Will Ireland become an anti-Catholic tyranny?
Attacks on the church are less likely to foster a free, secular society than a suspicious, state-dominated one.
Last weekend, Pope Benedict XVI issued a pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland. He was responding to revelations about decades of child abuse and the apparent cover-up of the actions of one particularly notorious priest, Father Brendan Smyth, by senior figures in the church, including the current head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady. Yet while the behaviour of the church has been disgraceful, the constant demands to expose every wrongdoing by every institution in society has become a serious problem, too.
The recent revelations relate to the way the church handled allegations against Smyth made in the 1970s. Brady was a priest and a teacher in a diocese where two children alleged that they had been abused by Smyth. Brady was asked to interview the children, who were made to swear an oath of secrecy, by Bishop Francis McKiernan. While Smyth was removed from ‘pastoral duties’, his actions were not reported to the civil authorities and his crimes remained secret until 1991, when he was jailed for seven years. While recently admitting that he had been involved with the handling of the case, Brady has argued that he was not the designated person with the authority to inform the police. Given that Brady would have been well aware both of the seriousness of the allegations and of the fact that Smyth had been dealt with rather leniently, this looks like an abdication of responsibility.
The role of the Catholic Church in Irish life until recent years was as an overweening force for reaction, sustaining a backward, clerical state long after its European neighbours had thrown off the shackles of the clergy. Moreover, a long line of revelations about child abuse has demonstrated that the church has been more concerned with its standing in society than with dealing properly with child molesters in its ranks.
Yet the calls for Brady to resign are troubling, too. What underpins them is a desire to tear the church down, to break it as a force in society and gain revenge for the years when it stifled Irish society. The effect has been to diminish the church’s influence, but this hardly represents a triumph for the supporters of secularism. Instead, these recent developments help to undermine the idea that there can be any kind of independent authority in the country. More broadly, there is a mood - by no means exclusive to Ireland - in which any attempt to do things in private, in a way that is not accountable to the public and which does not bow to the authority of the state, is deemed to be unacceptable. Every tiny detail must come out, to a pornographic degree, because the public has The Right To Know.
Never mind the effect this has on the parties involved. Never mind that it is not really the public that is making these demands, but a hodge-podge of media commentators, campaigners and politicos. Never mind that it is the state, not the public, that benefits. The casualties in this war on secrecy are not just the old bastions of reaction, but everyone else’s right to privacy from the authorities, too.
There is a place for dealing with offences outside of the orbit of the state. The church, for example, has always had a desire to deal with things in-house. Given the complete control it has over the lives of its clergy, it’s easy enough to make the lives of priests a misery if they step out of line or become an embarrassment. This is nicely illustrated by the setting for the TV comedy Father Ted: three priests - the eponymous crook Ted, the child-like idiot Dougal and the brain-pickled alcoholic Jack - are posted to the remote and barren parish of Craggy Island. For Ted, this is punishment. For the others, it is a desperate attempt to get them as far away from civilised society as possible. The show makes perfect sense, though, because that is what the church has always done with its priests.
Smyth’s crimes warranted rather more in the way of punishment than a miserable spell on some real-life Craggy Island; he fully deserved to be defrocked and imprisoned for his crimes. But when the wrongdoing is relatively minor, there is surely a place for dealing with offences quietly and privately, and this doesn’t just apply to the church. Schools, too, should be able to punish pupils without calling in the police every five minutes or filling in a 50-page report. Members of parliament should be able to deal with their own errant colleagues, not be forced to kow-tow to Scotland Yard in contradiction to hundreds of years of tradition about the sovereignty of parliament. Even family life, a last bastion of privacy, faces endless demands to be exposed to public scrutiny on the basis that ‘we’ must know the depths of depravity being plumbed behind closed doors.
article continues after advertisement
In order for society to function, there must be a private sphere in which our thoughts and actions are not automatically accountable to the outside world. There must also be a range of institutions in society that can act as alternative pockets of power and influence to hold the state to account (admittedly, not something the Catholic Church’s decades-long domination of public life in Ireland ever contributed to positively). Our current circumstances, where the state is everything and can demand that we all account to it, is a heavy cross to bear.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.