The Archbishop of Dublin has greeted the new Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, with an unusual rebuke. Dr Martin on Thursday described his remarks on the “courage” of Irish religious orders in confronting child abuse as "unhelpful".
The report by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse into the notorious twentieth-century church-run reform schools took nine years to compile and is packed with harrowing accounts of what the report describes as "endemic" abuse of children, ranging from neglect to violence to rape.
Archbishop Nichols made his comments on the eve of his installation at Westminster Cathedral on Thursday (video highlights here). What he said:
“I think of those in religious orders and some of the clergy in Dublin who have to face these facts from their past, which instinctively and quite naturally they’d rather not look at. That takes courage and also we shouldn’t forget that this account today will also overshadow all of the good that they also did.”
When the Guardian phoned me last Wednesday -- they had been given the comments in advance of their broadcast -- I didn't think there was much wrong. I understood him to be saying that religious orders now had to face up to what their members did in the past in Ireland's notorious "reform schools" and did not imply any lack of sympathy for the victims. Archbishop Nichols, after all, described the report as "distressing and very disturbing".
But the Guardian newsdesk was "up in arms" about it, said my caller. And sure enough the next day, the newspaper had a front-page story which carried furious criticism of Archbishop Nichols from victims of abuse.
It is the criticism from his Dublin counterpart that will have hurt more. The remarks were “unhelpful”, Dr Martin told the Irish Independent. “My thoughts and anger are entirely on the side of the victims. They are the real heroes of this story by finding the courage to come forward".
It was a good illustration of how the reception of what is said can be more important than its content. THe British press, with its "hermeneutic of suspicion" about the Catholic Church, starts from a view that Catholic bishops are in denial over abuse, preferring to put the interests of the institution before those of victims.
So in trying to balance the report and to put it into perspective, Archbishop Nichols came across as representing that high-handed institutional blindness to victims. It was a little reminiscent -- as the Sunday Timesputs it -- of "how the first days of Nichols’s predecessor in the post, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, had been blighted by his hesitant and uncertain handling of the same toxic issue."
In a society where victims are rivals, and the claim of children higher than any other, it is best not to try to introduce balance and perspective.
Much better is to give a straightforward human response which matches the indignation out there -- a response like that of the Archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal Cahal Daly, who said simply: "I am profoundly sorry and deeply ashamed that children suffered in such awful ways in these institutions. Children deserved better and especially from those caring for them in the name of Jesus Christ."
That is perfectly judged.
(I have spoken to the BBC Radio 4 Sunday program about the challenges facing Archbishop Nichols here. The item begins at 15.10 mins.)