An apostolic visitation of the Church in Ireland will begin in the autumn, the Vatican announced yesterday. Two cardinals and three archbishops from the UK, the US and Canada will offer "assistance to the Bishops, clergy, religious and lay faithful as they seek to respond adequately to the situation caused by the tragic cases of abuse perpetrated by priests and religious upon minors", reads the statement, adding that the investigation is "intended to contribute to the desired spiritual and moral renewal" of the Church in Ireland.
The investigation, which was promised by Pope Benedict in his Lent letter to the Irish people, will initially be of four major dioceses as well as seminaries and religious houses. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor [pictured], retired Archbishop of Westminster, will be responsible for Armagh; Cardinal Sean O'Malley, Archbishop of Boston, will oversee Dublin; the Archbishop of Toronto, Thomas Christopher Collins, will investigate Cashel-Emly while the Archbishop of Ottawa, Thomas Prendergast, will be assigned Tuam. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York will lead an investigation into Irish seminaries, including the Pontifical Irish College in Rome.
As their names suggest, these are all church leaders of Irish extraction; they are also experienced in putting the Church's house in order in their local dioceses. Victims' groups who complain that their record on abuse is mixed are missing the point. It is precisely because, for example, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor was criticized for his mishandling of a abusive priest in the 1990s that he appointed a member of the House of Lords to suggest future procedures. The Nolan guidelines led to a major shakeup in the way abuse cases were handled in the UK.
This is the expertise the Vatican is looking for. "The Apostolic Visitors will set out to explore more deeply questions concerning the handling of cases of abuse and the assistance owed to the victims; they will monitor the effectiveness of and seek possible improvements to the current procedures for preventing abuse", according to the statement.
The Congregation for Catholic Education will coordinate the visitation of the Irish seminaries, including the Pontifical Irish College in Rome. The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life will organize the visitation of religious houses, initially in the form of a survey sent to the superiors of all religious houses before the actual visitation.
The visitors for the second phase will be a Redemptorist, Fr Joseph Tobin, and a Jesuit, Fr Gero McLaughlin, for institutes of men; Sr Sharon Holland of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and Sr Mairin McDonagh of the Religious of Jesus and Mary for institutes of women.
Response from Ireland has been positive. The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, said the enquiry was an “important element in the broad process being set in place by Pope Benedict to assist the Catholic Church in Ireland in its renewal”. He said Cardinal O'Malley's "experience and personal commitment render him particularly suited" for the investigation, which he described as an "important element" in the purification and renewal of the Dublin church, which "addresses the truth of a dark moment in its history."
Three bishops in Ireland have resigned this year and the Archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal Sean Brady, has come under intense pressure to do so. Two devastating reports last year identified serious failings in the way the Church used to handle abuse cases.
Procedures in Ireland have been dramatically tightened in the last 10 years along the lines of those introduced in the UK and the US. It's not clear what new recommendations the Visitors will be able to make.
But as a way of drawing the sting over the intense criticism, it is an astute move. And it can only be hoped that it will help to bolster the often lonely position of Archbishop Martin, who has led the attempts to move the Irish hierarchy on from the denial and collusion identified in last year's Ryan and Murphy reports.