It has become a painfully self-evident truth – surely, even to the silent onlookers at the Vatican – that the longer Cardinal Seán Brady stays in place as Primate of All Ireland, the greater the damage inflicted on the reputation of the Catholic Church in Ireland and beyond. This is not simply because his presence has become a reminder of the cover-up of pedophile abuse by priests, but also because it illustrates a continuing problem: that, after all this time, Cardinal Brady just doesn’t get it.
By “get it” I mean that he still seems to believe that he personally behaved appropriately in the circumstances by which the late Father Brendan Smyth, a rapacious pedophile of almost unimaginable moral corruption, was tacitly permitted by the Church to continue brutally abusing children for 40 years, long after the ecclesiastical authorities knew what he was up to.
As set out in last week’s BBC2 documentary This World: The Shame of the Catholic Church, Father (as he then was) Brady was a 36-year-old canon lawyer who was brought in – along with two other priests – to investigate the case of Brendan Boland, a 14-year-old boy who had come forward to expose Fr Smyth as his abuser since the age of 11. Boland supplied names and addresses of other boys and girls who had been abused in similar fashion, and Father Brady contacted one of those boys.
Both Boland and the other boy were required to sign a formal oath of secrecy forbidding them to tell anyone except “authorized priests” what had gone on, and Fr Brady compiled two reports which were sent further up the Church hierarchy. The parents of none of the five children identified by Boland were informed of what had happened: indeed, Smyth continued to abuse two of those very children after the 1975 inquiry, and went on to rape and bugger a number of their younger siblings and cousins as well. I apologize for the explicit language, but evil found its hiding place in euphemism for too long.
The gist of Cardinal Brady’s modern-day argument is that mistakes were made, but that it was primarily the fault of Smyth’s superiors in the Norbertine Order, and that he did everything in his power at the time. He said in response to the documentary: “I had absolutely no authority over Brendan Smyth. Even my bishop had limited authority over him.” And it is in those two words “no authority” that you can hear the tolling bell for a lost conscience.
We are all aware now that pedophiles may seek to conceal their abuse by presenting it to the victim as “our little secret”. The younger Father Brady was instrumental in turning Brendan Smyth’s abuse into the Church’s little secret. The children’s parents, who would have been a source of both outrage and protection, were deliberately not informed, and nor were the police. The Church saw a choice between protecting its own reputation, and shielding young children from ferocious abuse, and it unhesitatingly chose to protect itself. Quite unbelievably, it did not even take definitive steps, within its own clandestine terms, to arrest the foul behavior of Smyth.
All of which brings us to that word “authority”. The phrase “what would Jesus do?” is overused. But it doesn’t seem to me a bad question to ask oneself, particularly if one pursues a career soaked in scripture and moral exhortation. And whether one understands Jesus simply as an interesting historical figure, or as the Son of God, we can all surely agree on one thing: he cared nothing for earthly authority, or his own security, when fundamental questions of right and wrong hung in the balance. On what authority did he turn the money-changers out of the Temple, or prevent the gleeful mob from stoning an adulterous woman? His protective instincts were particularly strong on behalf of children: “And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.”
Even if one takes that millstone as a metaphor, I have every confidence that had Jesus been in the room when Brendan Boland stuttered out his agonizing evidence, the subsequent consequences for Smyth would have been immediate and forceful. Jesus was not in the room, however: just a group of apprehensive men acutely conscious that their hierarchical institution might lose face.
Well, it has now lost more than face, and I lament the distress that has caused to Catholics of deep and genuine faith, as well as to those courageous priests who have always sought to live as they believe. But the authority of the Church needs to move closer to the authority of Christ. The trouble with Cardinal Brady is that he still does not seem to understand the difference.
[Source: The Telegraph]
- Cardinal Sean Brady must go despite apology, says sex abuse victim (belfasttelegraph.co.uk)
- Martin McGuinness: Vatican has miserably failed child sex abuse victims (belfasttelegraph.co.uk)