Ireland has long been the model of a loyal Catholic state, an ask-no-questions adherent to the Vatican's word. But after more than 15 years of church child-abuse scandals and cover-ups, that seems to be changing. Today the relationship between the two is at a historic low, with the Holy See recalling its ambassador after Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny launched an unprecedented public attack on the institution's handling of child-abuse allegations.
In a rare and serious diplomatic move, the papal nuncio returned to Rome on Monday after what a Vatican spokesman described as the "excessive reaction" in Ireland to the government's latest report on clerical abuse. The spokesman was referring to a scathing speech Kenny gave on July 20 in which he berated the Vatican for its part in covering up child-abuse allegations against its clergy. The Prime Minister's speech accused the Vatican of "downplaying" the "rape and torture of children" to uphold its reputation and referred to the "dysfunction, disconnection and elitism, the narcissism that dominates the culture of the Vatican to this day."
The inquiry, which covered 1996 to 2009, found that although the Vatican had in place a policy, developed by Irish bishops in 1996, of reporting suspected cases of clerical child abuse to police, it undermined that policy by telling bishops in 1997 that it violated church law. While awaiting a response from the Vatican (another reason the ambassador was recalled, according to the spokesman), Ireland has proposed new legislation to make it a crime not to report child sex abuse, even if the act is revealed in the secrecy of the confessional a controversial break from church law. In his speech, Kenny drew a line in the sand regarding Ireland's traditional status as a loyal Catholic state. "This is the Republic of Ireland 2011," he said. "A republic of laws, of rights and responsibilities, of proper civic order, where the delinquency and arrogance of a particular version, of a particular kind of 'morality,' will no longer be tolerated or ignored."
The church's influence is still visible in Ireland, where abortion is illegal and the church runs most schools. "The Vatican will have been taken aback by Ireland's defiance after centuries of being politically deferential towards the church," said theologian Gina Menzies. "The idea that Ireland is a republic beholden to no faith is a departure for a country in which introducing contraception and divorce were difficult," she said.
Kenny has been widely hailed for his speech. He told reporters on Sunday that he had received thousands of messages of support and was "astounded" by the number of clergy who told him it was "about time." Campaigner and former abuse victim Andrew Madden welcomes the change from the attitudes of previous governments, which he says were "way out of step not just with victims but with wider public opinion."
Indeed, Kenny's attack carries more weight for ordinary Irish Catholics because he leads the traditionally staunchly Catholic party Fine Gael. "It was not an anti-Catholic speech but was pro-children and pro-Ireland," Madden says. "The fact that his speech will probably not lose Kenny a single vote but will most likely gain him some is a sign of a shift from excessive deference in political circles and wider culture," says Michael Kelly, deputy editor of the Irish Catholic newspaper. As a result of more than a decade of horrific abuse scandals, the Vatican's power over ordinary Irish Catholics has grown weaker and weaker. "There has been an absolute loss of moral authority for the church, and Catholics will increasingly privatize their faith keeping their distance from and not looking to the hierarchy as previous generations did," Kelly says.
The current row formalizes the rapid separation of state policies and church teachings in this once staunchly Catholic nation which this year has seen the start of same-sex civil partnerships despite condemnation of homosexuality by the Vatican. The government is already making moves to take away the last pillar of church power: education. The Catholic Church runs 90% of elementary schools and most high schools in Ireland giving the church day-to-day powers such as controlling school boards, approving hiring of teachers and insisting on the teaching of Catholic doctrine in classrooms. Now the rupturing of relations between Ireland and the Vatican strengthens the hand of the Minister for Education, who wants half the country's Catholic elementary schools transferred to nonreligious management. The state may also get ownership of some church school lands in a deal over compensation to abuse victims. "A change in school patronage is important, even if no priest ever abused a child," says Madden. "Parents have a right to a choice."
Madden does not anticipate any radical shift in policy from the Vatican when it gives its response to the child-sex-abuse report in August, only a continued "complete failure to take responsibility." The Vatican is expected to send its ambassador back to Dublin, but that will not signal the return of the status quo. No matter what response the church gives to the child-abuse report, one thing is clear: the days of the Vatican's undue influence over the Irish are over.