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The Holy See’s official “Response” to the Cloyne Report, released in Rome on September 3, 2011, marks a significant development in the sexual abuse crisis in Ireland. It has significance beyond Ireland, for the summer of 2011 has brought not just the latest iteration of Irish investigatory commissions, but a serious dispute about the role of the Catholic Church in Irish life.

The Response, at some 11,000 words, is comprehensive, even tedious in its detail, and adopts an understated and humble tone. The message, though, is clear. The Holy See will not accept the role of scapegoat being offered to it by the current government of Ireland. Furthermore, having demonstrated true contrition and a firm purpose of amendment, the Holy See is forthrightly challenging what it sees as an attempt in Ireland to use the sexual abuse scandal for purposes other than that of protecting children.

The Background

In 2009, two commissions of inquiry established by the Irish government published their reports into sexual abuse by priests in Ireland. In December 2008, another investigation”the Elliott Report”severely criticized the Diocese of Cloyne for its handling of sexual abuse cases. The Elliott Report was not produced by a government inquiry, but rather by the Church’s National Board for Safeguarding Children, and published by the Diocese of Cloyne. After the publication of the failures in Cloyne by the Church’s own child protection office, the Dublin Commission of Investigation was extended to Cloyne. The report of that investigation is the Cloyne Report, which examined practices in the Diocese of Cloyne from 1996 to 2009.

Why 1996? In 1996 the Irish Bishops, working together, produced a set of guidelines for handling accusations of sexual abuse by priests, Child Sexual Abuse: Framework for a Church Response , commonly known as the Framework. Both the initial Church investigation (Elliott Report) and the subsequent government investigation (Cloyne Report) found that in Cloyne, Bishop John Magee and Monsignor Denis O’Callaghan, the vicar general, did not apply the Framework guidelines.

After the report of the Church’s own internal investigation (Elliott Report) exposed the failure of governance in Cloyne in December 2008, the Holy See moved against Bishop Magee, who was reluctant to resign. In March 2009 the Holy See stripped Magee of all power to govern the diocese, and after a year of being in office but having no power, Magee finally resigned in March 2010.

In March 2010, Pope Benedict XVI published his pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland, excoriating the Irish bishops for putting the reputation of the Church ahead of giving concrete help to victims and administering just punishments to abusing priests.

In July 2011, after the publication of the Cloyne Report, the Taoiseach (prime minister of the Republic of Ireland), Edna Kenny, excoriated the Holy See in a landmark address to the Irish parliament, saying that “for the first time in Ireland, a report into 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. And in doing so, the Cloyne Report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism . . . the narcissism that dominates the culture of the Vatican to this day.”

The Irish parliament soon after passed a resolution “deplor[ing] the Vatican’s intervention which contributed to the undermining of the child protection framework and guidelines of the Irish State and the Irish Bishops.”

The Taoiseach and the parliament have made a significant change in the story of sexual abuse in Ireland”it was now the Irish Bishops and Irish State who were trying to fix a horrible situation, only to be frustrated by the Holy See. It was a bold and, one must observe, self-serving argument coming from the Irish government. It was also politically astute, for wrapping oneself in the Irish flag against Rome is currently advantageous. But is this a true telling of the tale in Cloyne and in Ireland more broadly? The Holy See vigorously disagreed, and a few days after the Taoiseach’s address, expressed its displeasure by recalling its nuncio in Ireland for consultations. Those consultations resulted in the Response issued September 3.

Two Story of a Scandal

The Cloyne Report’s findings about what happened in Cloyne were not unexpected. To the contrary, the Church’s own Elliott Report had blown the whistle on Cloyne, and Magee had already been sacked. The failings in Cloyne were well known and being remedied. After the Elliott Report in 2008, the Diocese of Cloyne significantly improved its protocols in accord with the 1996 Framework and subsequent revisions. The Cloyne Report itself commends the 1996 Framework: “the standards which were adopted by the Church are high standards which, if fully implemented, would afford proper protection to children.”

