Irish Bishops' Rome Summit Concludes

At the end of a two-day Vatican summit with Ireland’s bishops, Pope Benedict XVI said today priestly sexual abuse was a “heinous crime” and a grave sin, and he urged the country’s bishops to act courageously to repair their failures to deal properly with such cases.

In a Vatican statement released this afternoon, he said that “errors of judgment and omissions” were at the heart of the crisis. It said Church leaders recognized the sense of “pain and anger, betrayal, scandal and shame” that those errors have provoked among many Irish Catholics, Catholic News Service reports.

A press conference was held this afternoon with Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh, Primate of Ireland and president of the Irish bishops’ conference. Also present were Bishop Dennis Brennan of Ferns, Bishop Joseph Duffy of Clogher and Bishop Michael Smith of Meath.

Below is a transcript containing most of what was discussed:

As there’s been no recognition of the victims and no resignations, some in Ireland are saying this meeting has been a complete failure.

Bishop Brennan: The victims were central to all of our discussions during these days and the victims remain our top priority. The Holy Father has met victims on numerous occasions as you know, and he will be willing to meet victims in Ireland when the time is right. We’ve had various meetings with the victims back home and they always tell us that they will say when they want to meet. So we are guided by them. We don’t want to presume anything, they have the last word on that.

This meeting has produced good intentions but hasn’t produced any real concrete decisions. Is there not a danger this meeting is going to be seen as a big disappointment?

Cardinal Brady: We hope not. The question of the victims was our main concern right throughout the meeting. And the meeting was to help the Holy Father put the final touches to his letter which will address victims. I’ve no doubt about that, and I’m sure it will address them appropriately. The discussion was frank, difficulties were raised but at the centre of it all was the concern about how to help the victims heal completely. This is one of many steps that will have to be taken but ultimately the Holy Father will give us a message of encouragement to deal with this problem honestly and courageously. Then it will be up to us to continue this work, which is not just beginning now, it’s been going on for many years. But this meeting has given us new courage. We also now know and recognize that this is not only an Irish problem, it’s not an Anglophone problem, it’s not a problem of the Catholic Church, but it is a great problem and at the center of it all must be the welfare of the victims. Pope Benedict said that the heart of this is the renewal of faith because faith ultimately is the real and true protector of human dignity and that is the dignity of every human being made in the image and likeness of God. That’s our vision. That dignity has of course been wounded by sin and then there is the reality of Jesus who came into the world to heal the wound brought by sin. Our job is to go back and continue, to bring and preach and live the love of Jesus Christ in our own lives and to express that especially to those who have suffered so grievously as a result of these heinous crimes. 

The Pope in his statement calls for deeper theological reflection and asks for an “ improved human, spiritual, academic and pastoral preparation both of candidates for the priesthood and religious life and of those already ordained and professed.” He seems to be saying you’ve really got it wrong in recent years in the way you’ve been churched, you’ve been so caught up in this issue that you’ve forgotten to be pastors to your people and he says people have suffered greatly in their faith.

Cardinal Brady: Yes, of course, there have been failures in our leadership, and as one of the victims told us down in Maynooth, the only way we will reclaim that credibility will be through our humiliation. That is what we are setting out to do. Tomorrow is the beginning of Lent and penance, and we need to begin with ourselves – whatever the equivalent of sackcloth and ashes is today- a real penance, a change of heart.

Do any of you feel like scapegoats? This problem has been going on in other Churches, and you said yourself earlier that this is not only an Irish problem. Secondly, why isn’t there someone from the Vatican here to perhaps show that they weren’t completely faultless in guiding the situation in the past?

Cardinal Brady: We do not feel scapegoats. In fact we are very encouraged by the indications from the various prefects of the Curia to help us in this situation. That came across yesterday afternoon – they wanted to help which is why they were there in their various disciplines…

In his statement today, Pope Benedict also pointed to the challenges which lie ahead. What concrete steps do the leaders of the Church in Ireland intend to put in place, not only for those abused but also to ordinary everyday Catholics who may feel very disillusioned with what has happened to the Church in Ireland over the last few years?

Cardinal Brady: Not may they – we know they feel disillusioned. As I said, I came from a country parish last Thursday night and they left me in no doubt about their anger, disillusionment and shame and sense of betrayal. But they said they are hanging in there because they believe Jesus Christ is with his Church to the end of time. But they want us to hang in there with them, they want us to be out and about, to pray with them, to pray the scriptures especially and that will be happening. So when this document comes, we need to share it with the many groups, parish groups to get a discussion going on it. And of course to have an honest assessment of how we are teaching the Christian faith and more importantly how well we are living it – or how badly we are living it. Another development I would think is to encourage and engage in work with the poor because that is a great witness too. In that way we would be more faithful to the following of Christ.

