Irish church's downward spin

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LAST WEEK'S announcement of the name of the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has done little to change the widespread view that the church is in the grip of a crisis raging beyond its control.

The case of Fr Brendan Smyth, the paedophile priest who sparked off the controversy that brought down the Irish government, continues to send shockwaves through the church. It may prove to be its worst crisis in more than a century.

Fr Smyth was eventually prosecuted by the RUC and jailed in Northern Ireland for a series of offences against children. But the handling of his case has left the widespread belief that the church authorities concealed his activities rather than bring shame on the church. The storm of anger and disgust shows no sign of abating, as the media unearth new cases and re-examine episodes that were dealt with quietly in the past.

The bishops have made a variety of responses, but none has stemmed the criticism. Last week came the surprise announcement that a little-known priest from an obscure border parish, Monsignor Sean Brady, had been appointed Coadjutor Archbishop of Armagh. This means he will eventually succeed the present Cardinal, Dr Cahal Daly, though Dr Daly, now in his 70s, said he had no immediate plans to step down. It also means that Rome has effectively passed over the entire Irish bench of bishops, several of whomhad well-known aspirations to wear the Cardinal's red hat.

This is seen as a commentary on the quality of the hierarchy's leadership in the present crisis. Bishops and other clergy have struck various notes in their responses to the Smyth case, apologising and professing ignorance of the scale and lasting effects of child abuse, and promising that new measures would ensure it would never happen again.

The most detailed church response, which came from Dr Daly earlier this month, was unusual in that it sought primarily to defend his personal record in the affair rather than that of his church. He concentrated on emphasising that Fr Smyth operated not under his auspices but those of the Norbertine Order.

Such orders do indeed have near-autonomous status within the church, but the impression left by Dr Daly was that he was shifting responsibility from one part of the church to another, rather than taking the overview which might have been expected of a Cardinal.

He wrote that he had twice telephoned the Abbot about Fr Smyth, stressing that the Abbot "alone had ecclesiastical jurisdiction over him.... I have never had any jurisdiction at any time over Fr Smyth." The Abbot has resigned his post.

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