Friday, November 27, 2009

Reservations About This Notion of "Mental Reservations". The Murphy Report And The Irish Abuse Crisis

Retired Cardinal Archbishop of Dublin, Desmond Connell, never lied. He just engaged in some 'mental reservation'. This is his 'believe me' face.

Below are two stories from the Irish Times concerning the release of the government report detailing the abuses and cover ups of clergy sexual abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese. The first deals with the report itself and some of the details contained in it, but mainly focuses on the clerical culture of lies and cover ups. The second explains retired Cardinal Connells' use of 'mental reservation' which allowed him to deceive, lie, and cover up, while maintaining a sinless conscience.

Bishops lied and covered up
Mary Rafferty Irish Times 11/27/09

THERE IS one searing, indelible image to be found in the pages of the Dublin diocesan report on clerical child abuse. It is of Fr Noel Reynolds, who admitted sexually abusing dozens of children, towering over a small girl as he brutally inserts an object into her vagina and then her back passage.

That object is his crucifix.

The report details how this man was left as parish priest of Glendalough (and in charge of the local primary school) for almost three years after parents had complained about him to former archbishop of Dublin Desmond Connell during the 1990s.

In 1997, he was finally moved and appointed as chaplain to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire.
The report helpfully informs us that there were 94 children aged 18 or under as inpatients here. The hospital authorities were told nothing of Reynolds’s past or of suspicions that he was a child abuser.

This kind of callous disregard for the safety of children is found over and over again in the report. Bishops lied, cheated and covered up, almost as a matter of course, in a display of relentless cynicism spanning decades. Children were blithely sacrificed to protect priests, the institution and its assets. It is, consequently, difficult to avoid the conclusion that what lies at the heart of the Catholic Church (at least in Ireland) is a profound and widespread corruption.

The Dublin report divides the bulk of its analysis into chapters devoted to individual priest abusers. But reading through the stomach-churning details of their crimes, another parallel reality appears.
Behind almost each one of these paedophiles was at least one bishop (often more) who knew of the abuse, but failed to protect children.

Some of them, Pontius Pilate-like, washed their hands, merely reporting it up the line. Others actively protected the criminals in their midst by destroying files and withholding information. Their handling of complaints is variously described as “particularly bad”, “disastrous” and “catastrophic”.

Dermot Ryan stands out as the most callous of the Dublin archbishops. He failed properly to investigate complaints against at least six of the worst offending priests.
Kevin MacNamara was little better, but his tenure was considerably briefer, limiting some of the damage he did.
John Charles McQuaid is severely criticised in one case, but it was not within the commission’s remit to examine his reign in any significant detail. His response to the pornographic photos of two children taken by one of his priests is a damning indictment of the impact of priestly celibacy. He viewed the criminal act as an expression of “wonderment” by the priest at the nature of the female body. (As if children possess the 'wonderment' of the female body. This is truly sick.)

And what of Desmond Connell, perhaps the most reviled of them all? A complex picture emerges of a man unsuited to the task facing him, attempting to deal with the enormous scale of abuse in the archdiocese, and ultimately failing. While he did, for instance, engage with the civil authorities, unlike his predecessors, he, nonetheless, continued to maintain secrecy over much of what the diocese knew of their child-abusing priests.

As for the many Dublin auxiliary bishops, two stand out as being particularly awful. There is arguably enough evidence in this report to send bishops James Kavanagh (now deceased) and Donal O’Mahony (retired) to prison for failing to report crimes. Or at least, there would be if there existed such an offence. Incredibly, there is none.
We certainly used to have one; called misprision of felony, it was conveniently dropped from the statute books in 1998 when the felony laws changed. The effect was that no priest, bishop, or indeed lay person, could be charged with failing to report criminal activity of which they were aware.
What a sigh of relief the bishops of Ireland must have breathed.