Bishop Brennan: We all know the anger out there is richly deserved. We haven’t handled this crisis well by any means and the anger is richly deserved, we accept that and understand that. But what’s out there as well is a huge well of support for us in this situation we’re in – for victims first of all, but for us too. It’s very humbling that people come up to us again and again and they’re so supportive and encouraging and it really is a humbling thing after all we’ve been through…So we are greatly encouraged by that as well. People say keep at it, it’s a difficult one, very complex and people are beginning to realise now how complex this whole area is. It’s very, very difficult to get it right for everybody but more and more people encourage us to keep going and that’s a great consolation to us.

The Pope expresses the hope that this meeting will help “unify the Bishops and enable them to speak with one voice in identifying concrete steps aimed at bringing healing to those who had been abused, encouraging a renewal of faith in Christ and restoring the Church’s spiritual and moral credibility.” What is he referring to there?

Cardinal Brady: I suppose he’s referring to the tensions that exist among us but as I keep saying, we are united on the main purpose.

Bishop Duffy: We have a deepening of a sense of unity among the bishops. We’re coming from a culture of secrecy and confidentiality which admittedly was over-emphasised in the past, but in order to move from that culture of secrecy, we’ve got to share. And when you’re talking about sharing, you’re talking about uniting people. There are people in the same room here today who may not be united, even though they’re not openly fighting with each other, if you understand me. We’re talking about a spirit here. And the same applies to those who asked about the concrete steps we’re taking. We’re talking here about a spirit, not just of unity, but a spirit of humility and which is open to the truth and an honest confrontation with the truth as the truth emerges. We’re not trying to fix anything in a hurry, or to predate anything. We’ve got to get the spirit to move and the spirit will move always.

Cardinal Brady: For example, we’re debating what will be the proper penitential exercises. Will it be Lough Derg or Knock or private penances? Those are the kinds of things it’s very difficult to get a kind of agreement on. There are many other issues like that, but I think it’s important we would be united for example on the need for us to do penance, and to lead others in penance.

Is Archbishop Martin’s [Archbishop of Dublin] absence from the press conference anything to do with disunity among yourselves?

Cardinal Brady: Most certainly not. During our days in Knock and these days in Rome, our unity has never been greater, especially as we listen to each other, 24 speakers, five minutes each – it’s a mini synod. I’ve attended three, four synods here in Rome and that’s a synod – 24 speakers from Ireland speaking from their heart with passion about these issues which have engaged so much of our time - the amount of time, energy, and resources that have been invested in addressing that problem.

Bishop Smith: I’d say it’s been the most united conference that I’ve ever attended.

We found out yesterday that the papal nuncio to Ireland has refused to appear in front of [the Irish parliament’s] foreign affairs committee. He declined to answer questions on the lack of cooperation from his office with the [Murphy] commission and also the lack of cooperation from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith here with the same commission. What’s your response to that?

Cardinal Brady: I raised that matter with the Secretary of State, with Archbishop Mamberti. What they tell me is that they confirm the commitment of the Holy See and the people in the nunciature to strengthen relationships between the Holy See and Ireland but it’s not common practice that a nuncio should appear before a parliamentary committee. That should not be taken as an invitation of not wishing to cooperate with the ministry of foreign affairs and the government. In fact the nuncio has already met the secretary general of the department of foreign affairs and the minister of foreign affairs and will continue to develop and discuss matters of mutual concern in the appropriate situations.

During this open discussion, seeing there have been so many calls for the Vatican to embrace and accept the findings of the [Murphy] commission and cooperate with the various authorities of Ireland, did any bishop call on the Vatican to do so and did the Vatican during this frank give and take and come and say why they haven’t done so, as it’s clearly shaken the faith of rank and file flock in Ireland? Did anyone bring that up in this open discussion?

Bishop Smith: I think the media presentation that have taken place on that particular issue is a false one. There are procedures and international protocols that govern the relationship between states. And the nuncio in Ireland, as the ambassador to the Irish state, has the status of ambassador and it’s the department of foreign affairs who he deals with and to whom he channels all his information. That’s the normal protocol and the Vatican would wish to adhere to that protocol. If you would wish to know the full answer, you need to get on to the Irish department of foreign affairs.

