Cardinal Sean Brady speaking at the Humbert School
Time to seek a new beginning
Fr Kevin Hegarty
History says Stephen Dedalus, a character in James Joyce’s novel ‘Ulysses’, ‘is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’. The words are apt for the Catholic Church in Ireland as it continues to reel from a spate of revelations of clerical and religious sexual abuse of children and the subsequent cover-ups by the institution’s leaders.
For the first time, the leader of the Church in Ireland, Cardinal Seán Brady, has become directly embroiled in the revelations. Over the weekend he faced calls for his resignation because of his involvement in the investigation of allegations against the notorious paedophile priest, Fr Brendan Smyth, in 1975.
Before offering comment I would like to summarise the facts as they have emerged. In 1975 the then Fr Seán Brady was a 36 year old priest, Canon lawyer, teacher and occasional secretary to Bishop Francis McKiernan of the diocese of Kilmore.
On behalf of his bishop he attended two secret meetings with two people, a teenage girl and an altar boy, who claimed they were abused by Fr Smyth. At the first meeting he was joined by two other Canon lawyers. At the second meeting in Ballyjamesduff, in April of 1975, Dr Brady was the only Church representative. He questioned witnesses, recorded their answers and presented his report to the bishop.
I found the revelations disturbing for two reasons. Both the girl and the boy were required to sign affidavits pledging them to secrecy. They were asked to promise that they would not talk to anyone except the priests of the tribunal. This demand could have prevented them from seeking redress or help from the statutory agencies, especially the gardaí.
I found it equally disturbing that Drs Brady and McKiernan and the other two church lawyers seem not to have considered that these serious allegations - which Dr Brady has admitted he believed to be true - should have been reported to the gardaí.
In extenuation of this failure, Cardinal Brady asserts that the culture was different then. He says he would act differently now.
We have been told ad nauseum that the Church is on a “learning curve” about the crisis of the sexual abuse of children.
I do not find this argument convincing. The Church had an implicit policy of cover-up in this matter until it collapsed under the weight of public outrage.
The sexual abuse of children is a crime now. It was a crime in 1975. Respect for and adherence to the requirements of civil law in a democracy is the duty of every citizen. There is no special opt-out clause for Catholic clerics. The 1975 allegations should not have remained within a closed clerical cabal.
Should Cardinal Brady resign? He has argued that he should not do so. He has pointed out that in 1975 he was a junior Catholic cleric who merely performed diligently a task given him by his bishop. He was also, it has to be said, an adult citizen of this democratic state with all the responsibilities consonant with that position.
On food of Dr Brady’s report, Bishop McKiernan withdrew faculties from Fr Smyth to act as a cleric in the diocese of Kilmore. Fr Smyth was not a cleric of the diocese of Kilmore. He belonged to the Norbertine Order which has a base in the diocese. Fr Smyth, after his dismissal from priestly activity in Kilmore, was allowed to practice in other dioceses where he continued his devastating trail of abuse. No effort seems to have been made to pass on information about his sexual proclivities.
Cardinal Brady has also argued that as Archbishop of Armagh he has presided over the production of stringent guidelines for the protection of children in the Catholic Church. That redounds to his credit, though I have to say that these guidelines were dragged out of the Church under the relentless gaze of public scrutiny as the crisis unfolded.
In his resignation statement last December, Bishop James Moriarty of Kildare and Leighlin accepted that, on reflection, he had not sufficiently challenged the culture of cover-up in the Archdiocese of Dublin when he was an auxiliary bishop there. Can Cardinal Brady honestly say that he challenged the culture? He has said he would do things differently now but so, I am sure, would Trevor Sargent.
I have to say, though I accept he will find it hurtful, that I believe Cardinal Brady should resign.
For the last 15 years the Catholic Church in Ireland has oscillated from traumatic revelations to botched explanations and back again. It is a great tragedy. If it is to regain credibility a moral catharsis is needed. A resignation of the magnitude of Cardinal Brady’s might herald a new beginning.