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After Clergy Abuse Scandals, Ireland Needs a New St. Patrick

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At this point in the Catholic Church's long-running saga of the sexual abuse of children by priests there are few surprises and fewer heroes. The two-day "summit" in the Vatican that wrapped up on Tuesday brought the bishops of Ireland together to meet with Pope Benedict XVI to discuss the issue, much as leaders of the American hierarchy were summoned to Rome for an overnight palaver with Pope John Paul II in 2002.

Now, as then, a statement was released following the closed-door sessions expressing deep regret and "shame" for the failures of oversight by the hierarchy, the sins of "some Irish clergy" who abused children, and the efforts being made to help victims and prevent further abuse. The statement said Benedict told the bishops that the sexual abuse of children and young people is "not only a heinous crime, but also a grave sin," but he stopped short of calling on any bishops to resign nor did he speak of punishments for those who committed the abuse.

Rather, the pontiff said a root cause of the clerical abuse was "the more general crisis of faith affecting the Church" and said "the weakening of faith has been a significant contributing factor in the phenomenon of the sexual abuse of minors." He called for "a deeper theological reflection on the whole issue" and said current and future priests should receive better training. He also said he would address the topic in greater depth in a letter to Irish Catholics that he will release during Lent, which starts today (Feb. 17) with Ash Wednesday. Neither the statement Tuesday nor the promise of a future papal pronouncement gave many abuse victims and disenchanted Irish Catholics much hope that things would proceed very differently than they did after the American version of this summit back in 2002.

What is noteworthy about the Irish scandal, however, and much different from the American situation, is that the Irish church has so much further to fall than U.S. Catholicism, and that there is at least one bishop who has been willing to critique both his fellow bishops and the church culture that helped enable the abuse: Diarmuid Martin, the archbishop of Dublin.

Martin is something of an accidental hero of this story, and an unlikely one in the view of many. But for those who know him, as I have since we first met in Rome in the late 1980s, his record during the Irish scandal is not surprising.

Ordained in 1969, Diarmuid Martin spent a year working in a parish near Dublin in between return sojourns to Rome to study moral theology and help with pilgrimages. By 1976 both his parents had died, and since he was seen as a talented priest with fewer family responsibilities than many, Martin was sent to work in the Roman Curia, the papal bureaucracy that is, according to the popular myth, the graveyard of idealism and pastoral sensitivity.

Indeed, the curia can be a tough place of competing clerical ambitions, palace intrigue, and institutional maneuverings that often seem aimed at thwarting every initiative of the Holy Spirit, not to mention the inspirations of Catholics outside the Vatican walls. Yet Martin kept his head down and did his job, working first at the Pontifical Council for the Family -- the Vatican department aimed at fostering family life and promoting pro-life teachings -- and within a few years moving to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, essentially the human rights commission of the Holy See.

As he rose through the ranks of the commission, Martin traveled the world representing the Vatican at high-level international conferences on economic development and human rights while back in Rome he helped draft important Vatican documents on issues such as the arms trade, debt forgiveness, poverty reduction, and the environment. He was a fixture at meetings of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He became a highly regarded diplomat fluent in five languages and with experience from the war-torn plains of Namibia to the high altitude environs of Davos. And he was one of the few curialists who liked journalists and was trusted enough by the Vatican to maintain channels of communication with the media -- which is how we became friends.

Martin's was an impressive resume, to be sure, but not one generally considered ideal for the kind of prophetic voice necessary to shake up an entrenched church culture -- which is exactly what was needed in Dublin as the first decade of the new millennium opened.

In the early 2000s, as the clergy sex scandals were breaking in the United States, Ireland, too, was beginning to come to grips with its legacy of a suffocating church world whose culture of silence was abetted by the government and social institutions that were de facto partners with the church in running schools and other sectors. Two reports in 2009 were the coup de grace to the Irish church's once sacrosanct status.

In May 2009 an investigative body known as the Ryan Commission released a report, nearly 10 years in the making, that detailed decades of systematic, horrific abuses of children in 60 residential "Reformatory and Industrial Schools" operated by religious orders of nuns and brothers and funded and supervised by the Irish Department of Education. The abuses were called "endemic" and included awful sexual and physical abuse.

Then in November 2009 a government-sponsored probe of clerical child abuse in the Archdiocese of Dublin released the so-called Murphy Report that chronicled the mishandling of some 325 sex abuse claims in the church from 1975-2004. The report said some bishops protected abusive priests and put the church's reputation and assets ahead of concern for children.

In 2003, with reports of these abuses beginning to churn in the media, and the then-Dublin archbishop, Cardinal Desmond Connell, isolated and seemingly incapable of responding, Pope John Paul II announced that Martin would succeed Connell within a year or so. It was a thankless task that Martin didn't expect or want, but it turned out he was the best man for the job.