The report describes Bishop O’Mahony’s involvement in the cases of 13 priests from its sample of 46 under investigation. It mentions that he was aware of allegations against several more. His cover-up over his 21 years in office was extensive.
Bishop Kavanagh directly attempted to pervert the course of justice by seeking to influence one Garda investigation and by convincing a family to drop a complaint against another priest. He appears at various stages in a number of other cases, always failing to act to protect children.
Bishop Donal Murray of Limerick is also indicted as having handled a number of complaints badly. He will have very serious questions to answer over the coming days.
Recently retired bishop of Ossory Laurence Forristal equally stands condemned, which is all the more egregious as he was in charge of the archdiocese’s efforts during the 1990s to respond to the crisis and draw up child protection guidelines.
Bishops James Moriarty of Kildare and Leighlin, retired Bishop Brendan Comiskey and Auxiliary Bishop of Dublin Eamon Walsh also all knew of complaints of abuse at various stages.

A week before the broadcast in 2002 of RTÉ television’s Prime Time Cardinal Secrets (which led to the establishment of the Dublin commission), Cardinal Connell engaged in a pre-emptive strike. He had refused to appear on the programme. He chose instead to circulate each of his 200 parishes with a letter read out at every Mass that Sunday. In it, he apologised for the failures of the past, but blamed them on a lack of understanding within the church of paedophilia.
The commission is categorical in its refusal to accept this plea of ignorance as an excuse. It refers bluntly to the inconsistency between such claims and the decision in 1986 to take out an insurance policy to protect church assets from abuse victims.

At that time, we are told that the archdiocese knew of allegations of child sex abuse against 20 of its priests.
The report further notes the documented history of the church’s detailed awareness of paedophilia as both crime and sin spanning the past 2,000 years. The first reference dates from AD 153.
Finally, the report refers to the fact that archbishop Ryan displayed as early as 1981 a complete understanding of both the recidivist nature of paedophilia and of the devastating damage it caused to child victims.
There had been a consistent denial from church authorities that anyone knew anything about either of these key factors until very recently.

Perhaps most damning of all is the report’s findings as to the general body of priests in Dublin. While it gives credit to a small few who courageously pursued complaints, it adds that “the vast majority simply chose to turn a blind eye”.

What emerges most clearly from the report is that priests, bishops, archbishops and cardinals had the greatest difficulty in telling right from wrong, and crucially that their determination of what constituted wrongdoing was vastly different from that of the population at large.
This fact is worthy of reflection on the part of all those who remain connected to the church through its continuing and often central involvement in the provision of services such as education and health throughout the country.

In 2003, ex-governor of Oklahoma Frank Keating drew parallels between the behaviour of some US Catholic bishops and the Cosa Nostra. It drew a storm of protest, and he resigned from his position as chairman of the church-appointed oversight committee on child abuse.
However, it is not too far-fetched a comparison to the Irish church in the light of the three investigations into its behaviour we have had to date.
The organised, premeditated pattern of secrecy and concealment of crime is worthy of the world’s most notorious criminal fraternity.

Irish Times 11/27/09

One of the most fascinating discoveries in the Dublin Archdiocese report was that of the concept of “mental reservation” which allows clerics mislead people without believing they are lying.
According to the Commission of Investigation report, “mental reservation is a concept developed and much discussed over the centuries, which permits a church man knowingly to convey a misleading impression to another person without being guilty of lying”.

It gives an example. “John calls to the parish priest to make a complaint about the behaviour of one of his curates. The parish priest sees him coming but does not want to see him because he considers John to be a troublemaker. He sends another of his curates to answer the door. John asks the curate if the parish priest is in. The curate replies that he is not.”

The commission added: “This is clearly untrue but in the Church’s view it is not a lie because, when the curate told John that the parish priest was not in, he mentally reserved the words '…to you’.”

Marie Collins, who was abused by a Dublin priest, “was particularly angered by the use by the Church authorities of ‘mental reservation’ in dealing with complaints,” the report said.
It continued that Cardinal Desmond Connell had explained the concept to the commission as follows:

“Well, the general teaching about mental reservation is that you are not permitted to tell a lie. On the other hand, you may be put in a position where you have to answer, and there may be circumstances in which you can use an ambiguous expression realizing that the person who you are talking to will accept an untrue version of whatever it may bepermitting that to happen, not willing that it happened, that would be lying. It really is a matter of trying to deal with extraordinarily difficult matters that may arise in social relations where people may ask questions that you simply cannot answer. Everybody knows that this kind of thing is liable to happen. So mental reservation is, in a sense, a way of answering without lying.”

