Re-balancing Authority in the Abusive Church

By Brian Lennon
Eureka Street
May 17, 2012

Organisers had initially expected 200 to turn up at the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) meeting in Dublin this month. In fact over 1000 showed up.

The size of the crowd in part was a response to the recent silencing of Irish priests.

One of those silenced, Fr Tony Flannery, was part of the leadership team of the ACP. A second, Fr Brian D'Arcy, was a weekly columnist in tabloid newspaper, The Sunday World. It turned out that someone in the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith had been trawling through decades of the paper to check D'Arcy's articles.

Two other stories provided a backdrop to the meeting. One was a TV program which revealed that in 1975 when he was a bishop's secretary, Cardinal Sean Brady, now Primate of Ireland, was given the names of some boys abused by Fr Brendan Smyth during a canonical investigation, and failed to report this either to the parents or to the police. Smyth, the abuser being investigated, continued to prey on children for a further 18 years.

In fact the Cardinal had passed all the information up to his bishop and was devastated when he learnt that Smyth had not been stopped. He rejected calls for his resignation. Several commentators pointed out that had he called for a discussion on women priests the Vatican would have promptly given him his marching orders, as Bishop Morris in Australia found to his cost.

A second story concerned Fr Kevin Reynolds. RTE, the national broadcaster, had accused him in a program of fathering a child by an underage woman in Africa. Reynolds denied the charge and offered to take a paternity test in advance of the program. This was refused. Eventually, RTE was forced to publish an abject apology, pay an undisclosed sum for libel, and was subjected to a withering public report. Several staff resigned.

There is a pattern in all this: the terrible suffering of children who have been abused, the humiliation they experience which many describe as a second abuse when they look for truth from the Church, some false accusations against priests, the Vatican seeking to impose uniformity of doctrine throughout the world, groups of priests and/or lay people organising to resist this, and conservative groups in turn opposing the reformers.

The ACP conference was a great day because it gave so many people hope, and hope is something we need.

In my own case I have been deeply disturbed by the abuse revelations and wondered how I could remain on in a church with so much corruption. This drove me to write a book on the issue, primarily for myself. But doing this gave me hope. It showed me that the way forward is through repentance. That means not only saying sorry and meaning it, but also changing what was wrong about our behaviour.

Catholic Church structures are riddled with patriarchy, clericalism and deference and these were at the very centre of the abuse problem itself. Repentance therefore means changing these.

The ACP, which wants Vatican II implemented, faces a major problem: we will not achieve this by conferences or articles. Walking away from the Church, or being silenced, will also achieve nothing: the powers that be seem content with a smaller church in their own image.

To be the Church of Christ, the Church has to be diverse. This means including people with opposing views. To do that we need dialogue. We also need a teaching authority because this is part of Catholic teaching. As well, we need a strong, central authority to oversee child protection in the Church throughout the world.

We cannot get any of this without a re-balancing of authority in the Church. The Body of Christ cannot have a voice if only the head speaks. It is akin, in human terms, to ignoring our physical or emotional reality. The outcome is a disaster.

The issue for the ACP, and for similar groups in Australia and elsewhere is: how can we make this happen? Perhaps lay people in particular, who are less subject to Vatican strictures, need to bring to the table their skills and knowledge of change in secular organisations.








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