Friday, 22 May 2009

Installation of the new Archbishop of Westminster and the Irish scandal

Archbishop Vincent Nichols has now been formally installed as Archbishop of Westminster (photos: Fiona Hanson / PA Wire via The Catholic Herald).

In the lead-up to the ceremony, the Archbishop said and did some very promising things:
  • a blog was set up to give details of the preparations for the ceremony;
  • the preparations included commissioning music from Britain's leading catholic composer, commissioning a set of nice vestments, and a ceremony that included elements of the pre-reformation rite; and
  • he made some comments on the appalling Irish Abuse Scandal Report that seemed on the face of it, as Damian Thompson has suggested, to capture an appropriate level of anger and outrage at what had happened there.

The Irish report

I haven't read the Irish Report yet - I didn't want to spoil the feast day, and I suspect I need to be feeling strong before I do read it. Because I'll admit to having a bias against Irish culture from my limited experience of it and its Australian legacy - and it sounds from various comments I've read as my bias is going to be massively reinforced.

Still, the question really is, what is the appropriate response to it. The Irish Primate has made some pretty unsatisfactory comments so far. Archbishop Nichols responded to the report as follows:

"It's very distressing and very disturbing and my heart goes out today first of all to those people who will find that their stories are now told in public... Secondly, I think of those in religious orders and some of the clergy in Dublin who have to face these facts from their past which instinctively and quite naturally they'd rather not look at."

"That takes courage, and also we shouldn't forget that this account today will also overshadow all of the good that they also did."

Asked whether those who perpetrated violence and abuse should be held to account, he said: "Yes they should, no matter how long ago it happened."

"In this country now we have a very steady and reliable system of co-operation with police and social services who actually now hold us in good regard.

"They know that we are reliable and trustworthy partners. Those that abused the trust that was placed in them should be brought to public account."

Asked whether legal and police process should take place, he said: "Yes, absolutely. If the offences are such that demand that."

All sounds pretty good to me, but apparently he has taken a drubbing from victims groups who are outraged at the suggestion that those involved could have done any good at all, and that it will take courage to face up to what they have done.

Anger and acknowledgement

One can understand their reaction - but I do think it is wrong in this instance.

Lay people, whether they were abused or not, remain rightly angry not just at the crimes themselves but much more fundamentally at the cover ups that occurred. The reason we remain angry is that very few of those who are implicated in the clergy shuffling and cover up have actually been called to public account. Yet.

The victims groups seem to want some kind of Rudd-esq, in my view completely fake, 'these people are the scum of the earth and they will burn in hell' reaction from the Church.

But Catholics actually believe in the call for repentance and forgiveness.

And Archbishop Nichols, I think, was just pointing to the reality of the challenges involved in this given the capacity for self-delusion.

Consider for example, the extremely disturbing example of Archbishop Weakland who, one gathers from various media stories, claims in his forthcoming book not to have understood that abuse was a crime - even though he wrote letters at the time rejoicing at having protected the 'reputation' of abuser priests.

The fallout from the Irish report looks like being enormous. It will affect Australia too, since apparently some of the priests involved now live here. And AB Weakland's forthcoming 'I'm a homosexual and proud of it' book will similarly do enormous damage.

There has already been one conviction for covering up abuse in Australia. The Australian Bishops Conference - and other conferences, together with the Holy See - would do well to consider getting ahead of this issue, show some transparency, and perhaps set up a task force to investigate just who else is implicated in cover ups here. This may well, however, be a classic example of the limitations of self-regulation...

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