What went wrong? Do our bishops want to know?

Jul 21, 2014 | 9 comments

Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, Cork

Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, Cork

Vincent Twomey has called for Irish church leaders to inquire into Catholic failures in the last century. Sean O’Conaill here invites the ACP to support that call.

On July 3rd 2014 Vincent Twomey, emeritus professor of moral theology at Maynooth, called in the Irish Catholic for Irish Church leaders ‘to appoint an expert panel to review what went wrong in Irish Catholicism to cause the prevalent culture of abuse’. This was in the context of the imminent state inquiry into ‘Mother and Baby’ homes in Ireland in the last century. (Click here to open this Irish Catholic report in another window.)

Two weeks later, in the wake of the announcement that this inquiry was to be led by Judge Yvonne Murphy, the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland called for this inquiry to take note of the findings of a study it had sponsored of the 2009 Murphy Report – to the effect that the latter had allegedly contained ‘significant deficiencies in terms of respecting the demands of natural and constitutional justice’. (Clicking here will also open this ACP page under another tab.)

My first reaction to this ACP statement was one of ‘more clerical circling of wagons’. I was struck by the apparent contrast between the priorities of the ACP and those of Vincent Twomey. Where the latter wants above all to know what went wrong when the political power and social clout of his church was at its zenith in the last century, the former emphasises the importance of doing full justice to the service given by Catholic clergy and religious when Irish society was immeasurably weaker economically.

I was struck also by the fact that the ACP had not reported Vincent Twomey’s initiative earlier in the month. Does this mean that the ACP is not also concerned to know what went wrong with Irish Catholicism in the last century when it must be obvious that something did, and to a deeply demoralising extent? Surely no one can question that by about 1951, when Archishop John Charles McQuaid could influence the fate of a government  ‘mother and child’ scheme, the suffering of the most unfortunate women and children, the Irish anawim, was also peaking?

Vincent Twomey is not alone in wanting above all to know why that was. In the wake of the Ryan report of May 2009 Bishop Noel Treanor eloquently expressed the same need: “We have to examine why this happened …. so that we have the best anthropological and scientific analysis available to try and understand”. It is still a mystery why the Irish Bishops’ Conference did not act on that suggestion five years ago.

How should we in the ACI react to these apparently different priorities? On reflection my own inclination is to give them equal respect. Opinion is still obviously divided on whether the Murphy report did full justice to the clergy it named as failing in their duty of care to Catholic children in Dublin. Many of us are still so deeply angry about that failure that we see the naming of the church personnel concerned as a relatively minor matter. However, I can see no harm in Judge Murphy bearing in mind the ACP’s own study of that. The overriding purpose of the ‘Mother and Baby’ inquiry should be to serve both justice and understanding – not to strengthen a tendency towards excoriation, even scapegoating, of those who served the church in a very different time.

But will the ACP also accept that there is a need to understand exactly why it was that when our church was eventually released from centuries of subordination, and then given a status that verged on state establishment, it failed to stand squarely in the way of the social shaming of those defenceless women it judged most morally at fault, and too often participated in their social exclusion?

Don’t we all need to know why our church did not see the cross as an expression of divine solidarity with all who are shamed and excluded, and as a challenge to put that right?

For those interested I have asked that question of the ACP in a post to the above ACP page.


  1. Martin Murray

    In her book “Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church”, Marie Keenan writes about how the tendancy of individualizing the Abuse Problem in the Church means that any structural and theological aspects of the Church that created the conditions for abuse to occur are not recognized, and therefore remain unchanged. This should allay some of the fears the ACP may have and give them the confidence and incentive to back Vincent Twomey’s call for a review. It would seem this book goes quite a way already in answering some of the likely questions such a review would ask. The four part review of the book is well worth a read. Find a link to it here:- http://www.acireland.ie/child-sexual-abuse-and-the-catholic-church-gender-power-and-organizational-culture-by-marie-keenan-july-2013/ or directly to Part One of the Book review here:- http://www.gladysganiel.com/uncategorized/marie-keenan-child-sexual-abuse-and-the-catholic-church-book-review-part-one/

  2. soconaill

    Good to see Pádraig McCarthy of the ACP supporting this call on that ACP page – albeit with doubts as to whether Irish bishops could stomach a credible internal inquiry. That discussion is ongoing. Can our bishops be credible if they don’t sponsor such an inquiry – when the major failures of the 20thC. Irish Catholic Church are so unquestionable?

