Archbishop Nichols faces fire as he takes office

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.

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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.)  

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8 years 6 months ago
I keep trying to understand Archbishop Nichol's critics. We seem to have a hairtrigger environment that will not allow for any but formulaic responses to evil. His was a call for courage, not praise, as so many asserted.
8 years 6 months ago
A whole lot more than public hand wringing and apologies from bishops like Vincent Nichols, I'm sorry to say, are necessary here. The government of Ireland made a deal with the Devil in agreeing not to prosecute or name any of the individuals, living or dead, who were party to such widespread abuse of children.  The two nuns who brokered such a deal should be ashamed to have participated in what has amounted to a worldwide problem.  Sr Elizabeth Maxwell, then the secretary general of the Conference of Religious of Ireland (CORI) and currently head of the northern province of the Presentation Sisters, and Sr Helena O’Donoghue leader of the Sisters of Mercy, south central province, participated in what has amounted to a worldwide problem, notwithstanding the fact that some cardinals officially stated it was a Boston, Massachusetts problem, an American problem and blamed it on the permissive society that exists in the United States. Really? The Holy See itself along with the leaders and superiors of every religious order implicated in this tragedy like the Christian Brothers, the Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of Charity. Every one of the religious groups should be named along with every individual who has ever been convicted, credibly accused or known to have participated in what amounts to crimes against humanity, should be brought before the world's court. The Holy See is a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child even though it has never submitted one of the required compliance reports and I suspect Ireland is a signatory as well. Every single God given right has been denied these children and they are deserving of some justice. They should get it from the world court and the sooner the better. Yes, Crimes against humanity. The Holy Spirit is telling us that if we believe that the Church is the People of God, then we, the People of God have to clease and change the Church! Sister Maureen Paul Turlish Victims' Advocate New Castle, Delaware [url=mailto:[email protected]][email protected][/url]
8 years 6 months ago
Um, actually Cardinal Sean Brady, the reigning Primate of All Ireland since 2001, wrote those 'perfectly judged' words quoted by you, Austen: Cardinal Daly is the emeritus Archbishop of Armagh.  I'm possibly being pedantic, as so few read these opinion pieces, but there is little excuse for sloppy journalism. In addition, the phrase 'perfectly judged' was first used in the context of this story - [url=http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/damian_thompson/blog/2009/05/20/archbishop_nicholss_response_to_the_irish_child_abuse_report_is_perfectly_judged]http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/damian_thompson/blog/2009/05/20/archbishop_nicholss_response_to_the_irish_child_abuse_report_is_perfectly_judged[/url] -  by Damian Thompson at his very widely read blog at the Daily Telegraph (he gets hundreds of thousands of hits a week) , and so I can only assume that your use of it is meant as a compliment to him. Back on topic, it is also quite extraordinary, and a great shame that +Dublin felt he needed to comment on the English and Welsh Primate's compassionate analysis - it may be construed as him trying to monopolise the situation for his own political ends. Still he'll be in Dublin for many years to come, and so will have much time to repent.       
8 years 6 months ago
Archbishop Nichols' comments minimizes the horror of what was done to these children by the Church run institutions. That is why people are angry about his remarks. The evil and the culture of abuse that occurred on a daily basis in the name of God should ''overshadow'' everything else.  To quote Father Thomas Doyle, ([url=http://ncronline.org/news/accountability/irish-abuse-report-demands-decisive-action]http://ncronline.org/news/accountability/irish-abuse-report-demands-decisive-action[/url]): The vicious sexual, physical, emotional and spiritual devastation inflicted upon these children was not accidental. It was systemic. It was part of the everyday life and indeed deeply ingrained in the very culture of the childcare system in Catholic Ireland.The intellects and emotions of decent people, of committed Christians and especially of devoted Catholics cannot truly process the unbelievable reality presented in this report. The sadistic world of these institutions is not that of some crazed secular dictatorship. It is not the world of an uncivilized tribal culture that ravaged the weak in ages long past. This report describes a world created and sustained by the Roman Catholic Church. The horrors inflicted on these helpless, trapped children - rapes, beatings, molestation, starvation, isolation - all were inflicted by men and women who had vowed themselves to the service of people in the name of Christ's love. The  Church should enter a long period of public penance for these sins and crimes. There is much to answer for.
8 years 6 months ago
Nichols' statement deserves all the criticism it can possibly receive. The facts are that the Christian Brothers, a key part of the report, obstructed the inquiry and held it hostage to their terms. As a London Times column noted, ''the worst sadists, the Christian Brothers, made only a ''guarded, conditional and unclear'' apology, and cut a deal that no individuals should be named.'' Passing on most of the financial responsibilty for settlements to the government was also shrewd maneuvering. This is how Nichols defines courage?? And what does all the good Christian Brothers did elsewhere have to do with the contents of the report? Nichols' narcissistic focus on clergy, who have manifestly NOT faced the facts of their culpability, is telling indeed. The new archbishop mentions abusers' ''weaknesses,'' and deceiving themselves about ''taking a bit of comfort from children.'' His choice of ''perspective'' in appalling. Skip abusers' euphemisms, and speak plainly of ''crimes'' of sexual molestation, to be precise. Or does ''balance'' demand equal reference to their dissembling? It is first and foremost the courage of survivors that deserves recognition for exposing the rot at great personal risk. Not surprising that a prelate's mindset is elsewhere, notwithstanding the conditional non-apology apologies that usually issue from chanceries in the passive voice: so distressed and disturbed for what you suffered, not the suffering we brother bishops caused by our willful blindness and flagrant indifference to your welfare. A good PR firm can come to the rescue, but pity the Gospel does not suffice.
8 years 6 months ago
Archbishop Nichols' statement struck me as defending the perpetrators-very much in line with the pattern that has been so evident since 2002.   What happened in Ireland cannot be understood as anything less than demonic.  The questions to ask are about how people who were vowed religious could possible justify treating children with such violence.  Another line of questioning is how those who were not engaged in this violence failed to challenge it in the days when it was taking place.

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