The Irish Times - Thursday, May 3, 2012
DESPITE ALL that has happened in relation to the clerical abuse of children, the Vatican’s response still revolves around the requirements of canon law and the protection of church authority. Unambiguous endorsement of the actions taken by Cardinal Séan Brady regarding the late Fr Brendan Smyth, following the BBC’s This World documentary by reporter Darragh MacIntyre, has firmly placed the importance of internal discipline and obedience above personal conscience.
Senior Vatican figure Charles Scicluna said Cardinal Brady should not resign because he had done his duty to the church and to society as a note-taker in 1975 when Fr Smyth’s activities were investigated. This move to minimise the role of the then Fr Brady as an investigator and to insist he had no questions to answer in the aftermath of the programme was unusually quick and determined. The question remains, was society best served and were vulnerable children adequately protected?
The protection offered from Rome for its “notary” was so comprehensive that Cardinal Brady later conceded he had been “heartened by it”. The incident represents Vatican politics at its most forceful. Following last year’s visitation by senior church figures and publication of an edited report on problems facing the Catholic Church, internal doctrinal discipline is being imposed and, clearly, administrative failures and cover-ups from the past do not figure on that agenda.
Few would doubt Cardinal Brady’s sincerity when he says he was outraged, appalled and felt betrayed when he discovered, despite his report and recommendations by his bishop, that Brendan Smyth had continued to abuse children for almost 20 years. Explanation for his lack of perseverance in the case: that he was operating “in a culture of deference and respectful silence”, is credible. State agencies and senior officials were equally unwilling to raise the spectre of clerical scandal.
Cardinal Brady behaved correctly under canon law. But what about criminal law, the law of the State? Under canon law, the then Fr Brady required two sexually abused children to swear they would not tell anyone else about the offences, while the parents of one child were not informed and others were abused as a consequence. During those years and later, members of the hierarchy engaged in systematic cover-ups, effectively involving conspiracies to conceal crimes against children. Thankfully, that situation has changed. The Catholic Church adopted guidelines that provide for the protection of children and reporting of offences to the Garda Síochána. To place the matter beyond doubt, the Government has published legislation making the withholding of such information a criminal offence.
These distressing events took place 37 years ago. But an elapse of time provides no justification for what occurred. Monsignor Scicluna said the people of Ireland needed leaders who had learned the hard way about child protection. That proposition is questionable, especially if a canon law defence is still the priority at the highest level of the church. Rightly or wrongly, however, Cardinal Brady will oversee implementation of a Vatican report designed, in his own words, “to contribute to the ongoing spiritual and moral renewal of the Catholic Church.” Living up to that mission will be a lot more arduous given what has emerged in recent days.