Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Of weeds and wheat and the troubles of the Church in Ireland

By Phil Lawler July 18, 2011

At Mass yesterday, as I listened to the Gospel reading, my thoughts turned toward the embattled Catholic Church of Ireland. To be sure, the enemy has had some great success there recently, sowing weeds amidst the wheat. And it seems that leading politicians are ready to adopt the same approach that the imprudent workers advocated in St. Matthew’s Gospel: they are eager to uproot the weeds, even if it means tearing up good wheat as well.

The public outrage is both real and reasonable. Church leaders failed to report the sexual abuse of children, and for that they richly deserve all the criticism they are now hearing. But the proposed solutions—which would include requiring priests to violate the confessional seal—would cause more damage, without addressing the real problem.

The problem exposed by the Cloyne report had nothing to do with confessional secrecy. The bishops and other diocesan leaders who covered for clerical abuse did not learn about that abuse in the confessional; they learned about it in their administrative capacities. A law requiring disclosure of child abuse, with the usual exemption for confessional matter, would give prosecutors all the authority they need to bring charges against any diocesan officials who did the same thing in the future.

Many Irish politicians today are ignoring the inconvenient truth that even if prosecutors had known what was happening in the Cloyne diocese in 2005, they might not have been able to bring charges; the law at that time did not provide a handy means for pursuing those who concealed evidence of abuse. So the law was partially at fault, too—and by extension the lawmakers. By all means, tighten the law to allow full prosecution of those who abuse, and all those who enable them. Certainly, demand accountability from Church leaders. But be careful to distinguish between the weeds and the wheat.

Unfortunately—as we American Catholics learned a decade ago—it is difficult to preserve these distinctions at a time when the media are howling for dramatic action, the politicians are eager to oblige, and the bishops themselves sometimes seem more anxious to avoid bad publicity than to serve the real needs of the faithful.


  1. Hypothetical situation:

    In three days a man is to be put to death by the state for committing murder. He has always claimed to be innocent of the crime. The same day another man confesses to a priest that he is the real murderer.

    What would you do if you were that priest?

  2. More hypothetical:

    The innocent man who is about to be put to death by the state of Texas is a widower and he is the father of six children, ages 5 to 15. He was convicted of torturing his wife to death. He was not a religious man; he never received Christ into his heart.

  3. Yet more hypothetical:

    When the guilty man confessed to the priest, he told the priest that he is heartily sorry for committing the murder. And he is. But he is too cowardly to turn himself in to the police. He also told the priest that he continues to have urges to do it again.

  4. If I were the priest, the penance would be to turn yourself in.

  5. That's clever, Anonymous. I like the way you think. The killer is not absolved of his sin until he turns himself in to the police (CCC 1459 - 1460).

    I wonder if there were any confessors who gave that penance to a penitent priest who confessed to sexually abusing a child.

  6. The Story of Alton Logan

    "This is a story about an innocent man who languished in prison for 26 years while two attorneys who knew he was innocent stayed silent. As correspondent Bob Simon reported earlier this year, they did so because they felt they had no choice."

    You can watch the 60 Minutes episode "Lawyers Keep 26-Year Secret."

    Or read it on the 60 Minutes website.