Example of how they experienced the use of such ‘mental reservaton’ by Church authorities in Dublin were supplied to the commission by Mrs Collins and fellow abuse victim Andrew Madden.
In Mrs Collins’s case, the Dublin archdiocese said in a 1997 press statement that it had co-operated with gardai where her complaint of abuse was concerned. She was upset by it as she had reason to believe otherwise. Her support priest Fr James Norman made inquiries and later told gardaí he that when he did so, the archdiocese replied “we never said we co-operated fully” - placing emphasis on the word ‘fully’ - with the gardaí.

In Mr Madden’s case, Cardinal Connell emphasised he did not lie to the media about the use of diocesan funds for the compensation of clerical child sexual abuse victims.

He explained to Mr Madden he had told journalists “that diocesan funds ARE (report’s emphasis) not used for such a purpose; that he had not said that diocesan funds WERE not used for such a purpose. By using the present tense he had not excluded the possibility that diocesan funds had been used for such purpose in the past. According to Mr Madden, Cardinal Connell considered that there was an enormous difference between the two.” (So do ten year olds who discover this notion of 'mental reservation'.)

In May 1995, Cardinal Connell denied that diocesan funds were used in paying compensation to abuse victims.
When it emerged on RTÉ in September that year that Ivan Payne was loaned €30,000 by the archdiocese to pay compensation to Mr Madden, Cardinal Connell still insisted this was not compensation by the archdiocese. (No, because it was a loan. Even if it was never paid back or there was no expectation that Payne would ever pay it back, technically it is still a loan and lets Cardinal Connell keep his innocent head held high.)

He threatened to sue RTÉ, but did not do so.


The Murphy report is just one more report which accurately and damningly portrays a clerical culture which is corrupted by incredible levels of self protection. This third report in a series of government investigations into clergy and religious abuse by the Roman Catholic Church will only continue the steep decline in Catholic participation in Ireland. The bishops have no one to blame for this decline other than themselves, but ultimately the Vatican. I'm sure however, that more creative use of 'mental reservation' will allow them to sooth their consciences.

This use of mental reservation allows some clerics to continue to blame the WHOLE abuse crisis on gay men because SOME gay men did abuse. It will also allow some Church apologists to damn the entire media as anti Catholic because some media have criticised and exposed the corruption in the hierarchy. The Church is not the hierarchy.

I appreciate the stance taken by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the current Archbishop of Dublin. He has made no bones about the fact what happened on the watches of his predecessors was appalling. Unlike his predecessor Cardinal Connell, Archbishop Martin has not engaged very much in the use of mental reservation. Unfortunately for him, the now thoroughly trashed innate trust in the hierarchy will essentially force him to start all over again in rebuilding the history of Catholicism in Ireland. I doubt he will be able to do it with out serious changes in clerical structure and methods of operation. Returning to the past is not an option because secular institutions, who are equally to blame in this crisis, will not be allowed by the Irish public to return to the past. (And there is also the demographic crunch in the Irish priesthood with the vast majority of priests now over 70 years of age.)

In the US the current favored strategy is declaring bankruptcy. This strategy has far less to do with actual finances and far more to do with keeping files sealed and locked. It's just another form of 'mental reservation' designed as a last ditch effort to protect the secrets of the clerical system.

The Vatican is also playing the 'mental reservation' game. I suppose this isn't surprising given they invented it. Neither the CDF nor the Irish papal nuncio answered letters of inquiry from the Murphy commission for documents relating to the Dublin abuse situation. Neither one acknowledged receiving the letters of inquiry. Their response was silence justified by the fact that the Murphy Commission didn't follow DIPLOMATIC protocol. Apparently the Commission was supposed to go through diplomatic channels rather than the ecclesiastical channels as found in Canon Law. How neat is that? For the Murphy Commission this was a no win situation. Had they followed diplomatic channels they undoubtedly would have been denied a response because they didn't follow Canon Law and go through ecclesiastical channels.

The Vatican reserves to itself the determination as to when it will be treated as a Nation State as opposed to the governance structure of Catholicism. This has a lot to do with why Cardinal Law is in Rome as opposed to potentially in a Massachusetts jail cell. Unlike in Ireland, a bishop could be brought to justice for aiding and abetting crimes in the US. Best to get them out of country and claim diplomatic immunity. There are dozens of clerical abusers from any number of nations ensconced in Rome and the Vatican City States enjoying diplomatic immunity.

