All eyes look to Rome for key abuse summit

All eyes look to Rome for key abuse summit Pope Francis prays in front of a candle in memory of victims of sexual abuse when he visited St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral in Dublin last year. Photo: CNS
The Vatican has a key role to play in acknowledging failures Archbishop Eamon Martin tells Michael Kelly


Nothing has done more to damage the credibility of the Church’s witness to the Gospel in recent decades than what we tend to collectively refer to as ‘the scandals’. The abuse of children and vulnerable adults by people who should’ve been leading them to Christ and the subsequent denial and cover-up has left a deep wound.

That wound is acutely felt first and foremost by victims and survivors of abuse. But it is a sore that has touched the entire Body of Christ and, as Pope Benedict noted in his letter to Irish Catholics in 2010, “has obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing”.

But, far from being a distinctly Irish phenomenon – the abuse of children is tragically something that is part of every society and every culture. This is as true for the Church as it is everywhere else. It is for this reason that Pope Francis has convened the meeting in Rome this week to look at the protection of minors in the Church. One of the key themes is to try and take the learning from countries like Ireland and use that to help in parts of the Church globally where there is not yet the heightened awareness of safeguarding that is now part and parcel of ecclesial life here.


The Pope has invited the heads of the world’s bishops’ conferences and Ireland will be represented by Archbishop of Armagh Dr Eamon Martin.

Ahead of his trip to Rome this week, Archbishop Eamon has engaged in extensive listening sessions first and foremost with victims and survivors.

He has also engaged with fellow bishops and through the Association of Missionaries and Religious in Ireland (AMRI) those in consecrated life. Last, month the Primate of All-Ireland also appealed through the pages of this newspaper for the wider faith community to let him know what they think he should bring to the meeting.

While the meeting is scheduled to take place from February 21-24, Archbishop Eamon told The Irish Catholic he is conscious that the time is short and hopeful that the bishops will have an opportunity to share their experiences about this vital issue affecting not only the most vulnerable members of the Church, but also the Church’s very credibility.

“I think that peer-to-peer input of the bishops sharing their stories and their experiences with each other would be very useful,” he told The Irish Catholic.


Archbishop Eamon is conscious of the bitter reality of abuse in the Church in Ireland. “The reality is that some countries have a very painful lived experience of dealing with this issue, including Ireland. And it’s not to say that we’re in any way perfect on this issue, we certainly are not. But we’ve made a lot of mistakes, and if all we were able to do was to share what we shouldn’t have done, and perhaps some other poor victims around the world will be spared this sort of trauma that we put them through,” he said.

The archbishop is aware that – at least anecdotally – some countries still don’t get the issue. They think of abuse as a product of western culture, or something that is alien, for example, to Africa and Asia. “If you have this situation in Ireland, where some people say the Church still hasn’t got it, can you imagine what it must be like in other countries?” he asked.

While he is meeting victims and survivors on an ongoing basis, Archbishop Eamon decided around Christmas to begin a structured process to listen to their hopes and aspirations for the future and what they think the meeting needs to do.

“What I decided to do, was to travel to Dublin, to Limerick, I did one here in Armagh, and one in the West. And basically, I stayed there for a full day and met a range of people who were invited to speak to me by those in those areas who were aware of their situations,” he said.

Archbishop Eamon’s experiences over the years have made him cautious about the Rome meeting since it is specifically addressing the issue of the abuse of children whereas he thinks there is a need to broaden the conversation.

“We know in Ireland, that the sad story of abuse reaches into far more areas than simply the area of somebody who has been abused by a priest. Therefore, in Ireland, our painful chapters of the story of institutional abuse, where religious congregations were in the management and running of these places, mother and baby homes, the Magdalene laundries, and then other issues that are coming to the fore within Ireland, and I think globally now. So therefore we’re looking now at vulnerable people, at situations where perhaps young adults, the seminaries, where people were subject to abuse, the abuse of women.

“The fact that there are in Ireland, and indeed around the globe, children of priests. These are issues and areas of this wider platform of abuse, which we have learned are not separate compartments, but are part of an overall story of abuse within the Church,” he said.

Archbishop Eamon is convinced that the painful lessons learned in Ireland have made the Church here more ready to face the bigger picture. “Perhaps it’s because we have reached a maturity of reflection on this issue, which other countries may not yet have pieced together. Even we are beginning to join the dots, and see that underneath the issue of clerical sexual abuse and others was a wider issue of abuse of power, abuse of position, and sadly, abuse of the very special relationship that there was in Ireland between people and their Church”.

