AS A dispute escalates between the Roman Catholic Church and the government of Ireland, it’s clear that the Vatican still has yet to fully digest the lessons it might have drawn from the sex-abuse scandal in the United States. This summer, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny delivered a thorough condemnation of the Catholic Church’s handling of abuse allegations. The Vatican, not to be outdone, recalled its ambassador. Then, Justice Minister Alan Shatter suggested passing a law that would require priests to report suspicions of child abuse, even if learned by confessions.
The dispute, which surely could have been avoided, is all the more remarkable in light of the traditional closeness between the church and Ireland’s elected leaders. Ireland’s aggressive stance was prompted by release of an official report on allegations of rampant abuse in the diocese of Cloyne between 1996 and 2009. The government maintains that church officials were less than helpful, and that a 1997 letter had at least the effect of discouraging cooperation with authorities.
Kenny, for one, directed much of his ire at what he termed the “dysfunction, the disconnection, the elitism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.’’ His attack was scathing enough that some people began to speculate that he was trying to protect Irish bishops by redirecting blame toward church leaders in Rome. Yet the government’s statements also capture a broader public anger, and the church’s defensive and, to some eyes, legalistic responses have not quieted the controversy.
Contrast that with efforts by Cardinal Sean O’Malley to repair the damage that the scandal has caused in the Boston archdiocese. His recent decision to release the names of priests accused of abuse acknowledged the public’s desire for displays of contrition that are genuine and substantive, rather than grudging. The continued demand for further information and greater accountability in Boston underscores how much further church leaders must go to restore trust.
The diplomatic dispute with Ireland suggests that the Vatican is still focusing too much on its own institutional concerns and not enough on mending broken spirits.