Abortion debate

Abortion landslide in Ireland is clear message to Scotland’s bishops to change tack on 21st century issues

Bishop Joseph Toal, Archbishop Tartaglia and the late Cardinal O’Brien. Pictures by Bill Heaney

Abortion has always been a difficult area for politicians. That is why Catholic MPs at Westminster were relieved and delighted when it was “devolved” to Holyrood.

Ireland voted by a landslide margin on Friday to change their constitution so that abortion can now be legalised.

What has this got to do with Scotland is the first question many readers of The Democrat will be asking today.

Since the Irish Catholic Church was the mother church for the Scottish church – please let’s just admit it was and not go tediously back to 400AD – then the answer to that question is: an awful lot.

Also, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – darling of the Catholic bishops in Scotland, but maybe not now – recently controversially offered support in NHS Scotland hospitals and clinics to Irish women who could not obtain a termination in Ireland, North or South.

The polls for Friday’s abortion referendum had predicted a victory for the Yes side.

Few people, however, anticipated the great wave of support for repeal of Eighth Amendment that swept the so-called 26 counties, apart from one – Donegal, where No won by a short head.

Since Donegal is the county from which the largest number of Irish people emigrated to Scotland, it seems safe to conclude that about half their descendants here would be on the No side too had they been given the opportunity to vote in the referendum.

The highest Yes vote was in Dublin.  The expectation amongst No campaigners that in rural Ireland, in places such as Connemara and the islands, people would vote against changing the constitution was wide of the mark.

While the majority in favour of repeal in rural Ireland at 60 per cent was smaller than in urban Ireland, it was still a thumping majority in favour of change.

The so-called “ould wans” lost and their “ould ways” went out the window at two strokes of a pen on a ballot slip.

Those saltire shaped crosses will mean abortion prohibition no more from Sligo to Skibbereen, and that Ireland will be a very different place in the 21st century.

That Catholic culture adopted by Scotland last century of Mass, Rosary and Benediction every Sunday, confessions, processions and prayers every morning and night has all but disappeared.

Many will see the referendum result as an indication that the Catholic Church now has only a marginal role in Irish culture.

This was the all-powerful church of St Patrick, the notorious Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin, and President Eamon de Valera, the stern prelate and distant   politician, who together presided over an institution and a state steeped in scandal and chose to look away.

Kelly Mgr Hugh and curates.jpgIt was a country and a way of life which was eulogised and emulated here in Scotland for 50 years by the likes of Monsignor Hugh Canon Kelly, the legendary parish priest of St Patrick’s, Dumbarton, pictured left with his assistant priests..

But while it was portrayed as a land of “comely maidens dancing at the crossroads,” there was widespread clerical child abuse; the Magdalen laundries; the Tuam babies and the sale of adopted Irish children born out of wedlock to rich Americans, who could not have a family of their own.

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The way we were – Archbishop John Charles McQuaid (extreme left) and President de Valera (extreme right).

Here in Scotland, we too had children cruelly abused by clergy and teachers; one parent families were shunned; so-called mixed marriages banned; families divided; women banished when they conceived, having had little or no sex education, and young expectant mothers put into homes run by nuns, who urged them to have their babies adopted.

Altar boys and seminarians suffered sexual abuse on an ongoing basis and were ignored when they reported the matter. Priests who decided to leave were told just to go with no assistance.

At least one priest preyed on schoolchildren in fundamentalist Catholic Dumbarton, offering to administer punishment to boys who had kept company with girls and who regularly described young women who were seen to be attractive to men as “an occasion of sin”.

The priests who were sent by their bishops on courses for “correction” were shifted around parishes where even more children were placed at risk by their presence and offences were never reported to the police.

The institution was more important than the institutionalised women and children.

And all the while the police and procurator fiscal service did little or nothing about this, although they are now currently trying to rectify that situation by bringing elderly and infirm 80-year-old priests and monks before the courts. Even to the extent of having them extradited from Australia.

We all know this is far too little, too late, but still seem anxious not to accept what has happened as fact. It’s as though the Church here is in denial.

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When she sentenced one such paedophile priest to a long term of imprisonment, High Court Judge Lady Rae, a prominent Scottish Catholic lay person, told him: “You have been convicted of despicable crimes involving the sexual abuse of three children 40 years and more recently of a student priest.  The most serious of these crime involved the repeated sodomy of a little boy aged five.

“In carrying out these crimes, you took advantage of your position as a minister of religion, a profession from which the public, including children, ought to be able to expect integrity, trust, support and pastoral care. What you did was a gross breach of trust.

“The complainers have displayed considerable courage in coming forward to denounce your criminal conduct.”

Rae LadyLady Rae (pictured right) told the convicted cleric that by going to trial he had forced his victims to relive the traumatic experiences suffered at his hands.

Scotland’s bishops have been largely quiet in the immediate aftermath of the stunning results of the abortion referendum, which signalled further weakening of the moral authority they claim to have.

At Mass in Maynooth University on Sunday, Archbishop Diarmud Martin, of Dublin, told the congregation that many people see the church as lacking in compassion.

He repeated his message that the Church must renew its commitment to support life, not just in words, statements and manifestos, but in deeds that reflect Jesus’s loving care for human life at any stage. This includes helping women grappling with very difficult decisions to choose life.

Being pro-life means being alongside those whose lives are threatened by violence, and who cannot live life to the full because of economic deprivation, homelessness and marginalisation, he said.