That loss of spontaneous trust in the Church is acutely felt. According to Archbishop Eamon, “in many victims and survivors, one of the saddest things is to realise that these people were really close to the Church. In many cases, the priest was loved by their family. The priest may even have been considered like a part of the family, or the parish, like an extension of the home.

“Where you have parents who were extremely close to their local parish, who were engaged and involved in the life of the parish, were very trusting – hyper-trusting of their local priest. It was into that context that an abuser was able to get access and was then able to depend upon the deference and respect with which he was held to convince the victim that they wouldn’t be believed.”


The third element, the archbishop believes, is that abusers used “the hint of scandal as a cover, knowing that their bishop or their religious superior, or indeed the family of the young person, might think, ‘Oh my God, what a terrible scandal it would be if this got out.’

“You can see how sadly something as beautiful as the deference and respect and love that people have for their Church, was very cruelly abused by, and betrayed by the abuser”.

For Archbishop Eamon, there are now two different dynamics at work on the response to abuse. “One is the operational one: the guidelines, the standards, the procedures, the rules, the protocols, the accountability mechanisms, all of these things which rightfully are demanded I think by an issue as serious as the abuse of children, minors, vulnerable adults. And that to me, is where you would attempt to structure your way out of this problem.

“The other tendency is one which might reflect on why did this happen, what are the tendencies, what was it about who we were as a Church that led to this? There’s been very little theology of the priesthood done, or reflection done on the whole area of sexual integration for priests, religious, those who take vows of celibacy or chastity. What does that do to their sexuality, what does that do to the way they live their lives?” he asked.

There is also an ecclesiological element to it, the archbishop believes. “What was it within the parish structures within the Church that allowed abuse to happen? And then when it did happen, allowed it to be covered up or not handled properly?”

They are piercing questions, but ones the archbishop believes must be faced with honesty. “Because sadly, the issue of abuse has not gone away. It may have changed its way of working, but we therefore need to keep up to date with protocols and procedures whilst at the same time, being in a position where we’re now maturely able to reflect with the help I dare say of victims and survivors. Because one of the things I notice is that some of those who have learned to survive and live their lives, carrying with them their life experience of being abused, now believe they have a role to play as change agents. And not simply the token survivor, but they, reflecting on their experiences, are able to offer perspectives on this. Which we can sometimes dismiss, if we’re not careful”.

Some commentary sees mandatory celibacy as one of the factors contributing to abuse in the Church. The archbishop believes the key is that priests and religious live their vows and promises in a way that integrates their sexuality in a healthy way.

“You can have an unintegrated sexuality as a celibate person, or indeed as a married person. And very sadly, we know from society that a large amount of abuse can take place within a home. And the earth-shattering impact of abuse in the family or families that is the Church, mirrors the catastrophic impact of abuse inside a family home with all the same tendencies towards cover-up, denial, anger, traumatic breakdown and separation, and then guilt and shame. All of those same things.

“When we’re looking at the issue of an un-integrated sexuality, that can indeed happen with the priesthood, within religious life. When somebody who has chosen a life of celibacy, has not been able to integrate that into their lives in a healthy and fruitful way.

“Sometimes priests and religious have to learn that through a very bitter experience, should they fall in love for example. But the un-integration of sexuality that leads to abuse, in my view, is a deviance of sexuality which can exist within the clerical and religious world, but equally within married life or single life. It knows no bounds, and perhaps it would be simplistic of us to try to explain it away.

“This is another danger when we go to the phase of reflection: that we look for easy explanations of abuse. This is something that I think we need to be cautious about as we enter into our reflection. Cautious about thinking we can get the answer quickly,” he insists.


This leads naturally to the issue of homosexuality and gay priests. Some commentators, particularly in the United States, have insisted that the essense of the abuse crisis is gay priests abusing young males.

Dr Martin is similarily clear that simplistic answers have little to contribute. In meeting “with young women, or women who were abused as young girls, what do we tell them? Do we tell them it was heterosexuality? It was the very same dynamics of deviance, of deceit, of cover-up, that happened.

