Hopes that the Vatican’s recent response to attacks by Ireland’s politicians might relieve some of the tension in Irish Church-State relations seem over-optimistic. The Vatican was ostensibly commenting on an inquiry into how the Catholic diocese of Cloyne dealt with clerical sex abuse of children. But more significantly, it responded vigorously and rigorously to fierce criticism by politicians – including an extraordinary attack on the Holy See made in parliament by Prime Minister Enda Kenny.
Immediate reaction by Irish politicians in the last few days has been guarded but they were hardly conciliatory. Mr Kenny said he stood by his allegations. Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore remained “unconvinced”. This was before either of them had studied the document. The omens are not good.
This is a great pity. If the interests and the welfare of children were really what the government was striving for –Mr Gilmore’s mantra – then the appeal of the Vatican would not be falling on deaf ears. The document calls for “the restoration of mutual confidence and collaboration between Church and State authorities, which is essential for the effective combating of the scourge of abuse. Naturally, the Holy See is well aware that the painful situation to which the episodes of abuse have given rise cannot be resolved swiftly or easily, and that although much progress has been made, much remains to be done.”
We can only hope, however, that when all the face-saving has been done – because politicians are very reluctant ever to say “I was wrong about that” — Church and State will abandon the blame game, work together and get on with the job of making society a safer place for children.
In the long term, however, what is disturbing about this conflict is what it reveals about the character of contemporary Irish political life. There is a shameless populism in the politicians’ grandstanding. It is this populism that keeps them at loggerheads with the Holy See.
Government spokesmen have been riding on the crest of a wave of “public anger and frustration.” It was quite clear that their hope was that this anger might continue to prejudice the public’s view of Vatican’s response. Their hopes are being realised.
But this crisis in relations with the Holy See should prompt the public to question the Irish Government’s own record. Just last week a sociologist from Trinity College Dublin pointed out the dangers of exaggerating clerical child abuse. Dr Helen Buckley, a sociologist at Trinity College Dublin, said serious scandals such as that in the Catholic diocese of Cloyne attracted huge media focus which was disproportionate to the incidence of child sex abuse cases. Clerical sexual abuse needs to be reported on in correct proportion to the “tiny” minority of the population affected, she said.
“A lot of the [media] activity in the past few months concerns Cloyne, and while it is very serious, it’s quite tiny,” Dr Buckley said. “I feel there’s a danger because clerical sex abuse touches such a nerve in this country, and the [child protection] system could become skewed. It needs to be seen in proportion,” she said.
Recently appointed to the Irish Health Service Executive’s advisory committee on children and family services, Dr Buckley voiced concern at the proposed introduction of mandatory reporting of cases of child abuse. Ironically, the whole question of mandatory reporting – and the Church’s supposed reservations about it — was a key one in the Irish government’s trenchant attack on the Vatican.
Will the Irish government act on the recommendations of people like Dr. Buckley with the same determination as it demanded from the Church authorities? In all the bluster there has been no mention of the shocking revelations last year that the Irish Health Service Executive (HSE) “believes that approximately 200 children have died in state care in the last ten years.”
“The figures are emerging”, the report went on, “as part of a nationwide probe and are ten times greater than the previously admitted number of deaths — the HSE had said that 23 children had died in care.” This all came to light following an audit of HSE files following the controversy over a report into the tragic death of a teenager.
Newspaper columnist Sinead Ryan was scathing: “We have no cohesive child-welfare policy funded and run by a single entity. We are brilliant at writing reports on how to care for children and abysmal at actually caring for them. We are worse at holding anyone accountable when failures happen.”
The Vatican has spoken very candidly of its shame and sorrow “for the terrible sufferings which the victims of abuse and their families have had to endure within the Church of Jesus Christ, a place where this should never happen.” No such words as yet from the state in respect of the deaths of 200 children taken into its care. In fact, the bureaucracy has denied allegations, admitted the possibility of a higher tally only under extreme pressure and stonewalled inquiries even by the responsible minister. The chief executive of Barnardos, Fergus Finlay, said that the deaths were “deeply shocking, as is the fact that the review team has not been handed a single file.”
“This is a scandal of enormous proportions for which some immediate answers are required in the public interest,” declared Alan Shatter, now the Minister for Justice, last year. “How could it be the case that so little value was attached to the lives of these children and that until now, no action was taken to identify and collate the numbers dying in care or to review the circumstances of their individual deaths?”
Some Irish people are beginning to see a double standard at work.
Michael Kirke is a freelance writer in Dublin. He blogs at Garvan Hill.