29 November 2011

Answering the Grem: Part I

The other day, in connection with a post about Christine Buckley's recent letter to the Irish Times, I received the following comment:
'Sir, Did you actually listen to /Mr Kenny's speech. He was referring not to individual acts of abuse but to the collective cover up organised, directed and operated from Rome. The costs you refer too would have been saved if the Vatican and their representatives in Ireland had admitted their failings much earlier. 
Ireland, like Spain,Portugal and Italy (all in economic trouble) must decide how much influence the Vatican can be allowed in the future.' 
I responded with a series of questions, which you can look at yourself in the comment box, and which the commentator, the Grem, has now addressed on his own blog. He's made a sincere effort to address my questions, so it's only fair that I engage with them seriously here. I'm probably not going to make a habit of this sort of thing, given how things require lengthy explanations, but still, here goes...

1. Did Enda Kenny say Rome was responsible for a Cover-Up?
Where, I had asked, in Enda's 20 July 2009 speech to the Dáil, did he say that the Vatican had covered things up? The Grem quotes from the speech at some length, highlighting particular passages, but I don't think anything in the speech really says that.

Emotive language aside, Enda said that Yvonne Murphy's Cloyne Report showed that the Vatican's reaction to reports of abuse was to scrutinise those reports carefully. Leaving aside how the Cloyne Report gave details of only one allegation being passed on to Rome, the three allegations that were passed on in 2009 having been submitted too late for the Report to be able to say anything meaningful, all Enda can have been saying is that on the only occasion that it seems a complaint was passed to Rome prior to 2008, Rome analysed the evidence properly. Given that the result of this was that the accused priest was barred from ministry, I'm not sure why Enda thought this was a bad thing.

Enda also commented on the culture of the Vatican, at least as he perceived it, but said nothing about a cover-up, and then said that the Vatican had tried to frustrate an investigation by the Irish State at some point in the previous three years. That sounds as though he was talking of a cover-up, but as we've seen, it's very difficult to establish what he meant by this, as the story has changed on the matter. He can hardly have meant that the Report said the Nuncio's failure to supply the Murphy Commission with documentation was an attempt to frustrate the inquiry, as the Murphy Commission itself says no such thing and makes it clear that it received all relevant documentation from Cloyne, including duplicates of all documents sent to or received from Rome.

No, properly understood, Enda didn't actually accuse Rome of having attempted to cover things up. He made vague allegations that -- when tied with the facts revealed in the Cloyne Report -- don't amount to anything particularly potent.

Interlude: Before I Answer The Second Question
In terms of the popular conception of the Catholic Church, there's a very common and deeply important conceptual misunderstanding at work that most people, including most Catholics, don't seem to realise. This misunderstanding bedevils pretty much every attempt I've ever seen to discuss matters relating to the Church. It's this: in an administrative sense, rather than a sacramental or ecclesiological one, the Church hardly exists at all. There isn't really such a thing as an 'institutional Church', in the sense of the Church being a single institution like a modern corporation, a pyramid with the Pope on top, bishops as middle managers, and priests running local branches. It's not like that.

Interlude i: A Protestant's explanation
I used to think it was, until I learned of a speech given by Ian Elliott, the head of the Irish Catholic Church's National Board for Child Protection at a 2009 conference called 'Keeping Children Safe'. The former head of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in Belfast, and a man who had reformed child protection services in the Northern Irish Department of Social Services, Elliott is a member of the Church of Ireland. This matters, as it's crucial to understand that Elliott is not a Catholic and in no way suffers from an ingrained sense of loyalty towards Catholic priests and bishops. In this 2009 speech, Elliott talked of how deeply he'd misunderstood the structure of the Catholic Church:
'Not being a member of the Church, when I took up my post I had only a very rudimentary understanding of the structure and culture of the Catholic Church. Naively, I believed that it was one large but single body with an overall head in charge here in Ireland. I had no appreciation of the complex and fragmented nature of the body that is referred to as the Catholic Church.

