Pope's Irish child abuse letter met with walkouts

Anne Mc Shane argues that Ireland needs not less but more secularism. The clerical state must go

Anger and resentment met the pope Benedict XVI’s pastoral letter to the Irish people on the sexual and physical abuse of children in church institutions. Read at Sunday mass on March 21 it provoked a number of walkouts from Dublin churches and verbal attacks on priests and bishops in other parts of the country. It is clear that, rather than appeasing the faithful and restoring confidence, the letter has antagonised even loyal Catholics.

Interviews conducted with church-goers leaving services revealed bitter disappointment and strong feelings of being cruelly let down. Many had hoped the pope would take some responsibility for the Vatican’s cover-up of clerical abuse. But instead all responsibility was firmly laid at the door of the Irish church. It is a local problem, with Irish bishops accused of having failed “at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse”. The Vatican stands innocent of any wrongdoing.

Bizarrely and in what seems something of an own goal, the pope identified the growth of secularisation within Irish society as in large part to blame. He bemoaned the fact that “fast-paced social change has occurred, often adversely affecting people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and value”. Observance of rituals and deference to clerical authority has weakened. This has impacted on the church itself, resulting in “a well-intentioned, but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations”.

But the abuse and associated cover-ups happened long before the recent secularisation of Irish society. The complaints being investigated date right back to the 1930s. The worst actually took place during a period of tremendous deference to Rome - one lasting 60 years, from the formation of the Irish state until the late 1980s. And during that time bishops were extremely compliant when it came to imposing Vatican policy. They cooperated fully in the cover-up, which was directed and overseen by Rome itself. The Vatican’s central canonical policy document, Crimen sollicitationis, produced in 1962, stipulated that any person who made an allegation of abuse against a priest or nun must take an oath of secrecy. Breach meant automatic excommunication. All hearings were to take place in secret. Pope Benedict, in his former personification as cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed investigations into child abuse from 2001 until 2006, wrote to all Irish bishops reminding them of the need to enforce Crimen sollicitationis and demanded that all complaints of abuse be referred to the Vatican and not the gardai. In other words, he tried to ensure that ‘the problem’ was hushed up.

The pursuit of that policy resulted in massive, systematic concealment and the silencing of thousands of abuse victims and their families. Canon law does not include any requirement to report abuse to state authorities - and that policy has not changed. In his pastoral letter Benedict asks bishops to “continue to cooperate with civil authorities” (my emphasis), when in fact they never have. Various state inquiries, including the most recent Murphy investigation, have been stonewalled when trying to obtain files from church authorities. The papal nuncio to Ireland refused to even reply to requests and the Vatican itself has similarly snubbed all requests made for information.

The Vatican is above the law when it comes to its own affairs. Today a number of bishops have either resigned or are facing criticism for holding canonical inquiries in secret and not reporting allegations to gardai - exactly in line with Vatican policy. There have also been numerous instances of where a priest who has been defrocked has managed to get reinstated on appeal to Rome. If anything, the Vatican was more lenient with abusers than the Irish church.

Benedict reminds Irish people of the venerable history of Irish Catholicism and exhorts them to return to the faith. A year-long period of “eucharistic devotion” is planned, so that the faithful can pray for the church’s survival in these tough times. An apostolic mission is also projected, with high-ranking cardinals due to arrive from Rome in the coming months to investigate Irish parishes. Priests and nuns are to attend special retreats to renew their clerical commitment. Every effort is to be made to restore Ireland to its former status as a bastion of Catholic observance and piety.

The Vatican could proudly boast throughout the 20th century of the persistence of the faith in Ireland - in contrast to the rest of Europe. It was throughout this apparently exemplary period that church-run institutions oversaw the canonical system of abuse and mistreatment of children within their care. Canon law is the problem, not the solution. It is the growth of secularisation that has given the courage to victims of abuse to speak out.

The history of Irish nationalism has been one where the church has held a dominant position. It has been tied into the national identity for hundreds of years, in particular because of the repression of the Catholic majority by English/British colonialism. Religious persecution led to a strengthening of identification with Catholicism as an ideology of the oppressed. That is not to say that the church itself played an oppositional role. It has always been a conservative force and has consistently kept the masses in their place.

