Much of the commentary on last week's Dáil speech by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, where he strongly criticised the Vatican for its failures over the child abuse scandals, has sought to present his intervention as being anti-Catholic. But that would be a profound misreading of its significance. Yesterday's decision by the Vatican to withdraw its Papal Nuncio from Ireland would have provoked a crisis had it occurred even 20 years ago: today it may raise a few eyebrows, but at Rome not Kenny.
That is because he spoke up not just for the victims of child abuse, he also gave voice to the millions of bewildered Irish people, many of whom remain massgoers, who feel utterly appalled by the actions of the institutional Church, both its Bishops and the Vatican. Kenny, himself a practising Catholic, gave a speech that was much more powerful because he understands exactly how ordinary people in his Mayo constituency feel about the Church's attempts to cover up incidents of clerical child abuse even, as in Cloyne, after supposedly tough new procedures had been put in place to prevent a repeat of what had been covered up for decades. Kenny's critique of the Vatican was unprecedented:
The revelations in the Cloyne report have brought the Government, Irish Catholics and the Vatican to an unprecedented juncture. It is fair to say that after the Ryan and Murphy reports, Ireland is, perhaps, unshockable when it comes to the abuse of children. However, the Cloyne report has proved to be of a different order because for the first time in this country a report on child sexual abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic as little as three years ago, not three decades ago. In doing so the report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection and elitism that dominates the culture of the Vatican to this day. The rape and torture of children were down-played or managed to uphold the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation. Far from listening to evidence of humiliation and betrayal with St. Benedict’s “ear of the heart”, the Vatican’s reaction was to parse and analyse it with the gimlet eye of a Canon lawyer. This calculated, withering position is the polar opposite of the radicalism, humility and compassion on which the Roman Church was founded. Such radicalism, humility and compassion comprise the essence of its foundation and purpose. This behaviour is a case of Roma locuta est: causa finita est, except in this instance nothing could be further from the truth.
The Cloyne report’s revelations are heart-breaking. It describes how many victims continued to live in the small towns and parishes in which they were reared and abused. Their abuser was often still in the area and still held in high regard by their families and community. The abusers continued to officiate at family weddings and funerals. In one case, the abuser even officiated at a victim’s wedding. There is little that I or anyone else in the House can say to comfort that victim or others, however much we wish to. However, we can and do recognise the bravery and courage of all the victims who told their stories to the commission. While it will take a long time for Cloyne to recover from the horrors uncovered, it could take the victims and their families a lifetime to pick up the pieces of their shattered existence, if ever they do.....
The people, including many faithful Catholics like me, have been shocked and dismayed by the repeated failings of church authorities to face up to what is required. They deserve and require confirmation from the Vatican that it does accept, endorse and require compliance by all church authorities here with the obligations to report all cases of suspected abuse, whether current or historical, to the State’s authorities in line with the Children First national guidance which will have the force of law. Clericalism has rendered some of Ireland’s brightest and most privileged and powerful men either unwilling or unable to address the horrors cited in the Ryan and Murphy reports. This Roman clericalism must be devastating for good priests, some of them old, others struggling to keep their humanity, even their sanity, as they work hard to be the keepers of the church’s light and goodness within their parishes, communities and the condition of the human heart.
Thankfully for them and us, this is not Rome. Nor is it industrial school or Magdalene Ireland, where the swish of a soutane, smothered conscience and humanity and the swing of a thurible ruled the Irish Catholic world. This is the Republic of Ireland in 2011. It is a republic of laws, rights and responsibilities and proper civic order where the delinquency and arrogance of a particular version of a particular kind of morality will no longer be tolerated or ignored.
As a practising Catholic, I do not say any of this easily. Growing up, many of us in here learned that we were part of a pilgrim church. Today, that church needs to be a penitent church, a church truly and deeply penitent for the horrors it perpetrated, hid and denied - in the name of God, but for the good of the institution.
Through our legislation, through our Government’s action to put children first, those who have been abused can take some small comfort in knowing that they belong to a nation - to a democracy - where humanity, power, rights and responsibilities are enshrined and enacted always for their good; where the law - their law, as citizens of this country - will always supersede canon law that has neither legitimacy nor place in the affairs of this country.
This report tells us a tale of a frankly brazen disregard for protecting children. If we do not respond swiftly and appropriately as a State, we will have to prepare ourselves for more reports like this. I agree with Archbishop Martin that the church needs to publish any other and all other reports like this as soon as possible. I note the commission is very positive about the work of the National Board for Safeguarding Children, established by the church to oversee the operation by dioceses and religious orders. The commission notes that all church authorities were required to sign a contract with the national board agreeing to implement the relevant standards and that those refusing to sign would be named in the board’s annual report......The then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said: “Standards of conduct appropriate to civil society or the workings of a democracy cannot be purely and simply applied to the Church”. As the Holy See prepares its considered response to the Cloyne Report, I want to make it clear, as Taoiseach, that when it comes to the protection of the children of this State, the standards of conduct which the Church deems appropriate to itself cannot and will not be applied to the workings of democracy and civil society in this republic - not purely, or simply or otherwise, because children have to be and will be put first
Bishop Magee, the former Papal secretary who became Bishop of Cloyne, was perhaps even more a creature of the Vatican than many of his colleagues, but with the sole exception of the current Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, there is little sign even yet that the hierarchy understands quite how much pain it has caused not just to those who were physically abused but to the many more people who trusted its priests and hierarchy to stand for the conservative values their predecessors preached relentlessly in the early decades of the Free State and the Republic.
Ireland has freed itself in many ways from the vice-like grip that the Church had on the body politic: voters have accepted divorce and contraception, though not abortion. The censorship that saw great writers and movies banned has long been relaxed. The bookies' and pollsters' favourite for the Irish Presidency is the gay Joycean scholar, Sen David Norris. The moral attitudes of Irish young people differ little from their European counterparts. Yet, until Kenny's speech last week, no senior Irish politician had captured the feelings of those who were brought up as Catholics, and may still practice, but felt a huge sense of betrayal in that upbringing.
Kenny's speech will surely rank as being just as important in Irish history as DeValera's 1943 St Patrick's Day address during the Second World War (referred to in Ireland as 'the Emergency'), where he talked of "a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens". While that speech signalled another two decades of isolationist introversion, Kenny's speech suggest a determination to grasp the country's failings, social and economic, which had been lacking in the hapless later Fianna Fail years, especially after the collapse of the Celtic Tiger.
The irony is that eighteen months ago, Kenny was being written off by the pundits as a no-hoper. I joined an RTE discussion that sought to draw comparisons with the fate of Gordon Brown. Yet in that time it is Fianna Fail that has sunk to its lowest ever representation and the Taoiseach has ratings that any European leader would dearly love: a 53% approval rating at the weekend. Kenny's newfound popularity has given the Dublin coalition an unprecedented opportunity to reshape Ireland for the better: it is one that he and his Labour coalition partners must grasp with every power at their disposal.