“Pro-life means radically rediscovering in all our lives a special love for the poor that is the mark of the followers of Jesus.”

Eamon Martin, the archbishop of Armagh and primate of all Ireland, tweeted that he would give thanks “for the many courageous ‘missionaries for life’ who made such a huge effort to remind us that in pregnancy we are dealing with two lives – both in need of love, respect and protection.”

He added: “Every human life remains beautiful; every human life remains precious. Every human life remains sacred.”

The decision to repeal the constitutional ban on abortion comes three years after Ireland voted to back same-sex marriage despite exhortations by the church to reject the move.

Both referendums are indication of a profound shift in social attitudes in Ireland, once considered a conservative country in the firm grip of the Church.

But the Church has been scuppered on the abortion issue. The barque of Peter shipped far too much water in the storm of revelations of sexual abuse committed by priests and covered up by bishops. Its anchor failed to hold.

One newspaper reported that, significantly, the Church took a back seat in the abortion referendum in recognition that the exhortations of celibate priests on an issue concerning women’s autonomy over their own bodies might be counterproductive.

This is simply untrue, however. In March, the hierarchy issued a pastoral letter condemning the proposal and, in the run-up to referendum day, every bishop issued their own pastorals saying, in effect, Catholics must vote No to repeal.

It must have been very hard on Sunday for priests to look down from the altar on their congregations knowing that more than 66 per cent of them had defied them and voted Yes.

Increasingly in recent times, the Catholic Church in Scotland has attempted to distance itself from the Irish Church. When I broached the matter of clerical child abuse with the late, disgraced Cardinal Keith O’Brien, he sideswiped my question and looked askance at me with the glib response: “That’s an Irish thing.”

Now we know different.

He must have known even at that time of the scandal of clerical abuse that he himself was to become involved in and which led to his resignation on the eve of the conclave which elected Pope Francis.

The Presbyterian church in Ireland issued a statement acknowledging the referendum results with a “profound sense of sadness” but, many Catholics, who might have voted No changed their vote in light of Cardinal Newman’s teaching on “right to conscience”.

The Presbyterian statement added: “The Republic of Ireland is evidently living through a defining moment in which the inherent value placed on human life is at stake. Today is not a day for celebration, but for quiet reflection …

“We would encourage both the government and wider society to place a greater focus on the provision of world-leading, compassionate care for women, children and families, including comprehensive support in the perinatal period for those facing pregnancy crisis.”

Bishop Joseph Toal, on behalf of the Scottish bishops, issued a pastoral letter for Pentecost Sunday, dealing with clerical abuse.

He said the group chaired by the former MP, Baroness Helen Liddell, had overseen the report issued a number of years ago by a commission headed by Andrew McLellan, a former prison chaplain and Moderator of the Church of Scotland.

That report was launched in Edinburgh by Mr McLellan at a remarkable press conference where reporters were forbidden from asking questions from the floor and where no senior Catholic clergy were present. The next day’s newspapers described it as “a whitewash”.

Archbishop Philip Tartaglia was 80 miles away in Glasgow issuing an apology for the abuse from the pulpit of St Andrew’s Cathedral on Clyde Street at 1pm on a weekday afternoon in a near empty church.

In what looks like a bid to kick this unsavoury can of worms down the road, Bishop Toal says the Liddell group will EACH YEAR scrutinise the work being done on safeguarding children and vulnerable adults.

It will be done in TWO of the EIGHT dioceses in Scotland, alongside a review of the work of religious orders over a period of about FIVE years, which will carry this controversy into the mid or late 2020s.

This means widespread criticism of the Catholic Church’s apparent failure to grasp the nettle on this contentious issue is likely to continue – and the people in the pews will have to live with that.

The numbers attending church, already diminishing at pace, seem likely to plummet further on an ever downward spiral.

Meanwhile, the average age for priests has soared and men of 80 years of age and more are still in post or filling in at holidays and busy times for their younger colleagues.

Scotland now has no seminary – training colleges for priests when previously there were four – of its own and new recruits do their formation in Ireland and Rome.

Since it has taken the Church in Scotland nearly 60 years to fully embrace Vatican II, it is perhaps unsurprising that many people now see it as out of touch and unfit for purpose.

The Scottish bishops had hoped for a “Benedict bounce” when Pope Benedict XVI came to Glasgow and Edinburgh, but that didn’t happen.

They are now hoping for a renewed upsurge in interest and return to of the faithful when Pope Francis comes calling.

Pope Francis pic 2Pope Francis (pictured right) is to visit Ireland this summer in what is the first papal visit there in close to 40 years. The last one was organised by Monsignor James Horan, who was once an assistant priest at St Patrick’s, Dumbarton.

The Pope will attend part of the 9th World Meeting of Families, which will take place from 21 – 26 August. He will go to Ireland for two days, and will be present at an event which is themed: ‘The Gospel of the Family: Joy for the World’.

The 81-year-old will arrive in Dublin on Saturday, 25 August, and will take part in the ‘Festival of Families’ in Croke Park.  The next day, Sunday 26 August, Pope Francis will be the chief celebrant at Holy Mass in the Phoenix Park and this liturgy will bring to a conclusion the World Meeting of Families 2018.

There is no doubt that there will be a large Scottish contingent at these gatherings, many of whom have family connections with Ireland going back five generations.

It will also be interesting to see the level of participation by the Scottish hierarchy given that they have been attempting to distance themselves from any connection with Ireland for several decades now.





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