Although it is described as a single Church, it is more easily understood as a single communion with close to two hundred different constituent elements. There is no one person who is resident in Ireland and holds the authority to direct all the various parts of the body to act in a particular way. This separateness may in some respects be viewed as strength but in others it is a major obstacle. From a safeguarding children perspective, it is a challenging hurdle to be continually overcome…

The most difficult issues for the Church to overcome are those that arise from its structure. It is the largest membership organisation on the island of Ireland with over four and a quarter million members. There are 1366 parishes, 2646 churches, 5069 priests, 942 brothers, and 8093 sisters . By any scale, it is a very substantial organisation. However, it is not a single body but rather a number of quite separate ones that are linked. There are dioceses, religious congregations, orders, missionary societies, prelatures, and religious institutions. In all, there are 184 different parts to the Church in Ireland and each has its own head. Many have their own constitutions and relate to head quarters located in Italy, France, the United States, or some other part of the world.

The task of organizing and motivating the whole Church to adopt and implement a single approach to any issue should not be underestimated…'
Look at what he's saying: in practical administrative terms, the Church is not an institution. Rather, it's lots of institutions in communion with each other.

Interlude ii: The State's explanation
This, in effect, is exactly what the Ferns Report said, I later discovered. Chapter 3 of the Ferns Report has a very useful section on the institutional structure of the Church, showing just how decentralised the Church is and has always been:
'A Diocese is a portion of the faithful, normally but not exclusively in a given territory, which is entrusted to the pastoral and spiritual care of the Bishop, with the cooperation of his priests. The Bishop acts as a vicar of Christ in his diocese and not as a vicar of the Pope; he does not act as a delegate of a higher authority and he can exercise his power personally and directly for the benefit of the people entrusted to his care. A Bishop can make "particular law" for his subjects as long as this law is in harmony with the universal law of the Church and/or divine law.
There are 26 dioceses in Ireland and 33 bishops. These bishops meet as The Irish Episcopal Conference four times a year. Bishops are not bound in law or convention by decisions of tbe Episcopal Conference which cannot usurp the proper autbority of the bishop to govern his diocese. The bishops are bound only when the Episcopal Conference issues a norm in those cases where the Code of Canon law expressly gives the Conference the authority to do so or when it has been authorised by the Holy See.
The Inquiry has been advised by Canon lawyers that a bishop in his diocese is autonomous and every Bishop is accountable directly only to the Holy See. A Bishop makes a yearly report to Rome and every five years visits Rome to make an "Ad Limina" or "Quinquennial" report. Specific questions, confidential issues or problems are discussed with the relevant Congregation in Rome, such as, for example the Congregation of Clergy or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The quinquennial and annual statistical reports contain little information about tbe day to day running of a diocese and tbere is no overview of a Bishop's performance.

The supervisory role of an Archbishop (metropolitan) has been described by canon lawyers as "very very minor".
The Bishop is the proper pastor of the diocese as a whole; the parish priest is the proper pastor of the parish, under the authority of the Bishop. Although Canon law describes the parish priest as answerable to the Bishop, he is not simply his delegate but enjoys ordinary authority within his parish. [...] in the day to day running of his parish, a priest is not subject to either direct control or monitoring by his Bishop and this has been a crucial factor in the ability of certain priests to apparently continue sexually abusive behaviour undetected for many years.'

Interlude iii: The structure of the Church
The crucial thing to get from all of this is that the Catholic Church is hardly an institution at all, but is best understood as an enormous network of institutions, all in communion with each other and most especially with the Pope, who acts as a visible human point of unity for the Church. The Church is incredibly decentralised, and although they are appointed by Rome, bishops are not delegates or representatives of the Pope. Dioceses and orders are functionally autonomous in most respects, and insofar as bishops have authority over priests and popes have authority over bishops, this authority is wholly dependent on receipt of accurate information from below. As John Allen recently put it, the Catholic Church is top-down on doctrine, but is bottom-up on everything else, when it comes to administration, finances, personnel, and management.

This isn't a new phenomenon, and it isn't a scam Rome's set up to ensure it can't be held responsible for misconduct on the part of those who might be wrongly understood as acting on its behalf. On the contrary, aside from their being strong Ecclesiological reasons -- rooted in Christian tradition and Scripture -- for the Church being organised as it is, this structure can largely be explained through thinking about the practicalities of how the Church has grown through history.

