Yesterday I watched on live TV two former boyars in Rupert Murdoch’s monocracy wriggling under gratifyingly hard and pointed questioning by the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture and the Media. A few years ago, this would have been as challenging as beach rounders. Now, its different; not just because Murdoch is damaged and British politicians are taking their revenge for years of humiliating grovelling, but because the committee members are much better prepared and briefed. John Bercow, the widely disliked but intelligent and ambitious Speaker, knows, unlike Obama, the sour truth of Caligula’s saying: oderint dum metuant.
Former legal director Tom Crone, and former editor Colin Myler of Murdoch’s sleazy and now shuttered UK tabloid The News of the World, ended up contradicting evidence given earlier by their one-time boss James Murdoch, viz. that when he agreed to a very large settlement of a hacking lawsuit brought by Gordon Taylor, he didn’t know of a damning email proving that the case was not isolated. James Murdoch is likely to be recalled for further inquisition. You agreed to a half-million quid settlement just to shut Taylor up, not to keep the lid on a bigger can of worms?
What struck me was the attitude of Myler and Crone. Crone particularly clearly saw his job entirely as minimising the damage to his employers from the lawsuits resulting from reporters’ illegal shenanigans, balancing monetary with reputational loss, exactly as an outside lawyer would. They never mentioned any broader duty to see that their paper conducted its business in a reasonably ethical and lawful way.
You would not expect better of the sort of men who float to the top of Murdoch’s septic tank. But what’s the difference between their evidence and the Vatican’s latest response to the Irish government on the child abuse scandal? Judge for yourself. Irish government charges here; Vatican response here.
The critical point for the response goes back to 1997. After scandals, the Irish Catholic bishops prepared guidelines for the handling by diocesan officials of allegations of child abuse. On 21 January 1997 the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Storero, wrote them a letter relaying Vatican legal hesitations on “merely a study document”:
The Congregation [for the Clergy] wishes to emphasise the need for this document [the guidelines] to conform with the canonical forms presently in force.
It expands on this point, but doesn’t say anything else. The Irish government claims that this letter gave cover to reactionary bishops who proposed to ignore the non-binding guidelines, thus allowing abuse to continue.
The Vatican’s response is like that of Tom Crone, only much better done and far less defensible. It’s the case for Storero’s defence in a canon law tribunal. Sample:
The Congregation [of the Clergy]â€™s description of the Framework Document as a â€œstudy documentâ€, which was based on the explanations of its nature as provided by the Irish Bishops and in the published text itself, was not a dismissal of the serious efforts undertaken by the Irish Bishops to address the grave problem of child sexual abuse. The Congregation, taking cognizance of the Bishopsâ€™ intention not to make the document binding, while at the same time aware that each individual Bishop intended to adopt it for his Diocese to deal with cases as they arose, wished to ensure that nothing contained in it would give rise to difficulties should appeals be lodged to the Holy See.
Point scored! Our man Storero is in the clear! Except that the whole thing completely misses the beam in the Vatican’s eye. Fourteen years on the Curia still thinks this is about the proper handling of disciplinary charges against priests, not the prevention of evil done to children, still less institutional penitence for it. The response reproduces, in more elegant form, the moral blindness and political obtuseness of Storero’s letter, which doesn’t even pay lip service to the gravity of the offences of the abusing priests, the crisis in the Church’s standing in Ireland, and the vital pragmatic as well as moral need for a vigorous crackdown.
Update The anger of Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Enda Kenny is justified:
The rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and ‘reputation’. Far from listening to evidence of humiliation and betrayal with St Benedict’s “ear of the heart”……the Vatican’s reaction was to parse and analyse it with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer.
The new response does make the required genuflections on the tragedy, but few are fooled. Can you imagine an Irish leader saying, even ten years ago, anything like these words of Kenny’s:
This is not Rome. Nor is it industrial-school or Magdalene Ireland, where the swish of a soutane smothered conscience and humanity and the swing of a thurible ruled the Irish-Catholic world. This is the Republic of Ireland 2011. A Republic of laws…..of rights and responsibilities….of proper civic order….. where the delinquency and arrogance of a particular version….. of a particular kind of ‘morality’….. will no longer be tolerated or ignored.
He sounds like a French anti-clerical in 1905.
The Vatican has at least learnt the Murdoch skill of throwing underlings under the bus. The Pope publicly rebuked Irish bishops (untouchable in the old days) in a pastoral letter last year:
It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse. Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations.
But was the Vatican in any way responsible for abetting the train wreck? Dear me no. It only appoints the bishops and tells them what not to do. It’s not so much the Pope who’s infallible, but the Curia that is not responsible for anything.