Fair enough”effective protocols need not only be in place but be observed in practise. Why had the Framework been ignored in Cloyne from 1996 to 2009? The Cloyne Report accuses the Holy See of intervening”the “intervention” in the parliamentary resolution”to undermine the 1996 Framework.

In his speech to parliament the Taoiseach made a second, broader, accusation, namely that the Holy See considers itself to be outside, or perhaps even above, the laws of the Irish state. The alleged undermining “intervention” was only one example of a general attitude. The Holy See’s Response emphatically rejects this accusation, in both its narrower and broader form.

At the heart of the accusation is a January 1997 letter from the Apostolic Nuncio in Ireland to the Irish Bishops about the 1996 Framework. In that letter, Archbishop Luciano Storero, now deceased, expressed the reservations of the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome about the Framework. (About this, more later.)

The Cloyne Report tells the following story. By 1996 the Irish Bishops had established high standards for handling the sexual abuse of minors, but the Storero letter strengthened the position of those who were opposed to the official policy. In short, the mess in Ireland was being remedied by the Irish Bishops, but the Holy See was encouraging dissent from the new Irish policies. The Cloyne Report concludes that the Storero letter enabled the lack of action by Bishop Magee and Msgr. O’Callaghan in Cloyne. The Taoiseach then broadened this conclusion to a general accusation that the Holy See was frustrating what were effective remedies from the Irish Bishops. It was rather a stretch to condemn the Holy See for a made-in-Ireland scandal to which the Irish Church and the Irish State had made their essential contributions, but the Taoiseach inflated the importance of the Storero letter such that it became a cause of things that happened long before it was written.

The reason for the Holy See’s lengthy and forceful response to the Cloyne Report reflects not only the intensity of the Taoiseach’s criticism, but also its desire to counter a narrative of the scandal that it considers false. The 2011 narrative on offer in Ireland is that the Catholic Church in Ireland badly failed in the abuse of minors, and when the Irish Bishops attempted to belatedly fix what was badly broken, Rome intervened to prevent them from doing so.

The Holy See considers a different storyline more accurate, laid out in some detail in the Response. The Irish Bishops failed badly in showing mercy to victims and administering justice to the abusers, and were very slow to fix what had become broken. Pope Benedict XVI himself had taken the lead on the sexual abuse file in 2001as Cardinal Ratzinger, and had been forceful in urging the Irish Church to confront the scandal in its midst.

The Holy See clearly feels that elements in Irish society”both in the Church and in the State “ are eager to make the Holy See in particular and the entire Catholic Church a scapegoat for the failings of all of Irish society to deal with the scourge of sexual abuse. Hence the Response is both contrite and sharp, pointing out failings of the Irish State to do what it holds that the Holy See prevented. If the prime minister’s Cloyne Report speech was a declaration of hostilities, the Holy See has joined the battle. The key conflict is over the Storero letter.

The Storero Letter

The January 1997 letter by Archbishop Storero to the Irish Bishops made three points: i) the Framework was a “study document” not a binding policy, ii) the Framework had to comply with canon law, otherwise priests punished under the Framework might successfully appeal their cases to Rome, and iii) the Congregation for the Clergy had reservations about mandatory reporting.

The Cloyne Report accuses the Holy See of downgrading the Framework by calling it a “study document” rather than a binding policy upon all Irish Bishops. The Response rather easily dismisses this accusation, quoting letters from the Irish Bishops which themselves present the Framework as guidelines under development and not a binding policy. The Response further notes that nothing prevented any Bishop from adopting the Framework, even if was not legally binding in canon law. Indeed, just that seems to have happened across Ireland, with the exception of (to date) Cloyne.