As Peter Drucker, perhaps the twentieth century's greatest guru of management, has pointed out, the job description of Catholic bishops hasn't changed since canon law was first codified in the Middle Ages: the Church's structures reflect the reality of a age without modern telecommunications, that being almost its entire history. Do you think Rome could ever have kept an eye on what Palladius was up to in Ireland, Augustine in England, or Cyril and Methodius in Bulgaria? Could there have been any possible way that St Ignatius of Loyola knew how St Francis Xavier was carrying out his mission in Japan? That's not to say that these people didn't report back from time to time or didn't get the occasional bit of advice from popes or heads of orders -- one thinks of Mellitus' famous letter from Gregory the Great -- but in general they were trusted to act on their own authority.

Such a principle dates back, as one would expect, to the earliest days of the Church. The Gospels show the disciples going out to preach on their own, without Jesus constantly checking up on them, and  it's clear from Acts and the various New Testament letters that Paul's missionary activities weren't constantly monitored by Peter and the other Apostles. Indeed, it's evident from the text that neither Paul nor anybody else was regularly keeping an eye on the various local churches that had been set up -- what interventions he made, in, say, Corinth, were clearly in response to several reports he'd received asking for guidance. It seems that the basic principles guiding the modern Church are rooted in the Church of the Apostles: while teaching and direction may have come from above, such guidance was as a rule provided only in response to information offered from below, and in most respects local churches were trusted to run their own affairs in a faithful way.

Of course, people might argue that things could be tighter nowadays, but aside from that being a tacit recognition that if Rome's to blame it's for not being controlling enough rather than for being too controlling, I don't think that'd work. Leaving ecclesiology out of it, I very much doubt that the local churches would be willing to accept a massive practical expansion of Roman supervision and I'm sure such an expansion would destroy decades of patient ecumenical efforts to heal the thousand-year breach with the Orthodox, but even if these surely insuperable obstacles could be overcome, how would such an enormous expansion of Roman authority be funded or staffed?

Contrary to popular belief, the Vatican isn't rich, not least because what wealth it has tends to be of a sort that can't really be sold, like Saint Peter's itself. As things stands, the Holy See is surprisingly light on bureaucracy and runs a pretty tight ship, costwise. In 2010, for instance, it cost £213 million to run the Holy See, as opposed to, say, £224 million to run Manchester United, and unlike the Red Devils, Rome doesn't have much scope for expansion: last year its income was £9 million more than its expenditure, but the three previous years saw it firmly in the red.

I'm exhausted, and this is huge and taking ages, so I'd better stop. I'll answer the remaining questions tomorrow, I hope.


the Grem said...

Thank you for your long and considered response.
A little while ago News International got into some trouble over phone hacking. Rupert Murdoch and his son James attended a House of Commons committee to explain. James launched into a long, detailed, weasel words explanation blaming everybody save those at the top. It was going down like a lead balloon and Rupert turned to his son, put an arm around him and said 'Son, they caught us with our hands dirty' That single statement was seen as a saving grace for the company and a very sensible thing to say. It is not what you or I think that matters here but how millions of Catholics in the developed world react. The Catholic Church must never rely just on the third world.
The huge danger of what is being written by Catholic journalists and commentators at the moment is that the Vatican, and the Church will become not just the subject of criticism but of ridicule. We should all be careful we do not contribute to that.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Er, you know your story isn't true, right?

Rather, Jim Sheridan addressed Rupert Murdoch, saying: "You must be horrified by the scandal, and the fact that it has cost you the BSkyB transaction and led to the closure of the News of the World. Who do you blame for that?"

To which Rupert Murdoch replied, saying, "A lot of people had different agendas I think in trying to build this hysteria. All our competitors in this country formally announced a consortium to try to stop us and they caught us with dirty hands and they got the story around."

And the statement had no impact whatsoever. Or is that your point -- that an admission of having failed won't make an ounce of difference?

That aside, I'm confused. Are you accusing me of using weasel words?

If you are, I'd ask you to check what I've said. It's pretty simple, really.

If people are so blind as to wish to believe there was a co-ordinated and centralised conspiracy despite the logistical improbability and dearth of evidence for such of things, compared to the far simpler alternative scenario that the evidence actually supports, well, I'm not sure what can be done.

All I can really do, I suppose, is keep on telling the truth.