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Endgame: Is 'The People's Princess' Being Penned In By His Own Pawns?

Sunday Tribune, 27 June 2010

The Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin is a man under serious pressure, amid signs that the knives are being sharpened against him, writes John Downes, News Investigations Correspondent

Under pressure: Diarmuid Martin's approach to communications does not always go down well with a notoriously conservative Catholic hierarchy more accustomed to conducting their business behind closed doors

His supporters see him as the saviour of the Catholic Church in Ireland, a beacon of light at a time of unrelenting darkness. To his detractors, however, he is a ruthless and divisive figure who tramples on the feelings of his fellow priests and bishops in pursuit of his goals.

The jury may still be out on Diarmuid Martin's true standing within the Irish Catholic Church. But as he contemplates his next moves from the rarefied environs of the Archbishop's palace in Drumcondra, one thing is increasingly clear. The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin is a man under pressure.

It is a fair enough bet that Diarmuid Martin is alone among the world's Catholic bishops in having provoked comparisons with the late Princess Diana. Yet when he spoke last month of "strong forces" within the Catholic Church who would "prefer that the truth did not emerge", the parallels with the infamous reference by the "people's princess" to sinister forces plotting against her were clear.

In a wide-ranging speech delivered at a meeting of the Knights of Columbanus in Dublin, Martin also spoke of his concern that there are signs of "subconscious denial" about the extent of the abuse in the Irish Catholic church and how it was covered up.

Yet insiders say his address was by no means unusual for a "lone ranger" archbishop who, every now and then, likes to use such speeches to "shake things up" a little and play up to this image.

"He is absolutely clear when he is doing public statements. They will have been drafted and gone through meticulously," one person who has worked with Martin says. "If he launches an attack or criticism in a speech, he will generally have deliberated a lot before doing it ... I've never seen him lash out in all the years I've known him. "

Others take a different line, arguing strongly that his recent public utterings suggest a man who is frustrated that a hitherto stellar career in the Vatican's diplomatic service has effectively ground to a halt since he moved to Dublin. In this context, they say his anger is beginning to show, because his back is against the wall.

To say the least, Martin's approach to communications does not always go down well with a notoriously conservative Catholic hierarchy more accustomed to conducting their business behind closed doors. In truth, many of them baulk at Martin's use of the media to get across his message.

Some on the ground in Dublin have described how they only hear of his concerns or criticisms through his public comments in the press.

"The media absolutely adore him; from the moment he arrived he has singled this out as an area to be developed," suggests another Church insider with knowledge of Martin's approach.

"But he places zero priority on communications in other areas ... I don't believe he is using the obvious communications capacity which he has in a focused way. He is not collegiate, opting instead to engage in megaphone diplomacy."

Voices of the critics
There are signs that the archbishop's critics within the church have become emboldened in recent months, and are no longer confining themselves to mere whispers of discontent. Arguably the most blatant example of this was when a cabal of around 25 mainly middle aged priests gathered at Manresa retreat house in Dublin last January. The specially convened meeting heard demands that Martin be confronted over his handling of the fallout from the Murphy report, amid claims that the archbishop had become "a source of division" among priests and bishops.

"Anger, frustration and a sense of helplessness [were] expressed at the lack of compassion shown by the diocese in recent months, particularly towards the auxiliary bishops," the minutes of the meeting stated. "We felt that a grave injustice has been done to men who have loyally served this diocese with selfless commitment and Christ-like compassion."

He has also had to contend with other outright attacks on his leadership, most notably from a former auxiliary bishop of Dublin who was himself strongly criticised in the Murphy report.

Claiming that he had failed to support priests in the Dublin archdiocese following the publication of the report, emeritus auxiliary bishop of Dublin Dermot O'Mahony earlier this year scolded Martin for his public comment that the management of cases was "inexcusable".

"I said that your criticism was unfair. You were out of the diocese for 31 years and had no idea how traumatic it was for those of us who had to deal with allegations without protocols or guidelines," he said in correspondence which found its way into the press.

All of this has prompted some to claim that there is now a growing resentment of Martin, a man who critics say has few friends, can be quite gruff in his dealings with others and leads quite a solitary existence.

It is a charge which is rejected by others who have worked with him closely, and who say he can be "incredibly witty and good fun",when the humour takes him.

They also point out that he has many supporters among the priests of his archdiocese – many of whom choose to express their support in private – while abuse victims point to a genuine empathy which is largely missing from most of his fellow bishops.