The Cloyne Report says that requiring the Framework to comply with existing canon law undermined the Framework’s capacity to deal with abusers. The Response observes that if punishments meted out under the Framework were inconsistent with canon law, then priests punished could appeal successfully to Rome on the grounds that canon law was violated. The Storero letter was advice on how to go about being more strict, not an invitation to be more lenient. The experience of the American Bishops in 2002 demonstrated how the Holy See was willing to adapt canon law to make penalties more severe. The Irish Bishops never asked”and even to this day have not asked”for what the Americans did.

In his interview book, Light of the World , published last year, Benedict XVI observed in regards to Ireland:

The archbishop of Dublin told me . . . that ecclesiastical penal law functioned until the late 1950s; admittedly, it was not perfect”there is much to criticize about it”but nevertheless it was applied. After the mid-sixties, however, it was simply not applied anymore. The prevailing mentality was that the Church must not be a Church of laws but, rather, a Church of love; she must not punish. Thus the awareness that punishment can be an act of love ceased to exist. This led to an odd darkening of the mind, even in very good people.”

The Response argues forcefully that it was the lack of adherence to canon law that produced the problem in the first place. Indeed, the Storero letter tells the Bishops to ensure that existing canon law was applied to any accused abusers. That was not done. In Cloyne, the Framework was not applied. Also in Cloyne, existing canon law was not applied. This proves, the Response argues, that Bishop Magee and Msgr. O’Callaghan paid no attention to the Storero letter at all. Even if the Storero letter was read by Magee and O’Callaghan in the way the Cloyne Report characterizes it, they still should have applied existing canonical penalties to abusers. But they did not do that, despite Storero clearly telling them to do so. The plain evidence is that the Storero letter did not, in practise, undermine the Framework, which was applied in other dioceses without hindrance. It also did not have the desired effect on the application of existing canon law in Cloyne.

Mandatory Reporting and Glass Houses

Nevertheless, in Ireland today the Storero letter is taken as incontrovertible evidence that the Holy See was orchestrating a far-ranging cover-up from Rome, undermining even those brave Irish Bishops who were eager to do the right thing. For those familiar with both the administrative competence of the Irish episcopate and the Congregation for the Clergy in the late 1990s, the notion of a far-reaching orchestration of anything is rather implausible. The Response points out that concerns about mandatory reporting were widely shared by child welfare officials the 1990s.

In its most pointed passages, the Response repeatedly points out how the Irish State itself decided against mandatory reporting, quoting various Irish ministers expressing doubts about mandatory reporting. The Cloyne Report accuses the Holy See of frustrating a mandate that did not exist in Ireland at the time and in fact would not be implemented for some years afterward. The 1996 Framework of the Irish Bishops was proposing to go farther than Irish law required, and reservations were expressed by Rome”precisely at the same time as such reservations were found persuasive at the time to the Irish government!

The Response’s repeated quotations of the objections in Irish society and government to mandatory reporting are in the service of one point, left unsaid but no less evident for that reason. In criticizing Rome for not doing what the Irish State itself had not done, the Cloyne Report and the Taoiseach cannot be motivated by concern for child protection, but rather in blackening the reputation of the Holy See.

In any case, the Response clarified that at no time did canon law prevent anyone from reporting sexual abuse to the civil authorities. In 2011, current Holy See guidelines clarify that such reporting ought to be done in compliance with local laws.

Thunder”but Little Light”from the Taoiseach

The Response makes clear that the Holy See and the Irish Bishops are more than willing to accept responsibility and express contrition for the failings in Ireland. The Response notes that the Holy See’s most forceful expression of this contrition”Benedict’s March 2010 letter to Catholics in Ireland”is not even mentioned in the Cloyne Report.

The Cloyne Report, amplified by the Taoiseach’s speech, appears to have another motive beyond examining what happened in Cloyne. The Taoiseach’s address raised the spectre of a Catholic Church that sees itself above the law, operating outside the norms of Irish society”perhaps even a sinister conspiracy to undermine the virtue of Irish society.

For example, Mr. Kenny said that for the “first time in Ireland, a report into 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.”

