Lost opportunity

  • September 7, 2011

The Vatican has engaged the Irish government in an unpleasant war of words that is unlikely to help restore its battered image in that country.

At issue is a government report into Ireland’s sex-abuse scandal and the failure of Church hierarchy to identify and punish abuser priests. The “Cloyne Report,” released in July, asserts that the Vatican shares responsibility for the crisis with local bishops because it fostered a see-no-evil culture that reassigned, rather than punished, abuser priests. It also accused the Vatican of being “entirely unhelpful” to Irish bishops who sought to get tough on abuser priests.

If that wasn’t enough, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny accused the Holy See of attempting to “frustrate” the enquiry and, in an unprecedented blistering reproach applauded nationally, he railed: “The Cloyne Report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and the narcissism that dominates the culture of the Vatican to this day.”


Never had an Irish prime minister so bluntly and publicly pummelled the Church. The Vatican responded by recalling its Nuncio to Ireland and crafting a detailed rebuttal. Released last week, it forcefully rejected the Cloyne conclusions and the harsh rebukes of the prime minister. While acknowledging the seriousness of the crimes, the Vatican vehemently denied it had discouraged Irish bishops from reporting abuse allegations to police or had thwarted investigations.

The Vatican is correct that the report offers flimsy evidence at best that bishops were explicitly instructed to remain silent about abuse, or that the Vatican abetted a coverup or interfered with abuse investigations. But the hole in the Vatican response is that it offers no regret for failing in 1996 to fully back Irish bishops who were championing enforcement of rigid child-protection guidelines.

The bishops had adopted a policy requiring abuse cases be promptly reported to police. Rather than endorse the policy, the Vatican expressed “serious reservations” about it. The Cloyne Report contends some Irish bishops interpreted that tepid Vatican response as a tacit nod to continue treating abuse as an internal Church matter.

The Vatican strongly insists it is wrong to imply that expressing reservations means that it discouraged bishops from calling police. Irish bishops, said the Vatican, were free to follow their own guidelines on abuse and didn’t need Vatican approval to do so.

That hair-splitting is unlikely to mollify a nation of angry and bewildered Catholics. The debate on this fine point would never have arisen if the Vatican had endorsed full disclosure in the first place. They got it wrong in 1996 — and would be well served to admit so now.

Sins of the past can not be undone but moving forward productively requires acknowledgment of old mistakes. The Vatican had another chance to do just that in the wake of the Cloyne Report but, regrettably, the opportunity was lost.

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