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We can't shut the Church down, so what do we do?

Added on November 29, 2009

Independent.ie

 

For the good of the Catholic faith and all its heartbroken followers, change must be imposed from the outside, says Brendan O'Connor

By Brendan O'Connor
Sunday November 29 2009

IF the Catholic Church in Ireland were any other institution it would now be outlawed, if it hadn't been already. But the Catholic Church in Ireland is not just any other institution. It occupies a special place in our hearts and in our society. Not the kind of special place it did occupy, where its members were seen by society, including the Garda, as being beyond the law, but a special place none the less.

The majority of people in this country are still Catholics. Over a certain age, the vast majority of people in this country are practising Catholics. They are heartbroken by the recent revelations about their Church and their priests and bishops, but they have chosen to stick with their Church and their God. Possibly because it is the only Church they have. The Catholic Church is their conduit to their faith and their God, a faith and a God they have invested a lifetime of spirit in, and which they are not going to turn their back on now. In short, we need a functioning Catholic Church in this country. Most of its members are innocent people who have done nothing wrong. Most of them are good Christians. We cannot take away their Church.

So what to do? Well, we need to take action now. We need to take action beyond more retrospective wailing and gnashing of teeth, more toothless truth commissions, more national days of shock as we discover the nitty-gritty of what we all half knew but didn't want to believe.

Even the Church itself now recognises that more apologies and expressions of regret and begging for forgiveness are no longer enough. Diarmuid Martin apologised again last week. He also became the first senior Irish Churchman to speak like a trenchant critic of the Church rather then someone trying to excuse it. In an extraordinary Prime Time on Thursday night he seemed at times almost unable to speak. There even seemed to be some confusion when Mary Raftery and others, who were clearly expecting some class of an argument with Martin, discovered that he was agreeing with them about everything. He sat there enumerating, in a shocked manner, the crimes of the Church. You could argue that it was hypocritical of him to sit there giving out about the Church when he is part of it and rose up through its ranks, but it was a very human response and it also signalled that the Church, or at least some significant players in the Church, accept that there is no argument to be had about what happened. In short, Diarmuid Martin seems as sickened as the rest of us, and that seems like a start.

So, again, now that we are all agreed on this, what to do next? We are in the unprecedented position of having an institution whose tentacles are everywhere -- in education, health and every community in the country -- that is rotten and that has facilitated the worst kind of evil. The Catholic Church is still at the heart of Irish life. It is the centre of social life in many parishes for many people. It counts among its members the vast majority of our politicians, our lawmakers and our law-keepers. Most of its members act, literally, in good faith. Shutting it down is not an option.

But neither can the Catholic Church be allowed to continue without a complete overhaul. What has become clear in the last week is that this is not just a tragic story of some men who went deviant because of the celibacy imposed on them by the Catholic Church. Neither is this a story of some sad, sick men who happened to be priests. It is now clear that one of the functions served by the Catholic Church in Ireland was that of a club. It was a national club for paedophiles. Clearly, for decades in Ireland, those in the know were aware that if you had certain sick inclinations, the Catholic Church was the place for you. Not only would it offer you access to little boys and girls, not only would it put you in a position of trust with gullible families, but you would also be protected if anything went wrong. So you had the physical access. And you also had reasonable cover because of the special status innocent parents and God-fearing children afforded you. This meant you were unlikely to be questioned or complained about.

But on top of all that you had a whole structure in place that would protect you at all costs, that would move you out of any situation that became dangerous for you or where anything threatened your ability to access children. You would be sent to fresh hunting grounds if there was any hint of trouble or if word got around that people should keep their kids away from you. And the icing on the cake was that this structure, this hierarchy that would protect you above all other considerations, inspired fear and awe among everyone from gardai to government. So your habit was fed and you were untouchable.

What wouldn't a paedophile pay for a lifetime subscription to this club? No wonder the Church was a magnet for sickos. And you were surrounded by patsies in the form of good priests and good Catholics who gave your whole game a gilt-edged reputation.

We don't need to go into the details again right now. But it is the little details that can sometimes break your heart. Andrew Madden was part of Newstalk's excellent coverage of this on Friday morning. At one point, he told Claire Byrne and Ivan Yates, matter of factly, that he eventually got away from his abuser because he told his abuser he couldn't call down to his house any more because he had to study for his Inter Cert. Besides, he observed, at 14 he would have been getting too old for his abuser. So the big hope of some abused children was clearly that they would eventually become less childlike and then they would be left alone, that they would no longer be to their abuser's taste.

So what to do with this institution, riddled with evil but the focus of so much that is good in the lives of so many good people? First, we should acknowledge how difficult it is to change the culture in any organisation. Many great minds have spent lifetimes thinking about the challenges of changing the focus in the simplest of manufacturers or service companies. Imagine, then, how mammoth a task it would be to change an organisation as arcane and complex and ideological and wide-ranging and labyrinthine as the Catholic Church. And take into account that this is an organisation that has fiercely resisted change for hundreds of years. In recent years it has fought change tooth and nail and has conceded nothing about any wrongdoing until it has been exposed, having fought to the death those who tried to expose it. And even when it has been exposed it has not undergone fundamental change.

No, for the good of the Church and for all of us, change now needs to be imposed from outside. And the problems in the Church, both historical and current, need to be dealt with as what they are -- problems caused by a massive organised crime ring.

We need to take that law and order imperative and we need to put it together with the change imperative. Now, as anyone in business will tell you, an organisation will generally find it very difficult to change itself. Often what is required is some form of consultant to come in with a cold eye and diagnose and manage the process of change.

So it seems clear that this is what needs to happen in the Church: a special unit of the Garda Siochana needs to be set up. This unit needs to be financed, in so far as is possible, by money taken from the Church. It could also work in conjunction with some international experts in things like canon law, ecclesiastical matters, childcare, treatment of sex offenders and whatever other specialist skills are required. Then this organisation, which could be temporary and perhaps set up by special statute, needs to do a root and branch investigation of every priest and every parish in Ireland. The Church should cooperate and actively assist in this if it really wants us to believe it is sorry and wants to change. There needs to be thorough examination of the whole organisation as a matter of urgency and criminal proceedings and defrockings need to be pursued in an urgent and transparent manner.

This might all sound unlikely but then again, 20 years ago it would have seemed highly unlikely that the Church in Ireland would turn out to harbour such evil. The imperative now must be to root out any further abuse, to punish by law those involved and to try and save the Irish Catholic Church for the millions of good people for whom it is a central part of their daily and spiritual lives.

The Church has demonstrated it cannot do this on its own. It needs our help and even in these straitened times this is a job worth doing, to try and show the children of the past that we have heard their pain and that we take it seriously, to protect the children of the present, and to give the believers of the present and the children of the future a functioning Catholic Church in this country, one that will not destroy their lives.

- Brendan O'Connor

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