His experience in Rome had developed his natural abilities as a diplomat who was at ease with the media, but also his reputation as a straight shooter with a passion for social justice inside as well as outside the church. Those traits are all too rare in bishops, and both were immediately on display.

"The church in the past was extraordinarily authoritarian, in some cases one might even say abusively authoritarian, it was actually disrespectful of people's autonomy in many ways," Martin said at a press briefing the week he was installed as co-adjutor of Dublin, a kind of "co-bishop" with right of succession when the incumbent retired. Cardinal Connell hadn't held such a meeting with the media in over a decade, and Irish Catholics were amazed at the appearance and Martin's language. "I think we have to avoid any type of authoritarianism, and also any type of clericalism -- which is some kind of closed idea of a priestly grouping that somehow or other seeks privilege rather than being there to serve the mission of the Church."

The church as authoritarian? Priests ruling as an elite caste? Those were fighting words to many church insiders, and almost revolutionary slogans in an Irish church defensive and entrenched after centuries of persecution under the English, and institutionalized by decades of sharing power with the civil authorities.

But Martin wasn't done. "I think that a Church that is humble in its style will be much more effective in today's world," he said. "I have to find a different style of being archbishop."

He certainly did that.

From the start Martin rejected the common approach of denying problems, or denouncing modern Catholics for bad faith or bad behavior, and he accepted the church's responsibility in creating the current difficulties. "It's no longer a question that you just learn your Catechism or your religious education in school and that will take you clearly through life," he said. "We have to have a constant dialogue and deepening of the realization of what it means to be a believer in a world where things change so much for the future." In light of Ireland's tradition of almost reflexive Catholic practice, that was a startling break from the past.

Rather than berating young people for living together, he lobbied the government to enact policies to support working couples, since so many more women were working outside the home than ever before. He made an outreach to Ireland's new immigrants a priority, and insisted children who were not Catholic should not have to receive religious instruction in Catholic schools. "For example, I would have no difficulty with the wearing of the Muslim headscarf in a Catholic school -- as I have no difficulty with nuns wearing a veil or priests wearing a religious habit," he has said.

In a message last year at Holy Week, he acknowledged that "there is a dramatic and growing rift between the Church and our younger generations and the blame does not lie principally with young people. Our young people are generous and idealistic but such generosity and idealism does not seem to find a home in the Church," which he said for many "remains an alien place."

He appointed lay people to positions that had always been reserved for clergy, and he sought to make churches handicapped accessible even as he tried to cope with declining revenues and higher costs for maintaining increasingly empty old churches.

And as always, he was accessible to the media -- even if his words sometimes came back to bite him.

During a television interview in 2006, for example, Martin said he would welcome a debate over priestly celibacy, and while he said he didn't see the tradition changing soon in the Catholic Church, his openness on the question stirred controversy. He also said that while he did not expect to see women ordained, he wanted women to be given prominent roles in the Church so that it would not be seen as an "all boys club."

He also said he has many friends who are gay, and said he understood their feelings or anger and alienation from the church, though again he backed church teaching that marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman. In 2005, when the Vatican announced a policy that seemed designed to bar homosexuals from seminaries, Martin was diplomatic but straightforward in his view: "You don't write off a candidate for the priesthood simply because he is a gay man."

Perhaps the biggest headlines from the 2006 TV piece came when the interviewer asked him if he'd ever been in love. "I would probably say yes," Martin answered, adding, "Sometimes you only realize that afterwards. It's heartbreaking at times." He also spoke of missing the children of his friends in Rome who were like nieces and nephews to him.

Of course a prelate showing such humanity was big news and led to some media exaggerations, all of which irked the archbishop and brought him some grief in church circles, as did his other references to women and gays and the need for the church in Ireland to change its way of doing business.

But it was Martin's response to the sexual abuse crisis that generated the most controversy, and represented his biggest challenge.

Even before Martin took command of the archdiocese, he had begun going through the personnel files that the government commission was also reviewing. On occasion he would become so angry at what he read he would hurl the files across the room. "I was so furious -- you couldn't but be."

Not everyone was of the same opinion. In early 2008, Cardinal O'Connell, now retired, tried to have a judge keep thousands of documents related to the clergy abuse under his tenure from the Ryan Commission. Archbishop Martin, now 65, threatened to sue to ensure the documents would be sent to investigators, and after weeks of negotiations, Connell finally relented.

When the Murphy Report was released last November, Catholics were shocked by the revelations, as Martin had long been warning they would be. Martin held a press conference to apologize, and had a letter to the priests and laity read out at all masses the following Sunday. "The damage done to children abused by priests can never be undone," he wrote. "As Archbishop of Dublin and as Diarmuid Martin I offer to each and every survivor, my apology, my sorrow and my shame for what happened to them. I am aware however that no words of apology will ever be sufficient."

Then Martin went further, and did what no bishop in the United States ever had by publicly calling for several bishops named in the report to hold themselves accountable and even resign.

