Monday, March 22, 2010

The Pope’s Letter is a starting point

Vatican flag Greetings from Istanbul!  I reflected on the Pope’s letter on the 4-hour flight to here today.  The Irish newspapers were filled with comment about it.

I welcome the Pope’s candid apology and the empathy reflected in his letter. His language is straightforward and direct.  It would have been impossible for a single letter to have dealt conclusively with the complexity connected to clerical child sex abuse in Ireland.  His letter has the potential to open a new relationship with Ireland - if words are followed by actions that chart a new direction which inspires confidence and recovery.  But much hard work is required to achieve this and it may not be possible for change to come quickly enough to satisfy many people.

The Pope criticises the Irish bishops for having failed - at times grievously.  Their errors of judgement and failure of leadership, to which he refers, will require a radical response from the Holy See in terms of who leads the Church in Ireland and what the nature, style and tenure of the desired leadership is.  One characteristic of bishops in Ireland is the extraordinary length of their tenure which extends up to 40 years in some instances.  Longevity of service does not equate with a disposition to change and an absence of accountability leaves them in a most undesirable position when things go wrong with devastating consequences.  There is no obvious method for those in difficulty to validate an impaired mandate.

The first response to systemic failure in an organisation, or institution,  are new faces at the helm, even if those effected by such change believe that they are not directly culpable for adversity uncovered.  The consequences of such change is to achieve effective accountability, inspire trust and a revitalise the institutional culture.

Ireland has had to deal with a plethora of such instances in the recent past and many of the new incumbents have arrived from outside the country to take over pivotal positions in various fields, such as financial services, the State funding of research, the investigation of venality and incompetence in banks, running a loss-making airline and the inspection of policing. 

Will the Pope need to nominate an archbishop of Armagh with the patience, eminence and stature of Senator George Mitchell to achieve what is necessary?  Does such an individual exist within the global Church hierarchy?  How would the incumbent bishops react to the imposition of a new broom from far away, untutored in their native habits and preferences?  Should they be innovative and demand a time limit to their tenure of, say, five to seven years, and be free to deploy their experience constructively in another role?

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