Justine McCarthy – devastating commentary

After his much-ridiculed sin of omission in not reading the Lisbon treaty before the doomed referendum, one might have expected the taoiseach to make damned sure he read the Murphy report. Alas, it appears he has not.

On the eve of St Patrick’s Day, when the world celebrates the arrival of Christian faith in Ireland, Brian Cowen was answering questions in Washington about Cardinal Seán Brady’s role in a clandestine church trial.

He was asked to affirm that a Roman collar no longer provides immunity against prosecution in the criminal courts. His reply was startling:

“That’s never been the case as far as I’m concerned.”

His response can only mean that either the taoiseach has not read Judge Yvonne Murphy’s report on the mishandling of complaints of child sexual abuse in the Dublin archdiocese — or that he has read it and brazenly refuses to believe it. A third possibility, that he read it and failed to understand it, is implausible. For what part of the conclusion at 1.93 of the report could he not grasp? “A number of senior members of the gardai, including the commissioner in 1960, clearly regarded priests as being outside their remit,” it says.

The Cistercian-educated Cowen was a senior member of the government that commissioned the Murphy report. That same government included Michael Woods who, as education minister, hatched a compensation deal with religious orders obliging Joe Citizen to foot most of the bill for church negligence.

Last week, in response to the Brady revelations, Cowen was singing from Merrion Street’s standard hymn-book. The cover-up of crimes against children, declared the bullish taoiseach, was a matter for the church; as if the state allows God’s princes to run their own parallel jurisdiction.

By its Pontius Pilate hand-washing, the state too is complicit in sheltering child rapists.

Not one senior churchman has been prosecuted for facilitating these crimes during two decades of revelations. Debates about the applicability of various laws are academic, as Murphy succinctly puts it at 1.32 of her report. “The archbishops, bishops and other officials cannot claim that they did not know that child sexual abuse was a crime. As citizens of the state, they have the same obligations as all other citizens to uphold the law and report serious crimes to the authorities.” In the eyes of this republic, however, bishops are not equal to us. They are above us. Judge Sean Ryan’s report last May on child abuse in religious-run institutions highlighted the “deference” shown to the church by the Department of Education. Government’s persistent refusal to terminate church dominion over our education system has withstood paroxysm after paroxysm of public concern about churchmen’s fitness to mind our children.

Similarly, the Department of Health clings to Catholic doctrine on reproductive health, even to the point of endangering the safety of female citizens — about half the population. The rejection of the archbishop of Dublin’s request that he be relieved of his role as ex officio chairman of the National Maternity Hospital shows that the state can be even more orthodox than the bishops themselves.

Remember how we used to chuckle at the image of politicians cowering from a belt of the crozier in the bygone days of Catholic Ireland? Well, politicians’ cap-doffing to the men in the mitres goes on. Last January, when the funerals of Cardinal Cahal Daly and Justin Keating coincided, it was to the prelate’s obsequies that the taoiseach sent his aide de camp; not to the humanist service for a former government minister.

It has been argued in the past week that, had Brady informed gardai in 1975 about Fr Brendan Smyth, a hundred or more of the late Norbertine’s victims would have been spared. History does not support that hypothesis. Even if Smyth’s victims had found gardai willing to investigate their cases, the chances of the DPP sanctioning prosecutions would have ranged from slim to nil. The state’s unwillingness to press charges is one of the unspoken scandals of this ever-erupting volcano of tragedy, and one we must address urgently. Stories abound about people who survived their hellish abuse as children only to be driven to suicide when the order was given not to prosecute their attackers.

For every gesture of laissez faire extended by the state to the church, there is reciprocation. The Roman curia and the papal nuncio in Dublin treated the Murphy commission with contempt by snubbing its correspondence.

If another state did that, the government might be inclined to review its diplomatic relations with that country. Instead, Ireland continues to formally recognise the papal nuncio as pre-eminent among the diplomatic corps.

In turn, the church gives the state ready absolution. As the Irish economy was being pulverised by bankers and builders in a climate of scant state regulation, most of the bishops stayed silent. Greed being one of the seven deadly sins, the immorality let loose by the most powerful people in society should have demanded rigorous moral guidance from the hierarchy, or so one would have thought. After all, didn’t Jesus throw the money-lenders out of the temple?

That this toleration of each other’s transgressions is a kind of gentleman’s agreement between the church and the state is the scenario of lesser evil. Until now, it has seemed beyond contemplation that there is a more basic reason for the church and the state turning a blind eye to one another’s wrong-doing. Can it be that both are ambivalent about right and wrong?

Last week’s interventions by Monsignor Maurice Dooley no longer allow for the elephant amongst us to be ignored. A canon lawyer, teacher and former Holy See representative, Dooley alluded to Willie O’Dea’s and Trevor Sargent’s resignations as ministers for what he called “perceived breaches of political correctness”. No matter how avidly church elders disown his views in the wake of his serial PR fiascos, there speaketh a recognised church authority. In essence, he sees nothing wrong with O’Dea swearing a false High Court affidavit and letting it lie on the public record, or with Sargent attempting to influence a garda investigation. How pertinent these two issues are to the church’s own cataclysms.

One of our defining ambitions is supposed to be the separation of church and state. The way they accept each other’s questionable ethics, it seems to me that telling them apart is a more immediate challenge.