At the Mass which I attended in my parish church on Sunday, the celebrating priest spoke about his anger and bewilderment on reading the contents and conclusions of the Cloyne Report which had been published a few days previously. He searched for words to try to adequately describe his sadness at the abuses which had precipitated the report, and particularly at the official church’s obfuscation, and worse, in dealing with both the circumstances of the abuse and, subsequently, with the Murphy inquiry.
As if looking for some sort of relief from the obvious betrayal of an institution to which he had given his life, he, touchingly said, he had gone to look at a hurling match - his favourite form of relaxation. There he met two fellow priests, both equally bewildered, both had been his contemporaries at school, and both of whom were “working out their last years”; one amongst the Aborgines, the native peoples of Australia; the other with the Irish community in Britain.
On the same Sunday, Archbishop Martin of Dublin, appealed for the release of the internal reports into abuses in all the Irish dioceses. The presumption appeared to be that if accurately presented these would indicate whether or not there had been compliance with the church’s own guidelines on the protection of children, which included mandatory reporting to the civil authorities. The Archbishop seemed to be saying: let us finish with the drip-feed. Let it all hang out. Let us know the worst.
And still on that same Sunday, apologies were read at all the Masses in the diocese of Cloyne. In very carefully chosen words and in very structured phrases, official regret was expressed.
So we had, compressed into the space of a few days, the latest in a series of profoundly disturbing reports involving the Catholic church; the angry and bewildered reaction of ordinary people and priests; the pragmatic appeal of an Archbishop and the predictably-worded official apology.
Is this the end of the story? Not by a long shot! The immediate noise of the explosion may subside temporarily but the volcano still rumbles on. It rumbles on because of the nature of the abuse, and the lengths to which the State has had to go to uncover the facts about crime. It also rumbles on because of the betrayal of the trust of the ordinary laity, the still believing, still worshipping, still subscribing people to whom the church represents itself as a moral authority.
That moral authority has now been severely damaged. “If in greenwoods they do these things, what shall be done in the dry?” Are issues of truth and justice a moveable feast, negotiable in the circumstances of Canon versus State law? Is telling a lie a mental reservation? Is the double-talk and evasion which has so discredited our politicians in the Tribunals, acceptable from the arbiters of our moral behaviour?
The facts are that the church needs to speak with the people in the pews. Not at, or to, but with! There has been much reference to renewal, to getting back to the basic message of Christianity, which had at its core a simple but profound recipe for the acknowledgement of a Creator and of living in harmony with each other and with the world which we briefly occupy.
But before the journey starts, there has to be a clearing of the decks, a confession that bad things have happened, that great hurt has been caused, and that protection of the institution has been given priority over the protection of people.
Renewal pre-supposes a reform; a fresh and frank look at how things were done, and how changes can be made. The proposed major change, long talked about, but never seriously considered, has been the involvement of the laity. The minimal concessions made to the laity have been a minor involvement in some ministries, but in decision-making or church governance, it would appear that ordinary people are to be distrusted. And women, who represent at least half of the church’s community, and half the human race, are banned, proscribed, subject to some inexplicable interdict.
Surely, these medieval prohibitions have to be re-thought. The Irish Catholic Church’s sister Christian church, the Church of Ireland, is governed by a Synod comprised of clergy and democratically elected laity - women and men, all of whom bring to their church their particular gifts and their practical experience of living. If the same “mix” of church membership, women and men, had been involved in dealing with the abuses, would healthy and just and prompt decisions have been taken, in contrast to the exclusivity and secrecy which, the reports indicate, influenced the hierarchy?
These are issues which now concern ordinary church-going people. And before reform, renewal and, more importantly, some sort of reconciliation is achieved, a frank dialogue would be useful, even imperative. It may not be an easy or pleasant communication. After all, those of us still in the pews are a motley lot: saints and sinners, some disaffected, some disinterested, some odd-bods, some cranky. But all, or so we have been told, are people of God.
We deserve some explanations from the church of which we are members.