Watershed moment in Church-State relations

Story by Ken Davis

Thursday, 28th July, 2011 11:32am

Watershed moment in Church-State relations

The unprecedented criticism of the Vatican over the extent to which it has interfered in the Irish judicial system delivered by Taoiseach Enda Kenny last week has certainly hit home with Rome as the aftershocks of the Cloyne Report continue to reverberate throughout the country and beyond.

Relations between Ireland and the Vatican have certainly seen a sharp cooling over the weekend with the recalling of the papal nuncio back to Rome, a rarely used measure by the Holy See. It is a move that move underlines the dramatic change in the previously warm relations between the two states since Irish independence.

Mr Kenny's words were uncompromising in their withering condemnation of the Vatican over its reservations about mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse. He has challenged Rome to explain its role in covering up sex offences by priests and has pressed it for a swift response to accusations that it had encouraged bishops to ignore child-protection guidelines adopted by the Irish bishops in 1996 that included mandatory reporting of abuse to the civil authorities.

The Vatican, for its part, has branded as "excessive" some reactions to the damning clerical child abuse inquiry after recalling the pope's ambassador, a clear reference to the Taoiseach's comments. Vatican officials have said the recalling of Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza should be seen as a measure of the gravity of the fallout over Ireland's response to the Cloyne Report, which strongly condemned the church's handling of abuse claims against 19 clerics in the Cloyne diocese between 1996 and 2009, saying it was "inadequate and inappropriate".

Mr Kenny was especially critical of the Holy See over its attempts to frustrate the inquiry into sexual abuse in the diocese of Cloyne, accusing Rome of downplaying the rape of children to protect its own power and reputation. It was, by any measure, an extraordinary and powerful speech that many see as marking a watershed in relations between Dublin and the Vatican. It was also one which seems to have resonated with a great many people around the country who feel it was about time an Irish political leader stood up and spoke for the ordinary men and women of Ireland who have been sickened by what has emerged about paedophiles in the church and how they were protected from within.

Mr Kenny told the Dáil the Cloyne Report highlighted the "dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day". The rape and torture of children had been downplayed or 'managed' in order to uphold instead the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation, he said.

The Taoiseach spoke for many Catholics disgusted by the behaviour of the church hierarchy when he said it had proved either unwilling or unable to address the horrors uncovered in successive reports, a failure which he said must be devastating for so many good priests. He added that the Catholic Church needed to be truly and deeply penitent for the wrongdoing it had perpetrated, hid and denied.

Mr Kenny received a standing ovation at the MacGill Summer School in Co Donegal on Sunday when he returned to the theme of his Dail speech. "The fact that I have had thousands of messages from around the world speaks for itself about the impact and the way people feel," he said. He said he also had been surprised at the number of priests who supported his speaking out against the Vatican. "The numbers of members of the clergy who have been in touch in the last few days, to say it is about time somebody spoke out about these matters in a situation like you are, has astounded me."

This week, a Vatican official said there had been "some excessive reactions" which had surprised and disappointed the Holy See, adding that the scale of the reaction justified the recall of the papal nuncio, and said this demonstrated "the wish of the Holy See to establish serious and effective co-operation".

Many people in Ireland, priests included, will await with great interest the response of the pope to the allegations over the mishandling of paedophile priests. To many in this country, it appears that elements within the Catholic Church have learned nothing since the Fr Brendan Smith scandal of the 1990s. Many good Catholics, and indeed priests, feel ashamed about what has gone on within the church and have been horrified by the culture of cover-ups that appears endemic at the highest levels.

By its reaction this week, it at least seems clear the Vatican is taking the comments of the Irish government very seriously indeed.