OTTAWA — Pope Benedict XVI has named nine Church leaders (4 archbishops, 2 men religious, 2 women religious, and Archbishop Timothy Dolan for seminaries) to begin an apostolic visitation of the Catholic Church in Ireland aimed at helping the Church address the scandal of bishops’ mishandling of sexual-abuse allegations, improve assistance to victims and perfect preventive measures.
The Vatican announced May 31 that the visitation would begin in the fall and that no deadline has been set for its conclusion.
“Through this visitation, the Holy See intends to offer assistance to the bishops, clergy, religious and lay faithful as they seek to respond adequately to the situation caused by the tragic cases of abuse perpetrated by priests and religious upon minors,” the Vatican said. “It is also intended to contribute to the desired spiritual and moral renewal that is already being vigorously pursued by the Church in Ireland.”
The visitation will begin with Ireland’s four archdioceses: British Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, retired archbishop of Westminster, will conduct the visitation of the Archdiocese of Armagh, Northern Ireland; Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston will visit the Archdiocese of Dublin; Archbishop Thomas Collins of Toronto will conduct the visitation of the Archdiocese of Cashel, and Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa, Ontario, will visit the Archdiocese of Tuam.
Archbishop Prendergast spoke June 2 about the upcoming visitation.
What is your assignment?
Basically, it is to verify how the Irish dioceses are doing, how they have been going about dealing with the issues of abuse, what kind of effectiveness they have, and what could be improved in the current procedures.
You’re not investigating the abuses.
No, no. It’s basically saying Where are things now, and how have things gone? Basically, the bishops of Ireland have put out a document called Safeguarding Children: Standards and Guidance Document for the Catholic Church in Ireland. So my task is to see how are they doing there. And also, there is a motu proprio from John Paul II about violations of the sacraments by people abusing their authority — that’s where the transfer was made from the Congregation for Clergy to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the controversial text, in 2001.
So I want to work with a canonist on what the implications are on those issues.
So, you will be measuring how the diocese is doing.
Against the two documents: against what the Church documents say should be the norm, and against what the Irish document says should be the norm. Obviously, we have to interview several people, the curia [diocesan central office], the vicar general and so on, the bishop, and [we will want] a chance to talk to priests. But we also want to talk to laypeople and anyone else who wants to speak to us.
Why do you think you were chosen for this task?
Some of the archbishops have had [related] responsibilities. Archbishop O’Malley dealt with the abuse in his Archdiocese of Boston and [the Diocese of] Fall River. I helped out on a visitation of seminaries in 1992 to 1994 for the Vatican. And I have been on a task force dealing with abuse in Canada [in terms of] seminary formation, screening. I’ve been in Rome for meetings … [of] the Vox Clara commission to come up with a new translation of the missal, so maybe people saw me around and knew I was Irish.
Was that a factor, do you think?
Well, it seems to me. All these people who were chosen have Irish names.
Is Prendergast an Irish name?
It is. It’s not too well known outside of Ireland. It sounds German but it’s actually a Norman name: It’s been in Ireland since the Norman period. It qualifies as Irish. If you go to towns in the south and west of Ireland, you’ll find the Prendergast Pub and places like that. … My grandfather was born in Ireland: my maternal grandfather. In fact, it might even be the Archdiocese of Tuam — I’ll have to ask the archbishop that.
Why did they want Irish people?
You’ll have to ask them that. I just looked at the names and said, It looks like the Irish diaspora. But I guess maybe they wanted people who knew something about the Irish Church and were sympathetic to it.
Is this a peculiarly Irish problem?
No, I don’t think so. I think maybe the way it was handled may have been peculiarly their own. It’s clearly evident from the literature that’s around that it’s part of the data of the post-conciliar era where we’re seeing some people floating away from being preoccupied with canonical norms — the Pope himself says that in the letter to Ireland — that we tried to handle things in a fraternal way rather than a penal way. If someone did something excessively serious, we didn’t take the norms of canon law seriously. Penal law was thought to be something of the past. I think what he was saying in the letter was that if you’ve committed a crime or if you’ve done something serious, then you need to repent and make amends. There’s justice. We tended to take a therapeutic approach to many of the problems.
In Canada too?
Yes, everywhere. It was the spirit of the age, you know.
What challenges might you expect to face?
Well, I think there might be a bit of cynicism, you know: Is this more clerics investigating more clerics? and, Is it going to be part of a cover-up? There might be resentment: Why do we need another investigation? But I’ll tell you that, so far, in talking to the archbishop of Tuam and his staff, they’ve been very helpful, and they’re looking forward to it. I think they want help from outside.
How long will it take?
Some of the dioceses are bigger, and it may take a huge amount of time. My diocese is smaller, and I hope to deal with it rather expeditiously by the end of the calendar year. I would like to be able to report at the end of my visit in October, but it may not be feasible. I’m trying to get a canonist lined up from Rome to help me because I’m not a canonist; I’m a Scripture scholar. And I think it’s not good for a person to be alone on a visitation. I’m thinking of including another person, perhaps an Irish person or a layperson. I have to find out from the Congregation of Bishops if what I would like to do I can do. But I think it would be helpful to have somebody from Ireland who could tell me what the nuances were that I was missing.
Why does Ireland merit this level of investigation?
I think because they asked for it and because the Pope himself promised it: That’s all I know.
Catholic News Service contributed to this report.
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.