What will the apostolic visitation of Ireland accomplish?
In response to the sexual abuse crisis there, Pope Benedict decided last spring to send five bishops to carry out a visitation - ecclesiastical parlance for an investigation — of the archdioceses and seminaries of Ireland. He chose quite a high-powered team: Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Westminster (retired), Archbishop Thomas Collins of Toronto and Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa. They have each been assigned one Irish archdiocese, and Archbishop Timothy Dolan has been assigned the Irish seminaries.
The visits are ongoing in these months, and final reports are due at the Vatican by Easter.
When the visitors were announced last spring, I was disappointed. The archbishops chosen are fine men, most of whom I know personally and admire greatly. But choosing five Irish bishops from the diaspora to conduct visitations in "mother Ireland" struck me as more of a family reunion than an ecclesiastical reform.
My own preference would have been to send visitors from Africa and India, men of different colours and different accents. Some black and brown faces in the Emerald Isle would have dramatically underscored that it was no longer business as usual.
Affinity notwithstanding, the Canadian visitors have made it clear that they are not there to exchange blarney at the local pub. It will be serious investigation of what is being done now, and what further reforms might be needed. Dolan has assembled a senior team of bishops to assist him, including Archbishop Edwin O'Brien of Baltimore, who oversaw the visitation of American seminaries half a dozen years ago.
The purpose of the visitation is to assist the Irish Church on the path of renewal and, specifically, to ensure that the reforms in handling and preventing sexual abuse cases are adequate and being followed. The latter should be rather straightforward, the former rather more difficult.
It needs to be remembered that while the government commissions on sexual abuse reported in 2009, this matter has been preoccupying Ireland for two decades. It is unlikely that the visitors will find that, at the level of policy, significant changes need to be made in 2011.
It is already 20 years since the late Father Brendan Smyth, the notorious serial predator and symbol of clerical abuse, was arrested. The mishandling of his extradition from the Irish Republic to Northern Ireland led to the fall of the government of Ireland in 1994.
The horror that convulsed Irish society produced by 1996 in the Archdiocese of Dublin and elsewhere the reforms that are now standard in many places - reporting protocols, lay review boards, removals from ministry, victim assistance and so forth. That was all 15 years ago, and by now the path of renewal should be well advanced.
But it is not. The urgent, if hidden, work of the visitation is to discover why not.
The Irish bishops had more than a decade to address this issue, and to prepare for the government commissions of inquiry. Yet when the reports came in 2009, it was as if the Irish Church was back in the early 1990s.
Last spring in Rome it was easy to find Vatican officials who were furious with the Irish bench, who collectively went scurrying to Rome and dropped the whole stinking mess in the papal lap. Benedict's response has been thoughtful, theological and practical - witness his letter last year to the Church in Ireland, and the current visitation. The open question though is why the Irish bishops have not managed to do better.
The more pointed question is whether they are capable of doing better.
When the visitors report in a few months time, their official reports will be read carefully. The unofficial reporting will be more important. Rome will want to know whether the current bench of Irish bishops has the leadership capacity and evangelical zeal required for the task of renewal and reform. If the answer is negative, the next question will be whether there are other candidates available who might be called upon in an overhaul the Irish hierarchy.
The once formidable Church in Ireland, missionary to the whole world, is now at the margins of the life of the universal Church. There is much affection and gratitude throughout the world for all that Irish Catholics have done. The visitors have been sent back home, as it were, to help an old lady that has fallen hard, and appears unable to get back up.
Fr. Raymond de Souza - firstname.lastname@example.org