“Unprecedented”, “historic” and “unique”, this is how the recent meetings to discuss the scandal of clerical sex abuse the between the Irish bishops and Pope Benedict were described by the Vatican. It is interesting, though perhaps not totally unexpected, that the words useful and productive do not appear in the official statement. In reality the talks were at best missed opportunity and at worst a mere public relations exercise.
The Pope met the Bishops but refused to meet any of the victims of sex abuse in person. Not one of the 24 Irish bishops felt it important to ask the Pope about the Vatican’s role in the mishandling of clerical child sex abuse in Ireland or about the lack of co-operation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the papal nunciature (Vatican ambassador) in Dublin with the Murphy commission. None of the Irish bishops asked his holiness whether it was right and proper for his ambassador to Ireland, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, to refuse to appear before the Irish parliament’s committee on foreign affairs.
The recent Murphy Commission into clerical sex abuse in Ireland has highlighted the ongoing erosion of trust between the laity and the ordained. Trust is a social practice. Humans are social beings who swim in an ocean of trust. What happens when this ocean begins to drain away is that we become sceptical, often cynical and perhaps even a little paranoid. Some of the more disturbing findings of the Murphy Commission relate to the systematic attempts by numerous Irish bishops to control information, prevent public disclosure and silence dissent. Some of the most heart-wrenching testimonies from abuse victims are their reports of having nowhere to turn when their priest was part of the problem and of their attempts to engage others within the church that were ignored or rebuffed. Similarly, the laity has no formal recourse when their pastors are insensitive or incompetent. What has been become crystal clear in recent years is that many of the mistakes and cover-ups, involving the abuse of children by priests, have been made by bishops. Yesterday’s missed opportunity in Rome indicates that the Irish bishops are unwilling or incapable of acting swiftly and decisively.
The problem is that those who want to do something to help to move things on, namely the laity and some clergy, have no real vehicle for doing so. Despite the long-ingrained tendency of lay men and women to defer to the hierarchy, lay people have both the right and the responsibility to make their voices heard. Many of them are now tragically aware of the consequences that follow from the concentration and misuse of power and lay deference to hierarchical authority.