10 September 2011

An Uncharacteristically Gentle Vincent Brown...

It's a weird feeling, being referred to in the Irish Times and not being able to tell people because it's as 'Thirsty Gargoyle', rather than my actual name. Not an unpleasant one, just a weird one -- last time I didn't have this problem! It's nice to be cited too in connection with one of my favourite Stewart Lee routines, embedded as my quote from it was in the middle of my long Q&A post on Cloyne.

So, there was something about Thursday's Tonight with Vincent Brown that's niggled at me since yesterday, so I watched it again this morning. I've finally figured out what it was.

You'll remember how yesterday I pointed out how flimsy Alan Shatter's explanation of the Taoiseach's most notorious allegation about the Vatican was; well, it turns out that its absurdity was demonstrated later in the programme.

As we've already seen, the basic problem with the plausibility of Shatter's explanation is that it's fundamentally at odds with that ventured by the office of the Taoiseach in July; back then it was said that the Taoiseach hadn't had any particular incident in mind and was speaking of a cumulative effect, whereas now it's maintained that he did have, above all, one very particular incident in mind.

Without seeing the full unadulterated texts of the letter sent in 2009 to the Nunciature by the Murphy Commission and the Nunciature's reply, it's wrong to insist -- as Minister Shatter does -- that the Commission wrote to the Nunciature as an expression of the Vatican, rather than as an entity in its own right, or that it sought all documents or merely those it wouldn't be getting from the Diocese. In fact, section 2.11 of the Cloyne Report at least suggests that the Commission dealt with the Nunciature as a discreet entity, rather than as an arm of Rome, and makes it very clear that the Nunciature expected the Diocese to co-operate fully with the Commission, as indeed it did.

Why did the bishops claim that the Framework Document was official policy?
Amidst all the fog and confusion, Marie Collins raised a very good question, and one which I think Vincent Twomey failed to address adequately. He tried, but in fairness to him, it's hard to correct Mrs Collins' misconceptions or even answer them properly without coming across as someone who cares more about ideas than about people. Somehow accuracy comes across as cold, just as following procedures can come across as unsympathetic. Given that Marie Collins is obviously a very decent person who has in the past suffered terribly through the actions of Irish clergy, the danger is you wind up looking heartless, even when you're nothing of the sort. Marie Collins' question was as follows:
'Why then did the bishops lie to us for ten years, and tell us that that framework document was set in stone, it would be implemented in every diocese, that they were implementing mandatory reporting, and bragged about the fact that their guidelines -- their policies -- were stronger than the civil law, when in fact they didn't even consider it an official document? And the Vatican says, in its response, that the letter didn't affect anything, that the Government hasn't proved that it affected anything. And I'd like to quote something from the Murphy Report that the Government commissioned, and it's Monsignor Dolan who was a civil lawyer and administrator of the Dublin Diocese, and he told the Commission:
"Monsignor Dolan went on to say that understanding behind the Framework Document, was that each diocese or religious institute would enact its own particular protocol for dealing with complaints," this was after it was published. He said, "This in fact never took place because of the response of Rome to the Framework Document."
Because of the letter! Now, that is concrete proof that that letter did have an effect.'
That Monsignor Dolan says the bishops felt hamstrung by the 1997 letter is an important point, and one certainly worth digging into. It doesn't prove by any means that opponents of the Framework Document took solace from the letter, but it does at least suggest that it didn't make life any easier for the bishops. Of course, we know that. The Vatican is hardly a monolith, as John Allen spelled out very clearly in his fine 2004 talk on the 'Top Five Vatican Myths', and it seems clear that there must have been serious divisions in Rome during the 1990s on the how to handle the issue, these matters only being resolved -- in the main -- with the decision in 2001 to have all abuse allegations channelled through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. So, yes, while Monsignor Dolan's opinions aren't proof that he was right in his analysis, let alone that anybody took comfort from Rome's attitude to the Irish guidelines, they at least invite questions.

In Cloyne, of course, the problem wasn't that Magee and O'Callaghan didn't try to implement the guidelines as they feared Rome would later overturn disciplinary decisions; it was that O'Callaghan was opposed to dealing with things in a disciplinary and consistent way, and that Magee didn't care how O'Callaghan handled things. It's a bit like Chesterton's famous line about Christianity: it's not that the procedures were tried and found wanting, it's that they were found wanting and left untried.

As for Marie Collins' question, I think it's a good one, being both fair and understandable, and I think it deserves a decent answer.

The answer surely lies in the fact that irrespective of opinions expressed in 1997 by one Vatican department, the Irish bishops were still entirely free to implement guidelines on an individual basis within each individual diocese, and every single bishop indeed made a public commitment to act in accord with those guidelines, such that the guidelines were indeed official in each diocese.