But the Cloyne Report makes no such claim, and there is simply no evidence that the Holy See did anything to impede the report. In regards to the various investigations, the Holy See expressed its expectation that dioceses and religious orders would cooperate as the law required. When the Taoiseach’s office was asked what “attempt” by the Holy See took place “as little as three years ago”, the response was that the Taoiseach did not have any specific incident in mind. Making accusations without any evidence in a solemn address to parliament is unbecoming conduct for Mr. Kenny.

But the Taoiseach was not constrained by the facts. He was not even constrained by the sexual abuse crisis itself, in which the Irish state did not cover itself in glory, even if the Church bore primary responsibility for grievous sins in its own house. The key passage in Enda Kenny’s address is as follows, in which he quotes Cardinal Ratzinger to the effect that “standards of conduct appropriate to civil society or the workings of a democracy cannot be purely and simply applied to the Church.”

The prime minister then gives his response: “I am making it absolutely clear 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.”

It was a rhetorically powerful moment. Cardinal Ratzinger said that when it comes to handling sexual abuse, the Church would decide which standards of Irish democracy and law would apply and which would not. Indeed, Cardinal Ratzinger had said, as a matter of principle, that the Church was above the law.

Not so! thundered the Taoiseach.

The facts do not support the rhetorical bluster. The Response notes that Cardinal Ratzinger was not talking about sexual abuse, about Ireland, or about Church and State relations. The Holy See could have accused Mr. Kenny, but does not, of deliberately manipulating a quotation for demagogic purposes. Rather the response says:

The quotation in question is taken from the Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian , otherwise known as Donum Veritatis ( The Gift of the Truth ), published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on 24 May 1990, and signed by the then Prefect and Secretary of the Congregation. It is not a private text of the then Cardinal Ratzinger but an official document of the Congregation.

As a basic methodological principle, a quotation extracted from a given text can be correctly understood only when it is interpreted in the light of its context. The quotation used by Mr. Kenny is taken from paragraph 39 of the Instruction, which reads: “ The Church, which has her origin in the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is a mystery of communion. In accordance with the will of her founder, she is organized around a hierarchy established for the service of the Gospel and the People of God who live by it. After the pattern of the members of the first community, all the baptized with their own proper charisms are to strive with sincere hearts for a harmonious unity in doctrine, life, and worship (cf. Acts 2:42). This is a rule which flows from the very being of the Church. For this reason, standards of conduct, appropriate to civil society or the workings of a democracy, cannot be purely and simply applied to the Church. Even less can relationships within the Church be inspired by the mentality of the world around it (cf. Rom 12:2).

Is it plausible that when Mr. Kenny sat down to draft his address to parliament that he recalled what Cardinal Ratzinger had written 21 years ago in the CDF document on the proper mission of theology? Or is it more likely that he asked his speechwriters to find something from Ratzinger that he could put to inflammatory use? Or perhaps that those in the Irish Church desirous of undermining the authority of Rome fed to Mr. Kenny’s team the wildly out-of-context quotation? If one assumes that the Taoiseach is not conversant with a 1990 document about the nature of theology, then it is fair to conclude that he was badly served by his staff. But would he have been badly served if he had not been willing to believe and say the worst about the Holy See?

Mr. Kenny’s speech was only secondarily about protecting children. It was primarily about the role of the Catholic Church in Irish society. It also sought to deflect attention from the failings of the Irish State. It was a hostile act, and the Holy See was right to respond firmly.

Ireland is soon to enter its third decade of the sexual abuse scandal. A government in Ireland collapsed in 1994 over mishandling the case of an abusive priest. The Irish Church, the Irish State and the broader Irish society have found it almost impossible to draw a line under this dark period in Irish history. The frustration of the Taoiseach, the investigators, and ordinary Irish citizens, both Catholic and otherwise, is more than understandable. It would be convenient if the whole stinking mess could be dropped in the lap of Rome. It would be more convenient, but it would simply not be right. The measured, but determined, Response of the Holy See makes that much clear.

Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.

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