Alex Massie

The Sins of the Fathers

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The least surprising thing about the latest revelations of the Irish Catholic Church's complicity in thousands of cases of horrific child abuse is that almost none of it is surprising at all. Shocking, yes, but not surprising. Even those of us with an appropriately cynical view of the Chuch, mind you, can only marvel at the breathtaking mendacity displayed by the Church.

The Archbishop of Tuam, Michael Neary, says he is " mindful of the perceived hollowness of repeated apologies" and he has a point. Because until they were caught, the Church displayed no remorse whatsoever. Time and time again, as the Murphy Commission's report makes only too clear, the clerical authorities, often with the full connivance of the Gardai, lied and lied again as they protected child abusers an endangered and exploited the children in their care.

And the cover-up continued into this decade too. This was not merely a case of ancient history. Consider this all-too typical brand of mendacity that would, in other circumstances, be entertaining:

Nothing quite as perfectly illustrates the moral rot at the core of institutional Catholicism in Ireland as the concept of “mental reservation”.

Exposed in the Dublin diocesan report, “it permits a churchman knowingly to convey a misleading impression to another person without being guilty of lying”.

A concept “developed and much discussed over the centuries”, it was explained to the commission by no less a person than Cardinal Desmond Connell.

A homely example of what it involves was given by the commission in its report.

“John calls to the parish priest to make a complaint about the behaviour of one of his curates. The parish priest sees him coming but does not want to see him because he considers John to be a troublemaker. He sends another of his curates to answer the door. John asks the curate if the parish priest is in. The curate replies that he is not.”

The commission continued “this is clearly untrue but in the Church’s view it is not a lie because, when the curate told John that the parish priest was not in, he mentally reserved the words ‘. . . to you’. Thus the term “mental reservation”.

So the Archdiocese of Dublin and Cardinal Connell were not lying when in a 1997 statement it said it had co-operated with gardaí where Marie Collins’s complaint of abuse was concerned.

She knew this was untrue and had the statement checked out.

A spokesman for the archdiocese put it like this “we never said we co-operated fully”, placing emphasis on the word “fully”, the report commented.

Not that this brazenness was limited to the Dublin see. On the contrary, it reaches as far as the Vatican and the current Pope:

In September 2006, the commission wrote to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (of which Pope Benedict had been head until April 2005) asking for information on the document Crimen Solicitationis , which deals with clerical sex abuse.

It also asked for information on reports of clerical child sexual abuse conveyed to it by the Dublin archdiocese.

There was no reply.

Instead, the Vatican contacted the Department of Foreign Affairs to say the commission had not gone through appropriate diplomatic channels.

Just one month after that letter was sent by the commission to Rome, Ireland’s Catholic bishops visited Pope Benedict at the Vatican on their ad limina visit. Such visits occur usually every five years and involve a report by a bishops’ conference on church affairs in their country.

In his address to the Irish bishops that October, Pope Benedict said that “in your continuing efforts to deal effectively with this problem, it is important to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected and, above all, to bring healing to the victims and to all those affected by these egregious crimes.”

As he spoke thus, the Vatican did not deign to even acknowledge a letter from an Irish statutory authority set up by a government of the Irish people “to establish the truth of what happened in the past” where such abuse was concerned in the largest Catholic diocese on the island.

Protocol, you see.

Similar commitment to protocol over truth prevented the papal nuncio to Ireland replying to letters from the commission in 2007 and again earlier this year.

The wonder is not that there will be empty pews across Ireland this Sunday, but that so many will still, despite this and everything else, be full. A church as rotten as this deserves to perish and the sooner it does the sooner the Irish state itself may have a reckoning of its own with its conniving, subservient relationship with an institution that has done so much to define and demean the state.

I'd thought that the Church's protection of war criminals from the Second World War - because they were good Catholic lads, you see - was bad enough. But this is muc, much worse. And they still don't get it.

[Thanks to reader SM for the heads-up on the concept of the "mental reservation".]


Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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