For the strongest historical reasons, Irish Catholics generally carry an abiding and deserved respect for their clergy. In 1994 we were deeply shocked by the revelation that a minority of clergy could exploit this respect by sexually abusing children. The Brendan Smyth scandal also revealed that the bishop pastors of those children had protected not the children, but the abusing priest.
Immediately in 1994 Irish bishops rushed to prove their concern for child safeguarding, but concealed from their people that as early as 1987 they had begun taking out insurance against financial liability for this abuse. Their first protective instinct on becoming aware of the possibility of civil suit for compensation had been to protect church finances, not baptised children of God. We did not learn of this until 2003, and again we learned it from the secular media.
By then we knew that serious child abuse had happened on an appalling scale in Ireland’s largest diocese, Dublin, as well as in the diocese of Ferns, Wexford. We knew also that the same lightning had struck Catholic families in the United States, most grievously in the Archdiocese of Boston.
There in 2002 outraged Catholic lay people formed the organisation Voice of the Faithful (USA). Its intent was to support survivors of abuse and their families, to support also those Catholic priests who had shown solidarity with survivors, and to work for changes to church structures that would give lay people an effective voice in their own church.
Watching this development it occurred to some Irish people that a similar organisation was needed in Ireland. One of them, Sean O’Conaill, happened to visit VOTF’s offices in Boston in January, 2004 – and was prevailed upon to try to link together all those Ireland-based people who had made contact with VOTF USA.
This he did, and VOTF (Ireland) emerged. Under ‘Our Record’ you will find an account of what we attempted to do in the years that followed – with limited resources and an even more limited understanding of the obstacles we would encounter. Making the mistake of supposing that at least some of the Irish hierarchy would be willing to collaborate in developing a new relationship with their most injured people – and new church structures to facilitate this – we only gradually came to realise that a deep-seated clerical resistance would defeat all of these attempts. Only gradually did we come to realise that the strategy followed by the Irish bishops conference would be to protect their own power, and the assets they managed, rather than to tackle the cancer at the heart of the problem – clericalism, the ideology of clerical – and especially of hierarchical – monopoly of power in the church.
This disillusionment by the end of 2010 led to a period of crisis for VOTFI, and to reappraisal by those members not totally exhausted. Some had come to believe that VOTF’s platform was too narrow, and parted company in search of a wider programme. Those who remained have held a watching brief – waiting for a different time.
Has this now happened – in the reign of Pope Francis? His exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, decries not only the scale of all injustice, but the distance of lay people from the church’s ruling culture. So far Irish bishops have shown scant sign of sympathy with this outlook, so we must not once more rush to optimism about the prospect of change. Instead we should examine seriously the possibility that time has been called on the clerical church system that has betrayed so many of our most innocent and vulnerable people – our children – and look to the possibility of pro-active developments that do not depend in any way on clerical co-operation.