Ireland and the abyss that divides bishops from their priests
“This Roman clericalism must be devastating for good priests, some of them old, others struggling to keep their humanity, even their sanity, as they work so hard to be the keepers of the church’s light and goodness within their parishes, communities and the human heart.”A single sentence replete with poignant reminders of those faithful ministers of God who do indeed labour hard in their service for Him, and yet struggle to retain their humanity and sanity as they are caught in the whirlwind of fury against the paedophile priests who have tarnished the whole Catholic brand and so brought shame upon priests everywhere.
There is a powerful article in the Irish Times which tells of the sorrow, anger and paranoia of many ‘ordinary’ Roman Catholic priests who ‘feel failed and abandoned by the church hierarchy’. These ‘good priests’ are living a life in the shadows; some unable to venture out of their homes without being spat upon; others unable to minister a kind word or a gentle touch for fear of being misunderstood, falsely accused or defamed.
“Why don’t you, Mister Hoban, f**k off back to Rome with your nuncio... Piss off back to Rome, you f**ked-up celibates... Keep away from my children, you bunch of perverts.”The article quotes such voicemails received by Fr Brendan Hoban, a 63-year-old parish priest of Ballina, Co Mayo. We read that he was reluctant to reveal their wording: ‘His hesitancy is rooted in the same terror that has sent most priests deep into their parish bunkers this week, the terror of appearing to place the anguish of their own tattered, lonely souls above the suffering of the victims of clerical abuse.’
This is the everyday reality that confronts these ‘good priests’. Yes, of course the suffering of the children must come first, but if it takes an Anglican to speak up for the suffering of the innocent priests, His Grace will do so. It is wrong, indeed, it is an irrational discrimination and an evil prejudice to tarnish an entire group of people because of the terrors, crimes and perversions of a few of their number. Only the ignorant can look at Mohamed Atta or Osama bin Laden and see all Muslims; only the foolish can listen to Peter Tatchell and hear all gays; only the undiscerning can contemplate the actions of Anders Behring Breivik and judge all Christians; and only the asinine can consider the paedophile in the confessional and condemn all priests.
Yet Fr Brendan reveals that praise for the Taoiseach is coming not only from the Protestants, secularists, atheists, humanists and agnostics; we read: ‘Enda Kenny was saying nothing that Irish priests haven’t been saying for years... he is challenging Rome as distinct from the Irish church.’ Of course, some priests don’t like it, like the absurd Fr Thomas Daly or Drogheda, Co Louth, who disseminated a tract after Mass last Sunday informing his congregation that the last European leader to issue such a blistering attack on the Pope ‘was the ruthless German dictator Adolf Hitler’. And he reminded them, parabolically, that like Hitler, the Taoiseach ‘had to face reality’, and this is ‘a cautionary tale’.
With priests like that, no wonder there’s a little tension between them and their overseers. But while Fr Thomas speaks for no-one but himself, three angry priests appear to speak for the majority:
For them, their powerlessness has long been confirmed in the heedless appointment of bishops lacking the competence, intellect or independence of spirit to address the spiritual needs of a rapidly evolving republic; bishops such as Cloyne’s John Magee. “He never worked in a parish, so had no experience of how to run a parish, never mind a diocese. I’m not blaming him for that – it’s back to who appointed him,” says Fr Billy O’Donovan, of Conna, in the Cloyne diocese.One may well ask, as the Irish Times does, “But where were those angry, articulate voices when the damage was being done, when Rome was directing this republic’s affairs and their brothers in Christ were violating the young and vulnerable?”
It was Rome that handed the power to John Magee to appoint a head of child protection. Magee chose Msgr Denis O’Callaghan, then in his late 70s. Says another priest: “Denis O’Callaghan is an absent-minded professor – and they put him in charge of child protection?”
O’Callaghan is “a man with a great heart”, says Fr Hoban, “but completely disorganised”.
Fr Brendan’s response?
