happens'

The Vatican. Stock image. Deposit Photos
The Vatican. Stock image. Deposit Photos
Health Minister Simon Harris. Photo: Collins
Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

What is it with Fine Gael and new hospitals? The national children's hospital was projected to cost a hefty €650m that has now ballooned to as much as €2bn according to latest estimates - and the project isn't finished yet.

At the same time, the Government is pushing ahead with plans to build the new national maternity hospital on a site that is currently in private ownership with doubts persisting about whether the site can - or will - ever be in public ownership.

Planning permission was granted to build the new hospital on the site of St Vincent's in south Dublin in 2017, and construction work is under way, according to the latest project update published online.

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All of this while the Vatican has not yet indicated whether it will allow the land to be handed over.

Health Minister Simon Harris. Photo: Collins

What has the new national maternity hospital got to do with the Vatican and the Catholic Church, I hear you ask. Well, the site where Health Minister Simon Harris has decided to build the hospital is not actually owned by the State, but by the Religious Sisters of Charity through the St Vincent's Healthcare Group.

The Government is moving ahead with building a public hospital on private land based on a pledge from the nuns that they will transfer their shares in the St Vincent's Healthcare Group to a new charity known simply as St Vincent's. The two nuns on the board have already resigned and no one doubts the sisters' bona fides on the deal or their desire to assist the new hospital.

The problem is, while the nuns do own the land and in Irish law it is theirs to dispose of as they wish, the sisters are also subject to Church rules known as Canon Law.

I've been highlighting this problem for over two years, and every time I do I get a call from a PR company on behalf of either the nuns or the hospital or both. The nuns are handing over their shares for a nominal fee, I am always told. But the facts are indisputable - Rome must give permission.

Canon Law refers to such transactions as the sisters are committed to as the alienation of the temporal goods of the Church. It is governed by strict regulations and the Vatican keeps a close eye on the process and has the final say on whether it goes ahead.

The process has emerged down through the years precisely because the Church wants to ensure that valuable assets - often built with the generous pennies and halfpennies of poor people in straitened times - are not frittered away. After all, the principle is that Church-owned lands and properties are held in trust on behalf of the people in the pew rather than the personal possession of the priests and religious who steward them.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin

The local bishop, in this case Archbishop of Dublin Dr Diarmuid Martin, also has a role. The sisters have already indicated that they have the permission of the archbishop and that Dr Martin has indeed recommended the deal to Rome.

But, as revealed in 'The Irish Catholic' this week (full disclosure: I am the editor of that newspaper), pressure is now mounting on the Vatican to block the transfer of the land - a move that would plunge the entire Government plan into crisis.

The issue exercising those petitioning the Vatican for a veto is that the ethical landscape in Irish healthcare was changed dramatically when the people voted to remove the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution.

Subsequent Oireachtas legislation has made abortion a legal right in the Republic and Simon Harris has insisted that the new national maternity hospital will provide every medical procedure that is permitted by law in Ireland - up to and including abortion.

To put it simply, if the Vatican allows the nuns to hand over their shares to the new entity, Catholic nuns will be facilitating the construction of a hospital that will perform procedures that are designed to end the life of an unborn child.

Whether one approves of a Catholic ethos or not in healthcare, one thing that everyone knows is that abortion is the very antithesis of Catholicism.

The site of the new National Children's Hospital in Dublin. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

That's why the stakes are so high and prominent moral theologians are asking the Vatican to scupper the plan.

This would be quite the headache for the Government who would be left explaining to hard-pressed taxpayers why the project was advanced before the legal situation with the Vatican was sorted.

Would the State countenance the new hospital having a Catholic ethos by default or would it look for a new site? More likely if the Vatican digs in its heels and refuses to allow the nuns to have any hand, act or part in abortion, the Government would look at a compulsory purchase of the site.

If this went ahead, it would add considerably to the cost of the project and any politician involved would run the risk of being accused of doing a cosy deal with the religious involved.

It's not a scenario that either the nuns or the Government would like, but the Vatican has shown no particular penchant for sparing blushes.

The bottom line is that Rome will have the final say on what the sisters do with their shares.

Anyone who claims otherwise either doesn't know what they're saying or is being more than a little Jesuitical with the facts.

Irish Independent

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