The On the Side of the Victims

The Tablet Interview

Sarah Mac Donald – 22 June 2013


Last weekend, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin warned pro-life supporters against the use of “intemperate language and gestures” in the debate on abortion. But in the same homily he also warned those on the pro-choice side of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill that this was not a moment for open season “to take cheap pot-shots at the Church”. It was the kind of measured response that the people of Ireland have come to expect from their second most senior prelate.
Archbishop Martin has drawn on all the skills he acquired as a church diplomat to deal with the latest issue in a rollercoaster decade since he was appointed coadjutor archbishop to Cardinal Desmond Connell in May 2003.
Born in Dublin in 1945, he studied philosophy at University College Dublin and theology at the Clonliffe College, the Dublin diocesan seminary. He later studied moral theology at the Angelicum, the Dominican university in Rome, before he returned to Dublin briefly as a curate. His diplomatic career began in 1976 and culminated in his appointment in 2001 as the Holy See’s Permanent Observer at the United Nations in Geneva and at the World Trade Organisation. Following his unexpected recall to Dublin, he succeeded Cardinal Desmond Connell as Archbishop of Dublin in 2004.
Mention his name and the issue people automatically speak about is his trojan work in addressing the Church’s appalling mishandling of clerical sexual abuse. At one point there was even speculation that the Vatican would establish a special department for child safeguarding and that Archbishop Martin was a contender to head it. Sitting in his residence in Drumcondra, the 68-year-old rejects the idea that he has made some in the Church in Ireland and in Rome uncomfortable by his transparent approach to clerical sexual abuse. “I think I have made a lot of people more comfortable,” he retorts.
Referring to the 70,000 documents he handed over to the Murphy Commission, he jokes, “When I get to the gates of St Peter and they are weighing things up, I hope that the 70,000 documents will weigh down on the right side!” For many, he is the “clean pair of hands” who had the determination to root out the abusers, give succour to the victims and return some credibility to an institution that had been enormously damaged by its wilful obfuscation, denial and ineptitude.
However, he is not without his critics. One area the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) has expressed concern over is his treatment of priests accused of abusing children. Here he points to his responsibility to be a father to the priest as well as every Christian in the diocese, particularly the victims. He identifies the slowness of both the civil and canonical procedures following abuse allegations as a major problem and says he wants to see them move more quickly. “The difficulty is that there are a variety of cases coming forward today and they all require a different response. Very often the bishop can’t say anything about the case out of respect for the priest and the other side. And that makes it quite difficult.”
In the contentious abortion debate that is currently engulfing Irish society, the archbishop has steered a course that has asked some challenging questions of the Government, pressing them on politicians’ right to a free vote while also pointing out uncomfortable truths to pro-life supporters pushing for mass excommunications. “The fact is that the number of people who have been formally excommunicated is minimal. I believe that the important thing is to create a wide consensus around pro-life issues rather than going after [individual politicians].”
For Archbishop Martin, being pro-life is about standing up for the dignity of every person and addressing violations of human dignity, such as exploitation or poor-quality care of the elderly, as well as brutal gangland killings and racial aggression. He says he is particularly worried by the series of “very brutal examples of violence” on Irish streets in recent weeks, a lot of it linked to drug-related crime. He pointedly refers to the use of so-called recreational drugs and warns that those who indulge are in fact part of the machine of this criminality. He is also concerned about recent incidents of racial aggression in Dublin and says that the present negative economic climate can be exploited very quickly. In post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, neighbours barely know each other in some of the new estates and this, he suggests, requires a rediscovery of a sense of community.
Looking to the future, he recognises that the shortage of priests will be a major issue. The swift decline in their numbers has prompted Fr Brendan Hoban, an ACP spokesman, to write a book calling for a radical rethink on celibacy and proposing that permanent deacons be allowed to go forward for full ordination. However, the archbishop rejects Fr Hoban’s suggestion, maintaining that the prospect of fewer priests presents an opportunity. “Rather than say ordain the deacons we have – I would say let the ministry of deacons begin to flourish and let’s see what it means for the Church. Let the lay pastoral workers flourish. They can’t celebrate the Eucharist, but they can challenge priests to shed some of the things they do and come back again more closely to what is essential.” An enhanced role for the laity will change the Church for the better, he believes.
His vision for the future of the Church in Dublin is grounded in the archdiocese’s statistics, which show that there are more people under the age of seven than over 70. The future is going to be about meeting those needs. “The cohort of one- and two-year-olds is significantly larger [even] than of seven-year-olds. This is where the Church has to reinvigorate its work – with young people because the numbers are going to increase.”
After 10 years of tending to the pastoral and spiritual needs of his native city, he acknowledges that he misses aspects of his life as a diplomat in Rome and the many friends he made there, although he says he enjoys his work in Dublin. His diplomatic career has inspired an enduring respect for international organisations and the international community, although he expresses doubts that it always exists. “I met fascinating people in international life but I also met horrendous people – people who should have been before war crimes tribunals. I saw how the Church can be very courageous and how the Church can also be weak in places.” He asserts that there are people working in international life without whom society would be much poorer. He treasures a letter from one of those – Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed in a 2003 car-bomb attack on the UN in Iraq. Archbishop Martin also refers to a previous UN committee chairman with whom he frequently clashed who wrote to him recently and said: “I want you to remember that you were always our favourite enemy!”
He was well liked in diplomatic circles but there has been criticism from some of his clergy over what they describe as his distant manner. He says he listens to these voices. “Everybody has the right to make their accusations. A bishop has to be supportive but a bishop also has to lead. Sometimes leading doesn’t make you popular. Sometimes trying to move forward on issues, especially at a time of insecurity, is not easy.”
Perhaps he feels somewhat betrayed by some of the naysayers over last year’s International Eucharistic Congress. It was a massive undertaking by a Church that had just undergone a full-scale Vatican visitation. The archbishop admits that the numbers who attended were small. Many priests and people apologised to him afterwards for not having taken it seriously enough earlier on, admitting they were sceptical about it, fuelled by a Catholic press that claimed it was a waste of time and money.
He entered the seminary in Clonliffe just a week after the start of Vatican II. It was, he says, a very different Church then, led by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, and the many changes he has witnessed in the years since have heartened him. He relaxes by reading theology, both in English and Italian, and recently he has been turning to publications about the Second Vatican Council. He likes to keep up to date on international affairs and watches television news in different languages “to understand what is going on in the world”. Admitting he works long days, which doesn’t leave much time for other relaxation, he hints that the day is not so far away when he will need to hand over to a new generation. Recently he was in Rome for the retirement of a journalist friend whose daughter he buried when she was killed in a terrorist attack. Another daughter, whom he baptised, is now 25. Admitting he misses these friendships, he concludes the interview saying: “I don’t miss the Vatican – I miss the work.”