The clerical abuse scandal stands as the most potent and tragic symbol of religious authority substituting itself for God and the attendant corruption this spreads. The Vatican will not clean up it's own act until it's forced too. That is also a long long long tradition. But before then it has and will use every tactic in the book to protect the status quo. In the past that included torture and murder, and now the hierarchy uses 'mental reservation', intimidation, and legal tricks.

It would be really nice if the hierarchy would try more positive strategies like honesty and transparency. It would be nice if the hierarchy believed in it's own teaching, that Jesus will be with the Church until the Church is no longer needed. That takes faith and trust, the two values which the abuse crisis amply demonstrates the hierarchy doesn't have. Instead they have placed their trust in the strategies of corrupted power.
Thank God they aren't getting away with it any longer. Seems Jesus is still protecting His Church and using the most abused and marginalized of His people as the precious chalice through which accomplish this. That too is very traditional. Goes all the way back to the very beginning.


  1. Colleen, I am sick to my stomach beyond imagining and I have been sick over this before.

    It just gets worse and worse. I am sick. I am weeping. I am outraged.

    Not much of a comment, but it is all that I have right now. Thank you for posting what I don't have the stomach to post.

  2. “John calls to the parish priest to make a complaint about the behaviour of one of his curates. The parish priest sees him coming but does not want to see him because he considers John to be a troublemaker. He sends another of his curates to answer the door. John asks the curate if the parish priest is in. The curate replies that he is not.”

    This is like a sad parody of the textbook case used to illustrate the concept of "mental reservation," in which one misleads a would-be murderer (by equivocation, usually) to believe that their intended victims are not hidden in one's house.

    It is considered acceptable because is serves the greater cause of justice. To suggest that it applies in the present case is a monstrous perversion of the doctrine of mental reservation.

  3. "Monstrous perversion' do seem to be the operative words for a lot of the behavior in and around the abuse crisis.

    What Cardinal Connell describes is a universal license to lie and deceive with no connection to the morality or justness of the action. Like Fran, this whole thing makes me sick.

  4. Does one use "mental reservation" when the house is burning down and the fire started deep within?

    Between this and the USCCB Bishops addressing end of life care in Catholic hospitals and nursing homes, I am so lost today, truly lost.

    And Advent begins in 24 hours... Watching, waiting.

  5. Jesus: "Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart."

    Bishops: "Learn Lying and Cover-ups from Church Prelates."

    I've got a post up that nicely dovetails, I think: One picture of a genuine shepherd - worth a thousand words. In the context of an "Open Letter" to bishops:

    (not yet on your sidebar, but should be soon)

    This was triggered in my mind by Tobin's comment that God comes first. And pondering what that should mean for bishops. I learned the answer from Brother Pierre.

  6. Jimmy Breslin was right-the hierarchy has forgotten Christ.

  7. So, all those years in the confessional, revealing my darkest, deepest secrets, I could have use "mental reservations" instead? I must have missed that lesson in grammar school religion class.

  8. FdeF, LOL. For me the reverse is true. I invented sins sometimes because I had to go to confession on a weekly basis and really had a hard time finding some things I might have done wrong.

    Once I even confessed that I had pride problems because I couldn't think of anything. I was like nine or something. The priest started laughing and told me Mother Malachai probably could and I could say my three Hail Mary's and Our Father's for her notions of my sins and that thinking about her assessment of my behavior should take care of my pride issues.----He was so right. :)

  9. On a more serious note FdeF, I read your comment on Fr. Geof's blog and want you to know I agree whole heartedly with what you posted.

    The collateral damage justifies the means.

  10. When it comes to the bishops, some should have reservations about anything that they say. As a friend of mine said of the Bush Administrations, "you know when they are lying, it's when they move their lips." You see when one uses mental reservations in the way these Bishops have, you see evidence of the Borderline Personality or as Scott Peck said, "The People of the Lie."

    Well after so much of this behavior, they are exposed by more and more detective work. I wonder what will eventually become of such an Episcopacy. Seems not much good can, but as we understand it, much good can come to the People. dennis