The national movement which emerged out of 1916 was strongly influenced by Catholicism, reflected in the fact that 10% of delegates to the 1917 Sinn Féin conference were priests. As James Connolly famously predicted, the division of Ireland would result in a carnival of reaction north and south. The Free State government handed over education and social provision to the church, whose prominence was ensured.

The 1937 constitution, created by Eamonn de Valera, further strengthened the role of the church and instituted the concept of a ‘Catholic state for a Catholic people’. This constitution is still in place today. Article 6 states: “All powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive under god from the people.” Under this constitution abortion remains illegal, as it is against the teaching of the church. Divorce was banned until 1995 and is now only available where the couple have been separated for four out of five years. Abortion remains illegal and Irish women continue to travel to Britain and elsewhere in Europe to obtain terminations. Article 41 upholds the ‘sanctity of the family’ and preserves the special place of women as child-bearer and domestic slave - “mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”.

However it is true that Irish society has become more secular. Numbers attending mass have plummeted. Social attitudes in relation to the family have also changed markedly. Women can now choose to have children outside marriage without suffering institutional discrimination. And those people that do marry often do not do so in church. There has been a rise in civil marriages - from 5% in 1995 to almost 30% in 2009. In Dublin 40% of all marriages are civil. This really is a remarkable change and shows the diminution of influence of the church in a sphere where it previously held such authority.

And despite religious indoctrination in schools, the children of Ireland do not seem to be paying much attention. A survey in 2007 found that only 5% of children from 11-15 could list the first commandment. A third of the same group could not say where Jesus was born or what Easter represents. Many parents who are not practising Catholics are deeply unhappy with the church’s role in education and are demanding non-religious schools. The church still owns and runs over 80% of state-funded schools. Children are still forced to comply with all the requirements of those schools, including religious ceremonies. Their education is often adversely affected by reactionary religious influence on the curriculum.

People ignore the church to the extent that they are able in their own personal lives, but there is deep resentment at its continuing power, its hypocrisy and its massive abuse of working class children over decades. There is also the harmful effect of church teaching on sexuality. Some priests, including the well-known Brian D’Arcy, have spoken out against enforced celibacy. Others have spoken of the warped teaching which discourages the development of a positive sexual identity among young people. It has, of course, been shown that the very church which banned sex before marriage was colluding in the systematic sexual abuse and disempowerment of young people. Church teaching on morality cannot be trusted, let alone respected.

We also cannot ignore the fact that the church is the wealthiest institutional landowner in Ireland. It owns billions of euros of prime land, much of which it sold off for redevelopment during the period of the ‘Celtic tiger’. It also has vast wealth accumulated in other assets and bank accounts. Despite this, such has been the arrogance of some bishops that parishioners have been asked to contribute towards the compensation of abuse victims.

The government has been trying to keep out of the recent controversy and is determined not to come down hard on the church. It certainly does not want any change to the current constitution. Taoiseach Brian Cowen has made clear that he supports the church in its efforts to deal with the problem. His party has had a long and shameful  history of toadying before the teachings and institution of the church and little will persuade it to change for the moment. It is part of Fianna Fáil’s DNA just as much as it is part of their state. Fine Gael is little different and also plays safe when it comes to the church. Perhaps they fear what would happen to their own power without the conservative influence of the church.

In terms of the left, the Socialist Party in Ireland says very little on this question and certainly has not come out with any radical demands. The Socialist Workers Party has been better and has made calls for the separation of church and state. The unfortunate problem is, however, that the People Before Profit Alliance is the SWP’s main focus of activity and last time I looked the PBPA had no policy on the church and state. This needs to change.

The left needs to campaign now for a democratic, secular state. We must challenge the current constitution by putting forward our own democratic demands. The way we are ruled is the central question for the working class. The church is determined to hang on for dear life and is supported by the ruling elite. Taking it on must include demands for the confiscation of church land, assets and wealth. State schools must become non-religious. One SWP writer has suggested that in place of the church they should be run by democratically elected committees. I agree. The trappings and content of the clerical state must be challenged - free abortion on demand, divorce on consent with no delay, removal of all religious and reactionary clauses, including the central role of the family.

Religion must be a private matter, not a defining feature of the state.