On Sunday the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmiud Martin, made a profound apology to the former parish of a priest jailed last week for sexually abusing three boys (the priest had long since been laicised after serving a previous conviction for abusing six others). THe archbishop, who has waged an at times lonely campaign to put the Dublin church in sackloth and ashes, deplored the arrogance and self-centredness of a Church that stood so far apart from society that it couldn't hear the cry of victims.
The homily was especially moving because Archbishop Martin had once been a parishioner at Ballyfermot, at a time when "I was exactly at the age of many of the children who were abused by Tony Walsh and sadly by a number of other priests who worked in this parish over the years. I apologize unreservedly."
He said the Church needed to become more like John the Baptist, who "shunned the external amenities of a comfortable life because he wanted to show his absolute dependence on God".
The figure of John serves as a warning to us today, to all believers, to the Church and to Church organizations of every age of our need to draw our strength from Christ alone, rather than from identifying with the cultural patterns and fashions of the day, which in any case come and go. The Church is there to proclaim and live out the message of Jesus. It is not there in any way to be inward looking and self protecting. The Church is called to renewal, to tear itself away from conventional expectations, attitudes and superficialities. The Church in every age must become like John the Baptist, an uncomfortable reminder of how we must repent and allow the truth of Jesus to break into and enlighten the darkness that can at any moment enter into our lives or the life of the Church.
Looking back, he saw clearly that "the catastrophic manner in which the abuse was dealt with was a symptom of a deeper malaise within the Irish Church."
In many respects, he went on, "the Church in Ireland had allowed itself to drift into a position where its role in society had grown beyond what is legitimate. It acted as a world apart. It had often become self-centred and arrogant. It felt that it could be forgiving of abusers in a simplistic manner and rarely empathised with the hurt of children."
Archbishop Martin has made himself unpopular with many of the other members of the hierarchy, who have sometimes resented his often sweeping, searing statements about a past for which -- because he was in Rome, or acting as the Vatican's envoy to the UN -- he was not responsible.
But that's a prophet's lot, isn't it? To be told that they don't know what they're talking about, or that they've got no right to say it, or that they are too "extreme" and "sweeping". J the B would have been familar with that those criticisms.