Martin is a man who does not trust people easily, others who know him say. He "doesn't really do small talk" and can be impatient if he feels progress is not being made quickly enough. But he has a wide network of close friends to whom he turns for support and emotional nourishment. Tellingly, many of these are located outside of Ireland.

Martin faces huge challenges as Archbishop of Dublin in the months and years ahead. Not least among these is the fact that some of his fellow bishops have publicly defied his calls for accountability when it comes to their roles in the Murphy report.

Martin has repeatedly challenged those bishops to explain themselves, all the while claiming that it is not his job to tell people to resign (or, by extension, to remain) in their posts. The pressure he applied eventually led his two remaining auxiliary bishops, Eamonn Walsh and Ray Field, to announce last Christmas that they were offering their resignations to Rome.

Yet Martin's calls for all of those bishops mentioned in the report to either admit their mistakes and step down, or to stand over their claim that they had done nothing wrong, have provoked the ire of others within the bishops' conference itself. This culminated with the current bishop of Galway, Martin Drennan, claiming in one radio interview that Martin had unfairly "put a question mark over my integrity" with such demands. He has since steadfastly refused to consider resigning his post, in a direct sign of defiance at Martin's perceived meddling in his brother bishop's affairs.

Meanwhile, the archbishop – already unpopular with many of his fellow bishops and led by a Catholic primate, Cardinal Seán Brady, who himself has resisted calls to step down from his post – must continue to run his archdiocese in the rather uncomfortable knowledge that the resignations of both Walsh and Field have yet to be accepted by Rome, some six months after they first offered to step down.

There is also the small matter of the upcoming apostolic visitation of Ireland, personally ordered by the Pope, which is due to begin in the autumn. Martin has publicly welcomed the visitation, but recently also expressed his concern that "Dublin runs the risk of being the most investigated diocese in the world."

"I'd be interested to see the specific thing, what it is that this visitation is going to bring out that won't be in Ian Elliott's audit or the HSE audit, or the Murphy report or the Garda [investigation]," he added.

Elsewhere, the archbishop's demeanour since last February's gathering of bishops in Rome has been seized on by his critics as evidence that his influence with the Pope may be on the wane. Abuse survivors who met him after he returned from the meeting described how Martin seemed to be a "different man" from the one who had travelled out.

"I did put it to him that he seemed to have come back with his wings clipped," abuse survivor Andrew Madden told reporters at the time. "But he said that wasn't the case."

Earlier this month, Martin was also asked if the Vatican was happy with his performance in Dublin.

"The Pope has always been very supportive of me. In that sense he was unusual. Not everyone did," he responded.

"I'm watching the statements of the Pope in recent times. You could see a position which is becoming much more explicit and strong, and I am very happy to see that."

Isolated change-maker
So where does all this leave Diarmuid Martin, the "reforming" archbishop who has the support of many victims' groups – and the wider general public – but not that of all his fellow bishops, and perhaps not even the Pope? Critics argue that he simply won't get the "buy in" he needs to change the church if he does not radically alter his confrontational approach to his fellow priests and bishops.

"He is almost totally isolated, there is a deep sense of grievance against him in the wider church," one Church insider argues. "It would be far better for him to bring people with him, perhaps by engaging in a root-and-branch listening exercise. He is clearly not happy in the job." However, such an analysis perhaps risks missing the point.

Martin may not be part of the Irish "clerical club", but he clearly has no real desire to be, either, and has long been viewed as an outsider appointed to do Rome's work in Ireland.

Indeed, another striking feature of discussions with both supporters and critics of Martin alike, (and people somewhere in-between) are the repeated references to his formidable abilities as a networker. As one person puts it, he has a little black book of contacts which would be the envy of Bertie Ahern. Others note that he has always had an eye on the international perspective – a fact attested to, for example, by his regular attendance at the World Economic Forum in Davos – and his years spent in the Vatican's diplomatic service.

With this in mind, it is possible that Martin, the skilled networker, could well be planning an exit strategy of sorts, should he feel he needs it. He may ultimately regroup, and seek to remain in Ireland as a senior member of a reforming hierarchy here, having been reaffirmed in his work by Rome. But he could also grow tired of the constant resistance he has faced and ride off into the sunset, perhaps having negotiated a senior Vatican role as a standard bearer in the "growth area" of child protection reform due to the work he has done in Dublin.

Whether Martin ultimately throws in the towel here could have serious implications for the future of the wider church in Ireland. Given the pressure he is currently under, clearly something has got to give.