Pope Benedict this week appointed the controversial retired archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, to take the leading role in a top-level investigation of the Catholic Church in Ireland and its handling of the clerical sex abuse scandals that have shaken it to the core.
Murphy-O’Connor, until last year head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, faced fierce criticism eight years ago over his handling of a case involving a paedophile cleric and apologised to the victims after the priest, Father Michael Hill, was jailed.
As Bishop of Arundel and Brighton in the 1980s, he moved Hill to Gatwick Airport, where he abused a teenage boy with learning difficulties. This was despite expert warnings that Hill might still be a danger to children.
In Ireland Murphy-O’Connor must deal with official reports of decades of rape, coercion and sexual abuse by predatory clerics whose activities, in the words of one report, were “obsessively” concealed by the church hierarchy.
A statement issued on behalf of the pope said the investigators would have “to explore more deeply questions concerning the handling of cases of abuse and the assistance owed to the victims”.
Starting in the autumn, they would “monitor the effectiveness of, and seek possible improvements to, the current procedures for preventing abuse”.
Underlining the importance he attaches to the exercise, formally known as an Apostolic Visitation, the pope named a second cardinal and three archbishops to work alongside Murphy-O’Connor.
The most recent such team to report to Rome included no one more senior than a bishop.
An Apostolic Visitation is the highest level of investigation in the church. Members report directly to the pope and can make wide-ranging recommendations, including imposition of direct control by the Vatican.
Pope Benedict announced the inquiry in March when he wrote to Ireland’s Catholics about the sex abuse scandals that have led to the resignation of three Irish bishops. The investigators will visit churches, seminaries and convents and are expected to question hundreds of people.
The Vatican said the inquiry had been ordered to help the Irish church “respond adequately to the situation caused by the tragic cases of abuse perpetrated by priests upon minors”.
It was also intended to contribute to Ireland’s “spiritual and moral renewal”.
In his letter the pope appeared to cast much of the blame for sex abuse on Ireland’s secularisation.
The current primate of all Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, has faced intense criticism for his conduct over a sex abuse case in the 1970s.
Archbishop Diarmuid Murphy of Dublin, who has made clear his differences with Brady, welcomed the move and “in particular the announcement that the visitation is being asked to evaluate the current response to victims and the quality of the assistance which the Church in Ireland owes to survivors”. —