Will the Visitors ask the really hard questions? Fr. Séan McDonagh, SSC


Two weeks ago Cardinal Marc Quellett, the  Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops  summoned the four Irish archbishops to Rome to discuss the forth coming visitation to the Irish Church. While in Rome they will meet some of those who will carry out the visitation. These include, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor (retired Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, Archbishop Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, Archbishop T. Prendergast of Ottawa. Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, Archbishop T. Prendergast of Ottawa, Fr. Gero McLoughlin, a Jesuit, Archbishop Tobin (former superior general of the Redemptorists, Sister Sharon Holland from the U.S. and an Irish nun, Sister Máirin McDonagh.

The Procedures and protocols are to be worked out by the Congregation of Bishops in Rome.  Thus far, everything is a bit vague.  “Helping the Irish Church” is fine, but what does it mean, and how will it be achieved? The deputy editor of The Irish Catholic, Michael Kelly wrote that, “the first phase of the enquiry will be carried out by sending questionnaires to all the leaders of religious institutions in Ireland with a view to providing an accurate picture of the current situation and formulating  plans for the observance and improvements of the norms contained in the child safeguarding, guidelines.”[1] I have not heard of anyone, as yet who has seen such questionnaire.  As a social scientist, I would be hugely concerned that important decisions on the future of the Irish Church would be taken on the basis of superficial data gleaned from surveys and a few weeks spent talking, mainly to clerics

Michael Kelly argues that for the visitation to have any real credibility in Ireland it will have to be as open and as transparent as possible. “Obviously a lot of the work will require a high level of discretion and confidentiality. Nevertheless, unless the process is one that is open to hearing from different voices, including dissenting ones it will not be able to achieve a clear picture of the state of Irish Catholicism.” [2]Since Rome is not well-known for dialoging or engaging with what they might consider “dissident” voices, there is a fear that the visitation process will be used to try to turn back the clock to a previous ‘golden age’ when everything was supposedly “fine” with the Irish church.

Will the visitors address the fact that there were serious deficiencies in Church leadership in Ireland and elsewhere?  Pope Benedict acknowledges this when he wrote, “it cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed at times grievously to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse.” In reading the above, one would get the impression that someone else –an opposition party – had appointed these Archbishops. The truth is that they were appointed by Rome and, in fact, often forced on Irish Archdioceses against the wishes of the priests and people. They were considered to be ultra orthodox in Rome and it was felt that they would hold back the tide against any real change in the Church. While there were major lapses in the way these Archbishops dealt with cases of child sexual abuse, they were hawk-eyed in spotting and punishing anyone who raised any questions about Humanae Vitae, optional celibacy for diocesan priests, the subordinate role of women in Church decision making and, especially, the ordination of women to the priesthood.  The two token women on the visitation team speaks volumes.

In a letter to The Irish Independent Brendan Butler puts his finger on why we have such weak leadership in the Catholic Church today. He writes, “the root cause of the troubles in the Church is (that) the Vatican – not alone in Ireland but throughout the world – has appointed men who are handpicked by the Pope and whose record on orthodoxy must be impeccable…. As a result we have Roman-appointed bishops without any reference to the people or priests of the diocese. These men, in turn, repay the Pope for their privileged position by being  obsequious to the Vatican.  What we need is a return to the early Church when the local people of God chose their pastors who were then confirmed by Rome.  What we need in a Church of the future is diversity in unity and unity in diversity – not an obsequious uniformity to all things Vaticanese.”[3]

[1] Michael Kelly “ The Irish Catholic, “How the Apostolic Visitation will work, “ June 3, 2010, page 8.


[2] ibid


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