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Bishops Lack Management Skills and Support

Irish Times , Apr 20, 2002 by Tom Savage

The Catholic Church in Ireland is not a monolithic structure and bishops do not have modern management teams to help them deal effectively with problems like child abuse, writes Tom Savage 

When a priest is appointed to his post, the letter of appointment says "... in the interest of the care of souls, you are appointed to..."

Few of the men currently in ministry, including the 26 bishops, imagined, on first receiving their letter, that the care of souls would present them with difficulties like those of recent months. None expected to be held individually responsible for ghastly happenings in dioceses miles from their own, because, although the general public thinks of the church, there is no such single entity.

Instead, 26 dioceses, each reporting to Rome, not to their colleagues in Ireland, is managed by an individual bishop. How a response to an emerging problem is structured depends on the background, personality, academic and the pastoral care insight of each. This, inevitably, creates a patchwork approach.

Nor do bishops have civil service-type administrative support. Individual bishops usually have a priest secretary with a lay secretary to take care of clerical duties. Dioceses lack the permanent management structures typical of large commercial operations. Problem issues are dealt with by an individual bishop, working it out for himself, often unaware of practice in neighbouring dioceses.

Perception of the Irish church as an all-powerful monolith is factually unsupported. The dispersed reality has no match, except perhaps in healthcare, where it was possible for the management of one health board to structure delivery of services without reference to what the health board next door did. Only in recent months are health boards setting out, through the health boards executive, to co-ordinate the approaches of chiefs executive - and health boards number less than a dozen, whereas there are 26 dioceses.

Ferns, from which Bishop Brendan Comiskey resigned, is one of the smallest. Others not only represent a demographic and scale contrast, but some straddle the Border, like the Archdiocese of Armagh, which has different civil administrative systems on the two sides. The uneven quality of the church's response to controversial issues sometimes stems from not being a single entity with enforceable processes, structures and clear lines of command. For example, while Ferns falls within the metropolitan area of Dublin, the Archbishop of Dublin, Cardinal Connell, has no authority over the allocation, movement or disciplining of priests there.

That bishops have been ill-equipped to deal with paedophilia is not something which should be laid as a charge against them. Until recently, few people, whether within the social work or medical professions, had balanced clarity about the management of this problem.

Bishops also have other considerations when faced with such issues, not least the confidentiality attaching to counselling relationships and particularly to the confessional.

One of the most traumatic interviews in any diocese would be the encounter between a bishop and the priest reported to as having involved in any activity not in keeping with the priestly ministry. A sexual charge, particularly involving children, would be horrific to the bishop, and the ensuing encounter would be a hugely significant one in the relationship.

If, when summoned to the bishop's palace to respond to the charges, the priest said "Yes, I did it, I'm sorry, it was a dreadful mistake, it will never happen again," presented as totally contrite and, in the words of the Catholic catechism and moral teaching, had "a firm purpose of amendment", that would influence the bishop's judgment. He would feel that the fact of it being raised, that the man knew his bishop was now aware of what had happened, would mean it was unlikely to recur. Where the offence was an affair between the priest and another adult, that's precisely what would happen.

The chronic nature of paedophilia and the manipulative personality traits characterizing paedophiles puts it outside of that model. Cardinal Connell has acknowledged hierarchical bafflement in the face of both the complexity of paedophilia and the devious untruthfulness of paedophiles.

For each Catholic bishop, observing the confidentiality of the individual in confession is an absolute value. They would regard exchanges between a priest and a bishop about offences committed by the priest, even if those exchanges had not taken place formally in the confessional, as being bound by the same obligations.

Where a bishop summons a priest charged with misbehaviour of any kind to his palace to answer for himself, the keeping of written records would be rare. However, were a bishop to do so, he would be as protective of those files as of the oral exchange they summarised.

Each churchman sees as one of his key functions the protection of what has made the confession a central issue for Catholics; the absolute guarantee that, no matter what the circumstances, priests will be jailed before they reveal what is said under the seal of the confessional.

Where a bishop has not had an individual counselling relationship with the accused priest, his situation is relatively easy, but where someone has come to you personally in one-to-one confidence, alerting the authorities is a major step.

The decision to make that step has been complicated in some respects by the fact that Rome, looking at the wider picture of the Catholic Church, has said: "No, the first thing you will do is deal directly with Rome."

This brings us to the central dilemma in all this; the relationship between church and State.

The Attorney General's recent statement seemed to express clearly the superiority of the civil authority. That is not necessarily the view of the bishops, who do not see the church as being subservient to the State. They do not see the State as being subservient to the church, but they would see themselves living in parallel universes. That dilemma has not yet been resolved.

It's worth pointing out, in this context, that in 23 US states, clergy are not required to report cases of suspected child sexual abuse, and in 16 states, clergy are exempted from reporting such cases if disclosure comes during counselling , either in confession or other private talks. However, memos, complaints and other third party communications are not exempt.

However the issue of church/State is resolved, the grim lesson has been learned that paedophilia is no once-in-a-lifetime aberration. Seeing it thus led some bishops to be viewed as lacking care, whereas the belief stemmed from innocence, contributed to, as the Rev Kevin McDonough of St Paul-Minneapolis observed recently, by professional advice that paedophilia was treatable through medication and monitoring, and priests could return to active ministry.

McDonough, one of the authors of a booklet advising victims how to report it, suggests the understanding has radically - and recently - changed. "From what has been reported now," he said, "it seems much more unlikely that a person can return to the ministry."

Tom Savage is a director of Carr Communications in Dublin and a former producer of RTÉ Radio 1's  Morning Ireland programme. He was a priest in Armagh, where he was director of social welfare. He was a seminary classmate of Archbishops Brady and Clifford