“They were where they always were,” he says Hoban, “trying to do 1,001 things and trying to do them the best they can.”Woefully inadequate, of course: the Lord made children his priority, to be suffered to come whenever they desired; not to become the victims of suffering. But Fr Brendan explains that dioceses are not run by bishops and priests; indeed, priests are ‘totally excluded from any say... (and are) effectively disenfranchised’. And he discloses that any who dare to ask questions, put their heads above the parapet, or challenge the status quo are ‘weeded out in the seminary’; they are all ‘at the bishop’s mercy’, and so cowed, intimidated, bullied into silence.
It demonstrates what a cold place the church can be for a dissident, says Hoban. “And we have reaped the whirlwind... If a good guy said anything , he said it to the bishop or the parish priest and felt that he’d done what was required. Guys find themselves in situations where their instinct says this doesn’t concern me. Because the message always was: go into your parish; diocesan policy is not your concern.”And natural justice seems to fly out of the window. For any priest accused of a sexual offence, there is an automatic presumption of guilt, and it is they who have prove their innocence. They are instantly suspended (very publicly) by their bishops, and their lives and ministries ruined before any formal investigation begun or a word uttered in a court of law. In this matter, suspension cannot be a neutral act. And even those who are found to have been falsely accused have to endure such headlines as ‘Slur Fr returns to pulpit’. And so we read of ‘the abyss that now divides many bishops from their priests’, and that ‘(t)here is no trust of any kind’:
In short, blinded by loyalty and conformism, priests trusted too much. Now, pole-axed by fear, they are overcompensating. Some have described their fellow clergy as “evil priests” in newspapers; one urges people to boycott the church collections.
The priests’ fear is no longer of the bishops; it’s of the head-spinning no-man’s-land where they now find themselves. Ageing and isolated, they are operating in hostile territory where their Rome-appointed shepherds are themselves in a state of confused terror – “running around like 27 headless chickens”, according to Fr Tony Flannery – and where the Irish church’s straight-talking totem, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, has effectively alienated them all. The isolation and exclusion, compounded by this alienation from their bishops, explains much of the sense of abandonment and fear felt by many priests.
“We have the feeling that a facade is being created, such as in the Eucharistic Congress and the new texts, a pretence that all the troubles are now being dealt with and that, from here on, the church will flourish,” says Hoban. “We are not encouraging people to join us. We know it’s not going to solve any problems. In this diocese there will be eight priests left from an original 34 in 20 years’ time. There is no planning... The whole thing is imploding with no recognition of this.”And then we get the exhortation to implement the provisions of Vatican II; the vision of ‘a church of the laity, with parish councils at the core’. Then, says Fr Brendan, allegations of abuse could have been dealt with by mothers and fathers instead of the clergy. This is interesting, because elsewhere Vatican II is often blamed for the paedophile scandal: its trendy, liberalising agenda having distorted the understanding of priesthood and corrupted the traditional order, as though paedophilia only entered the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s. The tension and division between Rome’s liberals and conservatives is palpable:
Now the last of the so-called Vatican II priests are disappearing, and the few young men who are replacing them are universally perceived as fiercely traditional and conservative. Over and over, my conversations with priests return to the calibre of church leaders. This is why O’Donovan, even during Cloyne’s traumatic week, believes that there is a “far more important week ahead”, meaning the appointment of a new bishop.And he genuinely grieves over the consequences of ‘celibacy, formation and the loneliness of the ministry’. As the faithful abandon the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and it sinks into the morass, mired in systematic collusion and corruption, stained with the torture and rape of its own children, Enda Kenny has called for reformation. It remains to be seen whether or not Fr Brendan Hoban will find the courage and conviction of Martin Luther. For the truly ‘good priests’, there is no alternative. But they are there. Thank God, they are there.
“Names being mentioned or guessed at are all right wing, conservative and with a Rome background,” he says. “We’ve been there before... My biggest fear – and it is a real fear – is that someone would be appointed that priests and people will find unacceptable, and that many, priests and people, will walk in that event. We’ve taken enough. We want someone who will talk to us and listen to us”
Would Irish priests support a breakaway from Rome? “No,” says Hoban. “What you’re talking about here is the nature of the church. We are deeply unhappy with the competency of the leadership and the drift of Rome. The consultation and transparency we talk about, well, it’s not going to happen in our lifetime. But, to live with yourself, you have to keep saying the things you’re saying.”