  3. Teresa Mee

    ‘an expert panel to review ‘what went wrong in Irish Catholicism’ to cause the prevalent culture of abuse’.
    Presumably the ultimate aim of the review would be to take an open look at what was wrong in the Catholic Church system, take another open look at the system today and decide what needs to be rejected; in short learn from mistakes.
    Those involved in whatever way will be under the heat of the microscope and some may get burned, unjustly, in the process. Can we guarantee against mistakes? That’s the rub.

  4. soconaill

    As Teresa suggests there are many obvious problems involved in establishing an inquiry that would have some prospect of being persuasive both to the many sceptics (who would question its independence) and to the institution itself, if its findings and recommendations were then to be acted upon. I guess that those against doing anything of the kind have therefore a very strong hand. However, another question is whether trust can ever be restored in the church’s governing system if this issue is never faced – given the impact of the revelations of the past two decades.

    • Teresa Mee

      We might wonder what the Church would look like today if at the time of the Protestant Reformation its leadership had taken Luther and company on board in establishing an enquiry into the whole mess. The response instead was counter attack.
      We’re not good at acknowledging our errors,and failures.

      • Mary Vallely

        Pity there isn’t a “like” button on this, Teresa, but I agree with you entirely. (comment 5) Owning up to one’s mistakes is such a vital part of growing in our relationships with God and with each other. I cannot understand why the institutional church is so reluctant to learn this lesson. In order to learn from our mistakes we need to admit to them in the first place.
        I also back Vincent Twomey’s call for a review but I think we need an independent review. There must be a great deal of fear that holds these men back from facing up to the truth or is it tiredness and lack of courage?

  5. Treasa Healy

    The only questions I want answered, in the Church’s efforts to keep untarnished its good name, are the following:

    1. Did any Pope,or Vatican Agency issue instructions/orders to Cardinals or Archbishops to maintain the good name of the Catholic Church by covering up crimes committed by its clergy and religious in the area of sexual abuse of minors?

    2. If such directives were given, were they passed down to local Bishops or only divulged on a ‘need to know’ basis if things got difficult in particular diocese?

    3. Did ‘Houses of Refuge’or Magdalene type residences for women, or Reformatories for boys, all under the jurisdiction of the national and local clergy, receive any charter of behaviour, or rules of conduct or guidelines dealing with life within these places?

    4. In the event of crises occurring within these establishments, who were the outside authorities recommended to deal with such emergencies?

    I personally do not believe we would get full and truthful answers to nos. 1, 2,or 3. For No. 4, I would expect the reply ‘the appropriate agencies’.Both church and state are experts in the art of the vague.

    I imagine Vincent Twomey got a few hunches and insights into these areas already. I’m sure his annual visits to the Vatican in recent years gave him the urge to dig deeper. I wish him luck. But if, as I believe,orders did come from ‘On High’ years ago, the sources would not be revealed. Popes or Vatican Agents don’t seem to have the ability to negate orders given in good faith by their predecessors, even if such are now seen to be erroneous.
    And finally, do we really want another decade of unworthy revelations?
    Treasa Healy

  6. soconaill

    Treasa asks finally: “do we really want another decade of unworthy revelations?”

    Ideally we don’t. My dream solution would be for the magisterium to admit that the absence of a separation of power in the church is already clearly dangerous – because it places conflicting obligations on the shoulders of those who exercise undivided power (i.e. bishops).

    Failure to recognise this, and the continuing refusal of vibrant accountability, lies at the root of the church’s ongoing decline. That’s another ‘solution’ to the problem of undivided power, but that too is painful and protracted.

  7. Paddy Ferry

    I am months late coming to this conversation. However, I presume Martin Murray, like me, has read Marie Keenan’s excellent book which answers many, probably most infact, of the questions a review would ask.


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