Friday, May 4, 2012

Cardinal Rule

The scandal of abuse visited upon children by clergy of the Catholic Church in Ireland is well documented. In response, the Dublin Diocese is implementing a policy whereby every lay volunteer in every parish, under pain of dismissal from ministry or service and whether they have contact with children or not, is required to undergo Garda vetting. To the best of my understanding, the Garda vetting unit provides background checks on people who, as part of their employment or volunteering, have unsupervised access to children and/or vulnerable adults.

The reaction to this scattergun approach by the Dublin Diocese has been mixed. Many have signed up without question; many have signed up out of fear or despite the fact that they have questions and reservations about the policy; some have a difficulty in signing up when instructed to do so by an institution which still has a long way to go to get its own house in order with regard to accepting responsibility for enormous hurt that it has caused (and not just through abuse of children). In the situations I know about, these people are volunteer members of adult groups in parish life and their ministry involves minimal, if any, contact with children. Even then it is always supervised contact. These people feel they are being directed to take an action by a regime which has not fully atoned for the culture of silence and cover-up that it perpetrated for years.

I know some of the people in this latter category very well. They are my friends. They are great people and I would trust them implicitly. While I wish they would sign the form, I understand their reasons for not doing so. I know for a fact that some of them are quite prepared to be vetted by any other organisation except the Church. This, however, is not an option for the Church. Evictions from ministry will be carried out. In fact, they have already begun. People who have given years of service in parish life will no longer be permitted to continue in their positions. They are not breaking any laws, they are simply following what their conscience is telling them – and suffering the consequences as a result.

On Tuesday evening this week, I watched the ‘This World’ documentary on BBC1 which gave further insight into the role of the then Fr. John Brady, now Cardinal Sean Brady, head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, in relation to the investigation of child abuse claims against the notorious Fr. Brendan Smyth. In equal measure, I was appalled, saddened and outraged to discover how the complaint of 14 year old Brendan Boland was dealt with by Fr. Brady and the others sent to investigate. Separated from his father during the meeting, Brendan had to endure questioning of the vilest, most intimate nature and which to me seemed to be architected to elicit responses which would show Brendan to be in some way responsible for what happened. How could any rational, responsible adult ask a child abuse complainant if they had enjoyed it? Further, Fr. Brady then swore the 14 year old to secrecy.

Following the documentary, a spokesperson for Cardinal Brady issued a statement. Among other things, the spokesperson states:

“It would be unreasonable and grossly unfair to judge the actions of those at that time by the standards of the clear guidance from the State and the church that only came into existence some 20 years later."

So, in the absence of guidelines from Church or State, the rape and abuse of children by clerics was OK then? Surely by any moral standards at the time, it was wrong to rape and abuse children – regardless of what guidance existed from Church or State? Even with today’s standards in place, the Church has clearly said as recently as last week that it will not comply with proposed legislation requiring any knowledge of child abuse to be reported to the authorities, if that knowledge is obtained in the act of confession. The same clergy and hierarchy who will not comply with this legal requirement are removing innocent lay people from ministry because they cannot in conscience sign a vetting form under Church order while people like Cardinal Brady, who failed to act out of humanity let alone Christianity, remain in office.

In the few days since that documentary, there have been renewed, almost universal calls for Cardinal Brady to resign. He refuses, protesting that he was merely a note taker, a subservient obeying the orders of his superiors. No matter what way I look at it, he was party to information regarding heinous crimes against children and no matter what his subservient role, this gave him a moral obligation to ensure that something was done about it. In my view he did not adequately fulfil that moral obligation. Instead, his obedience and subservience to his higher authorities may have contributed to his eventual elevation to the position of most senior Churchman in the land.

High office carries with it high responsibility, accountability and duty of care. Sometimes leaders have to accept responsibility for situations that they may not have fully created or for matters in which they were negligent, intentionally or otherwise. No matter how much he may plead innocence in relation to what happened in 1975, his naivety in relation to the whole affair and how it is perceived at large is astounding. With the best will in the world, it will be next to impossible for Cardinal Brady to carry out his office with credibility and effect. Surely he can see that? Surely those close to him can see it and advise him appropriately? When a leader has lost credibility there is still an opportunity for that leader to act bravely and courageously in light of reality. That act would be to accept responsibility for the situation now at hand rather than pass the blame to others - some of whom are now dead.

As I write this, however, we appear to be no nearer Cardinal Brady doing the right, just and honourable thing. We are, however, a whole lot nearer some of my cherished friends receiving their letters of ultimatum / dismissal from volunteer ministry in our parish.

It beggars belief.

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