The greatest criticism one may level at the authorities of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland when it attempts to respond to the crisis is that they always address their dwindling audience with a preamble outlining how much this has hurt them. So prior to any discussion on the question of forgiveness in the context of post-Catholic Ireland let us underline first the hurt of the victims of abuse. Daily a picture is emerging of an island nation victimised by endemic, vindictive and systematic emotional, psychological, physical and sexual abuse perpetrated on countless innocent children and vulnerable women and men by priests and religious sisters and brothers of the Roman Catholic Church stretching back long before living memory. From barbaric violence and rape in the notorious industrial schools, through the imprisonment and abuse of ‘fallen women’ in the Magdalene Asylums to the catalogue of offences committed by paedophile priests over the whole island, Ireland has been left in a quivering and collective post traumatic disorder. The victims are those who did not survive the vicious beatings and those who, during or after the horror, simply could not cope under the shadow of this culture of death and took their own lives. Even today this small island of four and a half million people has the thirty-sixth highest suicide rate in the whole world.
The survivors are those who have come through the torment of abuse and the continual pain of memory to be with us today. Many remain anonymous; too ashamed to come forward and tell their story. Others have stood in the high court and given evidence against their attackers. They have written book and appeared on radio and television shows to bear witness to their suffering and the suffering of others. Many of the perpetrators have been convicted and sent to prison for their crimes and seemingly the Church has been toppled from its privileged place in Irish society and forever lost its moral authority. On the surface it would appear that justice has been done, and certainly the ability for persons in the Church to utilise their position to abuse others has been seriously curtailed. The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in 2010 sent a letter of apology to the people of Ireland. Surely, one would think that now the conditions are right for the process of reconciliation and even possibly of forgiveness to begin. This has been the spin the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Ireland has put on the current state of affairs. Not all things, however, are that simple. One of the troubling realities of our human condition is that abuse happens. As wonderful as human beings have the potential to be, we know and understand that people are capable of the most heinous and vile outrages against others. It is for this very reason that society should, as far as is possible, put rigorous measures in place to protect the rights and dignity of individuals and groups; especially the most vulnerable in our communities.
As sad as it is, abuse does happen, and it happens within families and in every part of human society. We must always strive tirelessly to halt this whenever it happens or when people are in danger of being abused, but this abuse is not the totality of the scandal in Ireland. Had people within the Church abused vulnerable people, sexually or otherwise, and those people expelled from the orders of the Church and brought to justice before civil magistrates with the full cooperation of their ecclesiastical superiors, this matter would now be over. The Church might still have the respect of the people. This was not what happened. The very highest authorities in the Catholic Church in Ireland and in Rome colluded, in a culture of strict secrecy and ‘unhelpful deference,’ to preserve the reputation of the institution by silencing victims, relocating offenders to different communities where they were unknown and wilfully withheld evidence from the legal authorities of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. This, and precisely this, is the nature of the scandal.
As this article is being written Dr. Seán Brady, the Cardinal Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland, remains the spiritual head of Ireland’s Roman Catholics. As a young canon lawyer in 1975 he was appointed by his bishop to investigate allegations of child sex abuse by the Norbertine priest, Father Brendan Smyth; later discovered to be one of Ireland’s most prolific child sex offenders. Interviewing one twelve year old boy, without the support of a parent or guardian and in the company of two other priests, Brady gathered information which was later corroborated by another child. In the course of these secret interviews the investigating team attempted to ascertain whether the children had encouraged their abuser to abuse them, if they had engaged in like behaviour with other boys their own age and if they had gotten erections and received sexual pleasure from the repeated abuse. At the conclusion of both interviews each child was asked to sign a statement promising their silence; a promise which was kept for many years in the trust that the crime would be ‘dealt with.’ It is disturbing in the extreme that in 1975 a boy of twelve understood the effects of the abuse to the extent that he would approach another priest for help, and yet today a much older Seán Cardinal Brady claims that as a thirty-six year old canon lawyer and educator he had no inkling of the effects such abuse would have on these children.
Dutifully Father John Brady, as he was then known, handed this evidence to his bishop ‘for action,’ who in turn passed it to Father Brendan Smyth’s superior. Against what would seem a natural response to such disclosure Seán Brady later neither told the parents of the children or otherwise enquired after their well-being, nor did he approach his bishop to ensure ‘action’ had been taken. In the years that followed, Seán Brady, was sent to Rome to further studies and rose through the ranks of the Irish Catholic hierarchy until November 1996 when he was installed as the Archbishop of Armagh; the most senior cleric in the Irish Catholic Church. In November 2007 he was created the Cardinal-Priest of Saints Quirico and Guilitta by Pope Benedict XVI. A meteoric career in comparison to another priest, Father Bruno Mulvihill, another Norbertine who did everything in his power to have Smyth brought to justice. The reward for his efforts was exile from Ireland and an early death in an automobile accident inGermany. Let it never be said that the mechanisms of the Catholic hierarchy do not reward loyalty and punish dissent.
Where in this can one begin to speak about forgiveness? For the victims silenced now by their eternal rest, the right of forgiveness lies with God alone; a God who hears the voice of our sisters and brothers crying from the soil. Neither can we speak of the right of forgiveness of the survivors. Forgiveness is theirs alone, and a painful and agonising cross for them alone. One certainly finds it repugnant that they be asked to forgive. The Church has made victims too of all Catholics and of all Christians who see themselves as belonging to that broken and wounded body that is the whole Church; the community of all the baptised. How can we forgive? As an apologist for that greater, universal, idea of Church, one finds it frustrating speaking with people who, understandably, reject and ridicule all articulations of Church on such cyber-spaces as the Facebook ‘Remove Seán Cardinal Brady’ campaign. A disambiguation of this word Church has to be continually made. There is only one Church; broken and divided as it is over the face of the world. Within a Western Catholic context we speak of Church with multiple definitions; on the one hand Church is a victim in that Church here is understood as that community of believers, gathered in faith together around Jesus Christ in suffering and at prayer. On the other hand Church is the perpetrator; that exclusive hierarchical society of men who have arrogated power and authority to themselves, and who maintain such power behind veils of secrecy and intrigue. It is this latter Church I reject, and the former I embrace with all my heart. For it is only within this community that the Christian can begin to articulate the road map to forgiveness.
This is a call for radical reform; for communal ownership and responsibility in the community where ethics and justice are the mother’s milk. It is this Church which is the enemy of wickedness and vice which is both within and below that hierarchical Church, and yet it is this confessing Church which is the Body of Christ. This holy Body, whose head is Christ himself, has in the Spirit of God all authority to demand shepherds and trust that the Lord will send them. We have the right, the duty and the obligation to insist that our religious sisters and brothers, deacons, priests and bishops are people who inspire within the community the bravery and conviction of saints and martyrs by virtue of their own lives. Seán Brady and others may have been weak in the face of a tyrannical hierarchy, they may even have been malicious in their desire to protect the image of their Church, but this moral cowardice does not a Christian shepherd make. The Church is a hospital for the weak and the recovering sinner, by all means, but the frontline medics must be not sick.
Forgiveness comes at the price, the costly price, of justice and truth. So the road to forgiveness is one which must first pass the tollbooth of reform and revolutionary transformation. The sick limbs must be severed and new limbs grafted on from the teeming pool of courageous women and men who are the pillars of the Church which is within and below. A Church which is the prophetic voice to a world that hurts must be one in which Christ is in the vision in all eyes that see Her, in all ears that hear Her and in all hearts within Her. This, and only this, I bind unto myself today.
© 2012 homophilosophicus