Maybe it’s not on the order of Henry VIII, the French Revolution, or the Resorgimento, but the Vatican’s current pissing match with the government of Ireland represents the biggest conflict with a Western state that it has gotten into in decades, as well as the most serious diplomatic consequence so far of the rolling sexual abuse scandal.
In the wake of July’s Cloyne Report, the latest in a series of accounts of church malfeasance, the Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Enda Kenny gave a speech denouncing the “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, the narcissism, that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day,” and charging Rome with obstructing Irish investigations of clergy abuse as recently as three years ago. The Vatican’s response, delivered on September 3, rejected Kenny’s accusations according to the finest casuistical standards of Canon Law. Last Friday, the Irish government issued its own statement, sticking to its guns.
In fact, the Cloyne Report does not charge the Vatican with
recent obstruction–a point that the Vatican response does not omit to
mention. But as Patsy McGarry, the Irish Times‘ religious affairs writer, demonstrates
case by case, Vatican officials repeatedly declined to cooperate with
the several Irish abuse investigations. If that isn’t obstruction, it’s
Besides the charge of obstructionism, the principal bone of contention is a 1997 letter from the then-papal nuncio that, according to the government’s response-to-the-response, “provided a pretext for some members of the clergy to evade full
co-operation with the Irish civil authorities in regard to the abuse of
minors.” This is more than probable, though a case can be made, and NCR’s John Allen makes it, that the problem now is less a failure of Vatican policy than of dioceses not following the policy that’s in place–and of failing to be held accountable when they don’t.
Allen, who cuddles up to the hierarchy a lot more than he used to, is at pains to point out that archbishops Tim Dolan of New York and Charles Chaput of Philadelphia have of late expressed the opinion that there should actually be some accountability mechanism for bishops who fail to observe the rules for handling abuse cases.
Forces interested in genuine reform would do well to press such leaders
to put their money where their mouth is, fleshing out what
“accountability with teeth” would look like – especially in a church
with more than 5,000 bishops, as well as scores of religious communities
and other jurisdictions, but just one pope. That effort, and not a
fruitless quest for some magic bullet in Vatican policy, is where the
I can’t imagine what Allen has in mind in this regard, unless its to get the likes of Dolan and Chaput to put pressure on the Vatican itself to institute a policy and a procedure for disciplining bishops who cover up abuse cases–the same way the Vatican disciplines bishops who, oh, suggest that the ordination of women and an end to clerical celibacy might be in order. So far, Rome has shown not the slightest interest in heading down such a path.