Now what for the Church?

We’ve had a week now to come to terms with The Ryan Report. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin warned us to expect the worst, but even so, the scale of the cruelty, neglect, and abuse - physical, emotional, and sexual - documented in the pages of this report will change forever the way the Church is viewed in this country. That those in a position of care to the most vulnerable members of society - those whom the Irish Constitution singled out for particular concern - could have inflicted the immediate pain and suffering, not to mention the long-term emotional consequences that those abused have carried with them into maturity, is terrible enough. That they acted as they did in the name of the Christian faith, whose founder took the child’s trust as a metaphor for humanity’s trust in God, can only be described as blasphemy.

The initial response of the Conference of Religious Orders in Ireland (CORI ) has been worse than disappointing; considering the level of public disgust, it could, at best, be described as woefully inadequate, at its worst, it is simply insulting, to those who suffered the abuse, and to the public, most of whom, let us not forget, continue to call themselves Catholics. That there has not been a huge falling away from the profession and practice of the faith says much about the ability of the Irish people to distinguish between the essence of that faith and some of its unworthy representatives. And here the bishops, as contrasted with the religious orders, must be commended for their unqualified condemnation of the abuses, and their expression of collective shame and remorse, with a determination to redress the wrongs and ensure such things can never happen again.

There are larger issues that will have to be dealt with. One of these is the identity of those who inflicted the abuse over the years. While no one wants a witch hunt - an ugly manifestation of manipulated public anger already evident in some quarters - there is a strong case for distingushing between the guilty and the innocent. Although the defence of ‘a few rotten apples’ cannot be invoked on this occasion given the evidence we have, it is important that the innocent not be tarred with the same brush as the guilty, and that the many brothers, priests, and nuns faithful to their calling be recognised.

There is one final matter that must be addressed, that of the wider church’s responsibility. The Ryan Report has documented that the a large percentage of the money paid by the state to the religious orders did not, in fact, go to the care of the children for whom they were responsible, but to Rome. This is tainted money and should be recognised as such. While no amount of financial compensation could ever make up for the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse inflicted, it is wrong that the Church should be seen to benefit financially from what has happened. While it is hard to know how redress could be made, it is a matter of moral urgency that responsibility be assigned and recognised.

This has been a hard week for the Church, but to acknowledge and accept guilt, as the bishops have done and as the religious orders are beginning to do, is a necessary first step in rebuilding the trust shattered by those who disgraced the faith they purported to represent.

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