Friday, July 22, 2011
In an official gut reaction to the Cloyne Report's assertion that the Vatican has been complicit, and more, in the covering up of clerical child sexual abuse in Ireland, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) has made an unprecedented and incandescent statement to the Dáil (National Parliament) in which he excoriates the Vatican in a coldly delivered spray of red mist.
I won't even attempt to quote from it. I tried, and found myself quoting all of it. So read it in full before you go any further.
The idiot Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson who seems to keep his foot permanently in his mouth, has responded by calling for "objectivity" in the debate and referring to the recent patronising and buck-passing letter from the Pope to the Irish people; he pleaded for the debate to concentrate on the welfare of children, an issue to which the Vatican is late in coming, if they have itself. This response is surely the equivalent of a slap in the face to an abused child. When will they ever learn?
If you have not yet read the Pope's 2010 letter you could do worse than read it in the context of the response of a fellow blogger at the time.
Fr. Vincent Twomey has also, not unexpectedly, come out of the woodwork again on this occasion. In response to the publication of the Report, he has called for the resignation of every Irish bishop, good or bad, who was consecrated before the arrival of Archbishop Martin in the Dublin diocese. Fr. Twomey is still not a bishop himself despite his fawning defence of the Pope at every turn.
The Irish State is now set to embark on comprehensive legislation requiring mandatory disclosure to the authorities where a person is aware of child abuse. The details of this will need to be considered very carefully to ensure that the results are not simply counter productive. Nevertheless it is a position of principle from which to start the debate. The Government has stated that there will be no exceptions to this requirement and the response of the Church in Ireland has been to highlight the implications for the hitherto sacred sacramental seal of the confessional.
Personally, I welcome this response as it means we may now have a debate on the role of the confessional in civil society.
When I was growing up, the Protestants often viewed RC confession as a blank cheque for serial offenders, whatever the sin. This was held up by the RC Church as an illustration of how little these heretics knew about the true nature of the sacrament. In my view, time has shown both how little the RC Church knew about the sacrament and how deficient was their instruction of their flock in this matter.
The confessional is not about the priest. He is simply mediating the penitent's contact with God, but many of the priests were seduced by the evident power conferred by the administration of the sacrament. Some became God in their own eyes, and some abused their position for self-gratification and the abuse of power.
The confessional was supposedly anonymous, but this was true only if you were a traveller from a distant land passing through, or if you lived in a very big parish. In some areas the confession box is becoming a thing of the past and the sacrament is administered on a one to one basis in the open air.
And then there is penance and the firm purpose of amendment. Unlike in the Protestant conception of the sacrament, forgiveness was not unconditional. It required what was known as a "firm purpose of amendment" which could arguably be summarised as "no repeat offence", though no doubt that statement will bring forth cries about "God's infinite mercy" and "original sin" and might even even extend to "the Prodigal son" on a good day.
I would also imagine that the Lord would expect the "penance" to be carried out as well as part of the deal. Now, in my day, penance usually consisted of saying a few prayers or, at a pinch, making a donation to some worthy cause. It was a universally missed opportunity for restorative justice. And there was no enforcement of the penance, bar the conditionality attached to forgiveness, but needless to say that was not stressed.
And why did so many people go so often to confession? Were these all new sins? Surely, despite their well celebrated genius for imagination, the Irish people were not up to such a lifetime of invention? Indeed. The simple reason was that they had the bejaysus scared out of them by the clergy with threats of eternal damnation and even a spell of indeterminate length in Purgatory, where the flames were no less intense but were expected to come to an end somewhere this side of infinity.
Anyway, to get back to the matter in hand. How should the seal of the confessional be treated, implicitly or explicitly, in the forthcoming civil legislation.
Well for starters, forgiveness could effectively be made conditional, through penance, on the penitent reporting to the civil authorities. Sexual child abuse is invariably a repeat offence so the the theological niceties could be well covered with some imaginative thinking on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities. If this approach were incorporated into the sacrament the issue of excepting confession from mandatory reporting would effectively disappear.
Meanwhile, the whole area of recognition in law of professional confidentialy needs to be reviewed in a calm and dispassionate manner, and only those exceptions retained which can be shown unequivocally to be in the longer term interests of society. This includes the area of journalism where rights are constantly asserted and obligations constantly ignored. Mary Kenny, agitator turned apologist, would proclaim this approach fascist.
If it were concluded that confession was not an exception and the Church still wished to hold the traditional line, there is always civil disobedience and even martyrdom in extreme cases. Whatever about their civil status, the martyrs could be honoured in Canon Law and Vatican knighthoods.
Paul Blanshard would would have loved all of this.