If the Pope’s team of apostolic visitors want to prepare for their upcoming visit to Ireland, a good place to start would be a new book edited by John Littleton and Eamon Maher, The Dublin/Murphy Report: A Watershed for Irish Catholicism? (Columba, 2010)
The book gathers an impressive array of perspectives on the handling of the sexual abuse scandals, and the pressing questions facing the Irish Catholic Church today. Among those are the questions posed by the editors in the introduction (p. 10):
- Has the church got any future in Ireland?
- Will it learn from previous mistakes?
- Will it return to the simple origins of its founder, Jesus of Nazareth?
Contributors include abuse survivors Andrew Madden and Marie Collins, journalists, Catholic theologians, cultural commentators and Church of Ireland Bishop Richard Clarke.
In particular, Madden and Collins’ chapters offer insight into the very real pain that the abuse has caused. While the church leadership has always claimed to support victims, Madden and Collins offer plenty of evidence that survivors have not always experienced support.
I hope the apostolic visiting team is able to take on and comprehend the emotion that the survivors feel. This includes their almost helpless frustration at the inability of the Irish church and state to be reformed. As Madden writes (p. 34-35):
Can the Catholic Church in Ireland survive all of this? Undoubtedly. They have the leader of our country in our national parliament bending the knee in their direction within a week of reading (presuming he bothered) a report into how they covered up the rape and sexual abuse of children for thirty years.
They have their priests. Those poor priests whose good work we hear so much about! … Working away at the coalface in despair at the way their bishops have let them down – except of course they are not in despair. … They have never spoken collectively in support of a single victim at any time in the last fifteen years …
They will survive too with the support of the ‘faithful.’ Mass-going Catholics who contact radio programmes I’m contributing to and voice support for their inexcusable bishop and then say no, they haven’t read the Report and they don’t know what he’s ‘supposed to have done’. … Mass-going Catholics who march up and down outside ‘sex shops’, objecting to them opening up their areas and then march into Mass the Sunday after the Murphy Report was published with not a scintilla of embarrassment about their sickening hypocrisy.
There are of course more optimistic views on the future of Irish Catholicism expressed in the book. But these are cautious, tempered with the need for the church to reform.
For example, Fr Enda McDonagh has a chapter, ‘Between Evangelising and the Priesthood,’ in which he begs the church to prioritise the abused and to allow laypeople to play full and meaningful roles in the church.
Similarly, Timothy Radcliffe OP argues for a step-change in the way we think about the priesthood, noting that (p. 26):
‘We are living through the crisis of that whole understanding of priesthood, with its remoteness from people, with its use of power, with its understanding of morality in terms of control.’
And Louise Fuller of the History Department at NUI Maynooth laments the unhealthy state of Ireland’s cultural Catholicism, reminding us that ‘the broader Irish society is not blameless’ (p. 169).
The implication of Fuller’s chapter – and indeed the whole book – is that the crisis in the Irish Catholic Church should prompt a deeper societal reflection about the common good of all people on this island. We also should ask whether the Catholic Church has anything enriching to offer in such a process.