Does the Vatican take any responsibility for how these cases have been handled not just in Irish Church but throughout the entire Church. These things happen in Italy, France, everywhere. What is the Vatican responsibility, and was this question raised in your discussions?

Cardinal Brady: We are aware this is not a problem confined to Ireland and what he says in that letter will have resonance in other parts. But what happens in Ireland is really the responsibility of the local churches. The fact that the Vatican invested all of that time in listening and responding would indicate some measure of responsibility.

Bishop Duffy: The presence of the Curia there was to help us on the ground dealing with the issue. That’s the way they see their position and that’s the way we see ours. They have the overview and we operate the business on the ground, that’s the relationship.

Talk of renewal, a spirit of renewal, is good but they have to be incarnated into structures. Was there any talk of changes in structures, any type of structures, accountability, change of bishops, involving lay people in oversight, or any of these issues?

Bishop Smith: You’re familiar with the developments that have taken place in the Irish Church over the last 18 years. In recent years a large number of lay people have been trained in all our parishes, in my diocese in cooperation with the Health Services Executive (HSE) that has overall responsibility for the civil implementation of guidelines and support for children. And they’re put in place. Just a week ago I sent a new draft of procedures and guidelines, an updated draft which in consultation with HSE was drawn up was sent to our board for safeguarding children for their views on it. They’re going to discuss it with HSE if they have any recommendation they would wish to make…There are hundreds of people on the ground involved in safeguarding children, in every single parish. There will always be people out there who will want to abuse children. What we hope to do is that in certain circumstances there would not be the opportunity to repeat the offence as happened too often in the past. 

What was the substance of your own discussions with the Pope?

Cardinal Brady: I was here with Archbishop Martin in December and I spoke about what had happened since then, that the Holy Father had been attacked on his way to Midnight Mass… the offering of resignations of bishops, also some items of good news in Ireland, that more decommissioning of arms took place, significant progress in the peace process and there was the death of Cardinal Daly. I also spoke of the amount of support we got from other churches and then I went on to talk about the impact this report had on people. Also the need we have to listen and to properly implement the structures that are there in the churches…which could be used more fully and meaningfully to involve more lay people in a direct way in the running of our Church…Generally the pastoral letter was pleasing, we had some reservations which we proposed yesterday afternoon and this morning. We had a very thorough discussion and our views were listened to very respectfully.

Bishop Brennan: I spoke about the rupture that has emerged between the bishops, church leadership, and Irish society. I spoke about the pain we have about that and the concern that we have about it and the understanding we have about it because of a breach of trust between us and the people. People trusted us to do a better job in this area and many of them are disillusioned that we haven’t and it makes the point that this is very much a process and these are further steps along the road. There is no quick fix, it’s a long term process and every day is a step along that road and what we’re determined to do and more determined to do after this is to regain that trust of the Irish people. We know it won’t be quick and it won’t be easy but we’re very determined to do that in every way we possibly can.

Will you be publishing proceedings to make clear how effective they were in addressing this issue?

Bishop Brennan: Each diocese will make a decision on what they will release. We are very open and indeed anxious to give a synopsis of what each person spoke about because 24 people speaking is a lot of talking, a lot ground to cover, so we do plan to make a synopsis what each person talked about as the occasion arises.

Did you give an assurance that there are no skeletons in the cupboard in each of your dioceses which could be revealed in the future, that we’re not going to see a scandal in a year or two. Can we be assured of that?

Cardinal Brady: The Holy Father at the last ad limina asked us to put in place these policies and procedures to ensure that similar things could not happen again. We are doing our utmost to do that. In every parish there are these safeguarding representatives, we are cooperating with the civil authorities with regards the audit. Our own national board is auditing the diocese, too.

The Pope used very strong language in his statement today. What was his demeanour when you met him? Was he disappointed, disillusioned, shocked? Did you feel this was some kind of a grilling when you met him?

Cardinal Brady: I felt he was calm, listened very attentively, mixed with us at the break, prayed with us at the beginning and the end, wished us well and appealed to us, I suppose, to put our efforts into this renewal of faith which he believes very profoundly to be the real protection of human dignity. As I say I was very impressed by the fact that he was willing to be there and engage so constructively with us…He [the Pope] invited us to Rome to listen to us out of concern for yes, the failure of leadership that has taken place, and to suggest in the letter that will emerge to improve our leadership… I invited him to Ireland many months ago but not this time, we had enough to talk about this time, but on another occasion.