It's a complete exaggeration to say that Vatican had forbidden the bishops from implement the guidelines. On the contrary, rather, one Vatican department had merely cautioned the bishops against implementing the guidelines in such a way as could conflict with canon law, thereby potentially leading to disciplinary measures against abusive priests being overturned on procedural grounds.

Were the guidelines followed? The answer is that we don't know. It appears they've been impeccably followed in Ferns. It seems they have been followed in Dublin, albeit with some difficulty. It's clear they weren't followed at all in Cloyne, despite the bishop of Cloyne having been publicly and officially committed to them.

Did the Nuncio withold the 1997 Letter from the Commission?
But anyway, here's the thing that brings it back to Shatter's nonsense. In connection with his claim that the Nuncio had been asked to furnish all information the Vatican had about the handling of abuse in Cloyne, he elaborated with reference to the 1997 letter, saying that when the Murphy Commission wrote to the Nuncio in 2009, the Nuncio could have responded by, among other things, furnishing the Commission with that letter. Well, all else aside, think for a moment about Marie Collins' question. She was quoting from section 7.13 of the Dublin Report, which itself quotes Dublin's Monsignor John Dolan quoting from the 1997 letter:
'Monsignor Dolan told the Commission that the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome had studied the document in detail and emphasised to the Irish bishops that it must conform to the canonical norms in force. The congregation indicated that "the text contains procedures and dispositions which are contrary to canonical discipline. In particular mandatory reporting gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and canonical nature". Monsignor Dolan said that the congregation regarded the document as "merely a study document".
Now, Dolan's quotation, at least as recorded by the Commission, leaves out an important chunk of the 1997 text, notably the bit which explains why the Congregation for Clergy was concerned: that the application of the guidelines could potentially clash with canon law, such that bishops trying to stamp out abuse could subsequently have their efforts overturned on purely procedural grounds, which would be obviously be a bad thing (C4.21).

For all that people claimed in January that we'd had no knowledge of the 1997 letter before January of this year, it was cited in the Dublin Report, which was published in November 2009. The Commission had clearly been aware of the existence of the letter when conducting its first report. In light of how the Dublin Report covered the period 1975 to 2004, the letter would obviously have been very relevant to the work of the Commission, which began in 2006. Are we really to believe that it didn't take a look at it then? You know, before it approached the Nuncio in connection with the Cloyne Report? It was obviously important, and it would have been deeply remiss of the Commission to have overlooked it. No, it seems certain that if the Commission was doing its job properly, there would have been no need for the Nuncio to supply this letter, and the Nuncio would have known this. The Dublin Archdiocese must have had a copy, as the Cloyne one obviously did.

A Most Peculiar Programme
It was a strange show, all told, and not just because it featured a Government minister.

I don't think I've ever seen Vincent Brown treat his panellists with such respect. Alan Shatter was given a free platform to, in effect, make all the prepared statements he wanted, and Vincent Brown, who's spoken more of the SAVI study than any other Irish journalist than I can think of, never once challenged him as to whether or not the government is doing anything to protect the overwhelming majority of Irish victims of sexual abuse, these being those abused by people within the family circle. Marie Collins was, understandably enough, not challenged on anything by Vincent Brown, and given the obvious danger of seeming churlish, Vincent Twomey seems to have had some difficulty correcting misconceptions.

Having said that, he made good points. It was very clear from what he said that the problem at Cloyne didn't lie in the Church's procedures, but in the fact that the Cloyne authorities were unwilling to follow those procedures. The best procedures in the world mean nothing if the people whose job it is to implement them will not do so. It's pointless of Alan Shatter to claim that we've no evidence -- no assurance -- that everything's perfect in the Church today. It's simply impossible to tell. Nobody can ever give a confident and honest assurance that rules will not be broken or that crimes will not be committed.

In connection with this, Vincent Twomey's pointing to the Church having appointed a Presbyterian, Ian Elliott, to head the Church's own child-protection agency was important; leaving aside his professionalism and integrity, Elliott's Protestantism blocks him from any instinctive or otherwise ingrained tendencies towards clericalism, and I basically look forward to his coming reports on the dioceses. If things are being handled well, we can all start to breathe comfortably. If they're not, well, then we'll know we have to take action. 

I think the issue of who decides whether or not Elliott's reports should be published is a red herring; it would look staggeringly suspicious if any diocese refused to publish a report, and if any did so because it had something to hide, I'm confident that Elliott would resign in protest. Having said that, I'm glad Vincent Twomey said he believed that all the reports should be published, and I'm glad too that he said he thinks it would be best overall for the credibility of the Church if Cardinal Brady were to resign, simply because this could help the Church and the Country to progress.


Bock the Robber said...

I see Breda O Brien mentioned you in the IT. Did you know that Breda's father used the labour of Artane child-slaves on his farm?

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

No, but then I didn't know he had a farm. To be honest, I'm not really clued in on Irish journalists' parents' occupations. Why do you ask?