|By SARAH LYALL|
Published: September 17, 2011
DUBLIN — Even as it remains preoccupied with its struggling economy, Ireland is in the midst of a profound transformation, as rapid as it is revolutionary: it is recalibrating its relationship to the Roman Catholic Church, an institution that has permeated almost every aspect of life here for generations.
This is still a country where abortion is against the law, where divorce became legal only in 1995, where the church runs more than 90 percent of the primary schools and where 87 percent of the population identifies itself as Catholic. But the awe, respect and fear the Vatican once commanded have given way to something new — rage, disgust and defiance — after a long series of horrific revelations about decades of abuse of children entrusted to the church's care by a reverential populace.
While similar disclosures have tarnished the Vatican's image in other countries, perhaps nowhere have they shaken a whole society so thoroughly or so intensely as in Ireland. And so when the normally mild-mannered prime minister, Enda Kenny, unexpectedly took the floor in Parliament this summer to criticize the church, he was giving voice not just to his own pent-up feelings, but to those of a nation.
His remarks were a ringing declaration of the supremacy of state over church, in words of outrage and indignation that had never before been used publicly by an Irish leader.
"For the first time in Ireland, a report into child sexual abuse exposed an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry into a sovereign, democratic republic as little as three years ago, not three decades ago," Mr. Kenny said, referring to the Cloyne Report, which detailed abuse and cover-ups by church officials in southern Ireland through 2009.
Reiterating the report's claim that the church had encouraged bishops to ignore child-protection guidelines the bishops themselves had adopted, the prime minister attacked "the dysfunction, the disconnection, the elitism" that he said "dominate the culture of the Vatican."
He continued: "The rape and torture of children were downplayed, or 'managed,' to uphold instead the primacy of the institution — its power, its standing and its reputation." Instead of listening with humility to the heartbreaking evidence of "humiliation and betrayal," he said, "the Vatican's response was to parse and analyze it with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer."
The effect of his speech was instant and electric.
"It was a seminal moment," said Patsy McGarry, the religious affairs correspondent for The Irish Times. "No Irish prime minister has ever talked to the Catholic Church before in this fashion. The obsequiousness of the Irish state toward the Vatican is gone. The deference is gone."
While both sides are talking in more emollient terms now, there is no question that Mr. Kenny's declaration deeply angered the Vatican. It immediately withdrew its ambassador from Dublin, ostensibly to help fashion the Vatican's formal response. (The ambassador has since been reassigned to the Czech Republic.)
The position of Irish ambassador to the Vatican is currently vacant, too, and there is talk here of merging it with the ambassadorship to Italy. While government officials say the question is part of a general re-examination of the diplomatic budget, such a move would be seen as a pointed snub to the Holy See, a sovereign state to which countries generally dedicate separate embassies.
Meanwhile, in what has developed into a tit-for-tat war of words, the church's latest formal communication with Dublin — 24 pages of densely argued prose — took issue with both the Cloyne Report and Mr. Kenny's remarks, saying that a crucial document had been "misrepresented" by the inquiry and calling "unsubstantiated" Mr. Kenny's assertion that the Vatican had tried to "frustrate an inquiry" into the abuse scandal.
Sympathizers with the church's position say the Vatican made valid and nuanced points. And they say Mr. Kenny went too far. "Personally, I think it was excessive," David Quinn, founder of the Iona Institute, a right-leaning religious advocacy group, said of the prime minister's speech.
In an interview, Mr. Quinn said that the relationship between the Vatican and the Irish government was "at a very low ebb." The state of affairs had not been helped by the fact that newspapers in China, he said, had written editorials using Mr. Kenny's remarks as an argument for "why the church should be under government control."
Mr. Kenny, who took office in March after the long-dominant Fianna Fail party imploded over the financial crisis, has been accused of opportunism by some critics. But his position as a practicing Catholic from a conservative area helped give moral weight to his speech. And his government's feisty new tone has been met with widespread approval in a place that feels doubly betrayed: first by the abuse itself, and second by what many see as a cover-up by the church, compounded by the often opaque, legalistic language with which it defends itself.
"You can talk about the finesse of diplomatic ties and maneuverings, but what Kenny was actually saying was that you have to prioritize the victims of abuse, and you have to assert very loudly that this is a republic and civil law has to take precedence over canon law," said Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin.
While most people have not abandoned their religion, many seem to have abandoned the habit of practicing it. The archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, recently estimated that only 18 percent of the Catholics in his archdiocese attended Mass every week.
The government has announced that it will introduce a package of new legislation to protect children from abuse and neglect, including a law — considered but rejected as too contentious by previous governments — that would make it mandatory to report evidence of crimes to the authorities. It has also established a group to examine how to remove half of the country's Catholic primary schools from church control.
In a recent interview, Eamon Gilmore, Ireland's deputy prime minister, said that Ireland had asserted its role as a "modern democracy."
No longer would the church enjoy its previous privileges and powers as in times past, when it, with the government's collusion, "effectively dictated the social policy of the state," he said.
"Historically, there was a view within the Catholic Church that there was a parallel law, that they had their own system of law, and that was the law to which they were accountable," Mr. Gilmore said. "At a minimum, that blurred the understanding of the necessity for full compliance with the law of the state."
He added: "The Catholic Church is perfectly entitled to have its own view and its own rule and to view matters according to its own light. But this is a republic. And there is one law."
When it comes to protecting children, Mr. Gilmore said, "Everybody in the state — irrespective of whether they're ordinary citizens doing everyday work, or a priest or a bishop — has to comply with the law."
Courtesy:New York Times