An American Goes to Dublin

Pope’s appointment of New York priest is an outside-the-box move. Msgr. Charles Brown, longtime official on Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, is familiar with sex-abuse problem in Ireland.

Archbishop-elect Charles Brown, the newly designated papal nuncio to Ireland.
Archbishop-elect Charles Brown, the newly designated papal nuncio to Ireland. (photo: Pontifical University of the Holy Cross,

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI’s unusual nomination on Saturday, Nov. 26, of an American Curial official to be the new apostolic nuncio to Ireland has been widely applauded by Catholics in Rome and Ireland.

Msgr. Charles Brown, 52, a native of New York, has served at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1994 and is thus a striking choice. Unlike most nuncios, he didn’t graduate from the Ecclesiastical Academy — the Holy See’s prestigious school for Vatican diplomats. Rather, his experience dealing with clergy abuse scandals at the CDF made him a strong candidate for the Dublin post.

Archbishop-elect Brown received his undergraduate degree from the University of Notre Dame, completed graduate studies at Oxford University and the University of Toronto, and earned a doctorate in sacramental theology from the Pontifical Athenaeum Sant’Anselmo in Rome. The newly appointed nuncio will be elevated to archbishop and given the titular see of Aquileia.

As the Italian newspaper Il Foglio put it, Pope Benedict has effectively decided on a “technocrat” measure similar to the new technocrat government in Italy, making a highly unusual appointment to deal with an unprecedented crisis.

Other commentators provide a slightly different spin, but all echo the same basic judgment: The new appointment underlines just how seriously Pope Benedict views the situation affecting the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Michael Kelly, deputy editor of The Irish Catholic newspaper, describes the selection of the Doctrine of the Faith official as a critical shift in emphasis.

“It is a sign, I believe, that the Holy Father is signaling that it is the Church’s own life and mission in Ireland that needs at this time the assistance of the Holy See, rather than the relationship between Ireland and the Holy See,” he said.

As someone who served for years under the supervision of the then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Msgr. Brown worked closely with the future Pope. Kelly believes that close relationship makes the new nuncio “acutely aware of the Holy Father’s agenda for renewal [of the Church in Ireland] and well placed to see it through.”

This will be especially important when it comes to acting on the results of the apostolic visitation to Ireland. Indeed, Msgr. Brown’s closeness to New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who is taking a leading role in the investigation, will also be an advantage.

In March 2010, Pope Benedict issued a pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland that announced his plans for an apostolic visitation to “assist the local Church on her path of renewal.”

Last June, Vatican Radio noted the close of the first phase of the Holy See’s apostolic visitation and summarized several key issues under review: “whether the mutual relationship of the various components of the local Church, seminaries and religious communities is now in place, in order to sustain them on the path of profound spiritual renewal already being pursued by the Church in Ireland”; “the effectiveness of the present processes used in responding to cases of abuse”; and “the current forms of assistance provided to the victims.”

According to Vatican Radio, “By early 2012, the Holy See will publish an overall synthesis indicating the results and the future prospects highlighted by the visitation.”

Known as ‘Charlie’

The appointment of the new nuncio comes after Ireland-Holy See relations sunk to their lowest ebb last summer, following revelations of the Church’s mishandling of clerical sex abuses cases, with the latest disclosures published in the Cloyne Report in July.

The dispute worsened when Ireland’s Prime Minister Enda Kenny strongly chastised the Vatican, accusing it of interfering with the investigation — charges the Holy See denies. The former nuncio, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, was recalled to Rome for consultations when relations deteriorated and was not reassigned to Dublin.

Ireland has since said it will maintain diplomatic relations, but announced that it would close its Rome embassy to the Holy See, citing economic reasons. The country’s ties with the Holy See are Ireland’s oldest (the Vatican was the first to recognize Ireland as an independent state), making the move all the more surprising and painful.

Archbishop-elect Brown, affectionately known in Rome circles simply as “Charlie,” is described as “very responsible and hard working” by those close to him and someone who will fully embrace his new role. Despite his lack of diplomatic experience, the popular scooter-riding official is known for his diplomatic skills, but he remains wary of the media. 

The new nuncio is reputed to be very knowledgeable about the situation of the Irish Church. He was involved in two ad limina visits to the Vatican by Irish bishops, as well as the 2009 emergency summit when Ireland’s bishops were summoned to Rome over the clerical sex abuse crisis. According to speculation in Rome, Msgr. Brown was asked to review the Irish abuse cases under the leadership the Holy See’s promoter of justice (the Vatican’s closest equivalent to an attorney general), Msgr. Charles Scicluna.

“In his letter to the Catholics of Ireland in March 2010, Pope Benedict noted that the scandals ‘have obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing,’” said Kelly. He believes the new nuncio will be “a key aide” to the Irish Church, helping it to “acknowledge the sins and crimes” of the past, the need for “healing of the victims,” and assisting the Church in moving towards a better future, more authentically in line with the Gospel.

Unlike previous nuncios appointed to Dublin, Archbishop-elect Brown is a native English speaker. Observers predict that he will embark on his challenging work guided by an instinctive understanding of the Anglophone Church — a real strength during a time of deep crisis within the local Church.

Shortly before Msgr. Brown’s appointment, the Vatican announced the resignation of Bishop Séamus Hegarty of the Raphoe Diocese, who stepped down because of ill health. The timing of the announcement was unfortunate, coming just a week before the publication of the Raphoe Report on clerical sex abuse, but Catholic commentators do not dispute that reports of his poor health had circulated for many months.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.