The bishops initially rejected Martin's pressure, saying they had apologized and that was sufficient. But the archbishop was not satisfied, and said so. "I believe that the people of the archdiocese of Dublin, where this abuse took place, have a right to have these questions addressed today," he told Irish television. "My view is they (the bishops) should publicly come forward and answer the questions to the people where these abuses took place. I would much prefer to be in that situation than to be hunted or pushed."

In the end they had to be pushed. Four of the five bishops named resigned, two on Christmas Eve, while a fifth has refused to step down.

The bishops had their vocal defenders. "These bishops are not recalcitrant teenagers; they are intelligent and mature men, so it was pathetic of Diarmuid Martin to use the media to communicate with them," a prominent Redemptorist priest, Father Tony Flannery, said in late December. "It showed scant respect." Many priests of Martin's own clergy were furious with him both for publicly pressuring the bishops and for what they saw as selling out priests that he should have been defending. After a contentious meeting in January with many of the Dublin priests, Martin was ripped by some for being a "divisive" figure.

But he stood his ground, telling the Irish Independent last week, "I believe my reaction was to recognize something terrible happened on our watch. . . . We got it spectacularly wrong," he said of the abuse of children. "We have to admit that, and admit it unconditionally."

In some respects, of course, Diarmuid Martin was freer to speak his mind and push for wholesale changes than another bishop because he had been away from Dublin for nearly 30 years. He was an outsider with few of the ties that bind many priests and bishops in a diocese over their careers, yet he was a native who knew the endemic problems that must be faced.

He also had little choice.

Like Poland in the East, Ireland had long been the Western bastion of Christianity in Europe, her learned monks "saving civilization," in author Thomas Cahill's re-telling, and her faithful clinging to the church as the one sanctuary against an annihilation of national identity by the British.

Up until the 1970s, 90 percent of Irish Catholics attended mass on Sunday, the church ran schools and homes for unwed (read: disgraced) mothers, and there were so many vocations to the priesthood and religious life that the Irish Church was like the Mother Ship of American Catholicism, sending untold numbers of priests along with millions of Irish immigrants to these shores and effectively claiming Catholicism in the United States for St. Patrick.

But with the easing of the troubles in Northern Ireland, and above all the unleashing of the "Celtic Tiger," as Ireland's booming economy came to be known, the same secularizing trends that had afflicted Europe washed over the Emerald Isle. Mass attendance tailed off to near 40 percent, almost what it is in the United States. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life tanked, and the practice of the sacraments, such as confirmation and marriage, dropped. In the Dublin archdiocese more than one third of the children are born to unmarried couples. Parishes had to be closed and a few years ago, in an unimaginable turn of events, Ireland had to import a priest from Africa to fill a pulpit.

All that has led Martin, most prominently among the next generation of Irish bishops, to demonstrate his willingness to open the church to the modern world without compromising her teachings -- to learn from what the secular culture has to offer in hopes of transforming Irish Catholicism into a leaven, again, for civilization.

In several important and closely argued speeches, Martin has rejected the idea that Catholicism should retreat into a defensive crouch, and has highlighted what he says are a number of encouraging signs of spirituality and even religiosity among people who don't consider themselves churchgoers .

"In today's world, a strong faith can only develop within the public square, in a challenging debate and dialogue with the realities of life and progress, with the physical and the human sciences, and indeed with the concrete realities and experiences of the individuals and the interactions of individuals who make up society," Martin said at a February 2009 event honoring Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, an Anglican archbishop. "The danger to the faith of young people in Ireland is due, in my opinion, as much to the inadequacies of the Church's efforts at evangelizing, as to the dominant atmosphere of university culture or Irish culture in general."

"What is clear to me is that young people in search for faith or in dialogue or even in conflict with the concept of faith, judge individuals and religious institutions in terms of integrity," he continued. "They may feel little identity or affinity with institutional expressions of religion, but they can respect the personal integrity of those who belong to the institution or even those who have leadership within institutions. If however they perceive the Church as an institution standing up for its own institutional interests, then they will be unmerciful in their rejection and hostility."

"A humble and listening Church" was the title of a 2006 address he delivered elsewhere. "When I imagine organized religion in the future, I imagine it then more distant from the structures of power, and thus all the more free to influence power," he said in 2004.

Not that Martin has any illusions about the challenges, nor is he talking about watering down the faith or the notion of the Church as a strong and cohesive community of believers. "People say: 'We will be charitable, we will be good', but can you be a Christian without participating, being a member of a worshiping community and taking part in the Eucharist?" he said in a 2005 interview.

His constant theme is that Catholics ought to be "mature Christians" who can live out their faith in a modern society without falling prey to consumerism or secularism on one hand, or falling back on a dangerous fundamentalism on the other.

Beyond the sexual abuse crisis, which is as far as many go in discussing Catholicism these days, that may be Archbishop Martin's toughest challenge.

Filed Under: Religion, Scandal, Disputations

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