“One would wonder if the very easy access that priests had to boys did indeed lead to a greater prevalence of abuse of boys. I don’t want to go for easy explanations, but I think that our psychologists and psychotherapists who tell us that the tendency to abuse is no risk factor, if we were to use this phrase, associated with sexual orientation.

“Therefore, equally I think that it’s important for us to honestly reflect on, could celibacy in some cases have led to abuse? If somebody had accepted a life of celibacy, without it being an integrated and free choice that they made, it’s going to lead to problems. In the same way as somebody who chooses to marry someone, without having fully reflected on, ‘Do I really love this person?’ It will lead to problems.

“Let’s be cautious about thinking that we can explain away the horrendous breach of trust and breach of vocation that is abuse by a priest, or a religious. By all means, with the help of proper expert research, let’s look at all the issues.

“The other danger is that the issue, the horrendous chapter of abuse in the Church, becomes some sort of ecclesiastical political football, which is batted about between different wings within the Church.

“To me, that is not good, and I think that it is gravely dangerous for the Church to think that we can use this against each other within the Church. Remember, and this came across to me, an act of sexual abuse or indeed any kind of abuse impacts primarily on the victim. It then impacts on their family, on their parish, on their community, it impacts on their relationships with priests in general, on their relationships between priests and bishops, their relationship between Church and society.

“It is like a virus that destroys and infects everything that it touches.

“And we need to realise that it is a terrible awful sin and crime, crying out for proper attention in the Church. Rather than any kind of glib simplistic explanation,” he warned.

Archbishop Eamon is realistic about what the Rome summit will achieve. He is aware that amongst some people expectations are too high. “I think that those people, if they were to stop for a moment, would realise that bringing together 200-300 senior people in the Church from all over the world for three or four days is not going to solve the matters of abuse within the Church.

“However, it is a first. Pope Francis is doing this for the first time. It has taken far too long for the Church universally to try to globally acknowledge this problem. I am a strong believer that abuse is best tackled on the ground, and the principle of subsidiarity is one that I would value in this regard – that taking it to the centre is not necessarily going to protect children on the ground.

“I fully understand that for some people, including many victims and survivors, they see the Church, what they would describe as at the top or at the centre, haven’t got it yet.

“They’re looking for a very clear recognition. And I think that the Holy See has a very important part to play in openly acknowledging that the sins and crimes of abuse have impacted everyone in the Church.

“But I think that the protection of children, of vulnerable adults and minors, must happen on the ground in every parish and every Church activity. So let’s not think that we can kick this issue upstairs, this issue belongs to all of us. And I’m absolutely convinced of that.”

One of the key themes for Archbishop Eamon is the issue of accountability. What, for example, should happen where a bishop or religious superior has been shown not to be implementing proper Church procedures?

“There is at the moment, an insatiable desire on the part of many people to get a head on a plate. Sometimes that can be done without due process, it can be done through some kind of court of public opinion, as distinct from a just process.

“What we have seen in practice is that a priest or a bishop or an archbishop, or even a Pope, who is found to have not followed the Church’s own protocols and guidelines, immediately loses the credibility that is needed to be an authentic leader.

“I think that it is worthwhile to ask whether or not a bishop, who very clearly and in a just process, is seen to have very flagrantly ignored the guidelines of their own Church, can they any longer continue as that sign of unity and communion and leadership and teaching that is necessary in the modern world to be a good shepherd?”

“I think that if it’s seen that they simply are not following the Church’s procedures, and they are giving arise to grave scandal, which makes their authority gravely damaged. I know that there is a global demand for proper accountability in those cases, and I would tend to agree with it.”


He also believes that victims and survivors need to be heard more in the ongoing work of reform and renewal of the Church. “I’m not sure if we’ve yet found the appropriate mechanism by which to do that. I certainly think that every time I have met survivors of abuse, it has changed me.

“I would certainly be encouraging my brother bishops and religious superiors to meet with survivors.

“I think survivors believe that we’re afraid of them, that we prefer to deal with them via litigation, or via professionals. But in many cases what they want is to be listened to, and they want a pastoral outreach. They know that we have all these other responsibilities as well, they just want somebody to listen to them, to believe their story, and to shepherd them.

“I think what I have really come to understand fully in the last few months in preparation for this meeting, is that victims of abuse are members of our Church.

“They are deeply aggrieved and hurt members of our Church. And therefore, they are in need of our care. And I actually think that helping them, I’ve come to see has a corporal and spiritual work of mercy,” according to the archbishop.

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