The Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland is to write to the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops expressing its 1,000 members' "grave disquiet" over the current selection process for bishops in the Irish church.
A resolution was carried unanimously at the association's annual meeting in Athlone Nov. 24 which criticized the "lack of any credible process of consultation" with priests and people in recent years and the Vatican's "preference for candidates drawn from a particular mindset."
Over 100 members of the ACP who attended the meeting backed the statement which said the choice of candidates is "out of sync with the realities of life in Ireland today" and with the openness of Pope Francis to change and reform in the church.
The priests also expressed frustration with the "apparently haphazard policy of appointments to distant dioceses that pays little regard to the traditions and heritage of a diocese." This policy has been operated by the church in the U.S. but has only really been implemented in the Irish church under the present papal nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown.
There are 26 dioceses in the Irish church. Since his arrival in Ireland in January 2012, Brown, who was ordained in the New York archdiocese and worked for 17 years at the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has appointed 10 new bishops.
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In an interview with the Irish Times last August, he said he was "not totally convinced that there has been a huge difference" in how bishops were appointed before his arrival and now. Of the process of appointing a candidate from outside a diocese, he suggested that it was part of a worldwide trend within the church for the last 15 years.
Last December, he told the Irish Independent that consultation around appointees was "extensive."
The ACP also passed a resolution calling on the CDF to restore to "full and unrestricted ministry" those Irish priests disciplined for allegedly holding unorthodox views.
The members of the ACP are requesting that the Superiors of Religious Congregations and the Irish Bishops Conference approach the Vatican authorities and lobby for their restoration to full ministry as a gesture in keeping with the Year of Mercy.
Up to six Irish priests, all members of religious orders, were censured by the CDF in recent years, but just one remains out of ministry, Redemptorist Fr. Tony Flannery.
"I am somewhat overwhelmed by the warmth of the support I got from everyone here," Flannery told NCR after the meeting.
A third resolution was passed by the meeting calling on the Irish bishops to introduce a single set of policies and guidelines to enable clergy against whom an allegation of abuse is made and who are cleared by both the civil and church investigations to return to ministry.
There was "great unease among Irish priests that so many who have been stepped aside have found themselves in a limbo situation," Fr. Brendan Hoban told NCR.
He identified the issue as a lack of consistency across dioceses because different bishops have "different emphases."
"You could be in one diocese and find yourself back in ministry and in the diocese up the road someone else in the same situation is not allowed back into ministry. We believe that the guidelines and the processes should be consistent across the board," Hoban said.
The keynote address was given by Society of the Holy Child Jesus Sr. Helen Costigane, a canon lawyer who lectures at Heythrop College, London. She spoke on the theme of "Clerical sexual misconduct: rights and responsibilities."
Describing the sexual offences committed by clerics and religious against the young as, "one of the most distressing phenomena in the church," she said no one could deny the harm caused to individuals, families and communities.
While this has led to steps being taken to ensure that the abuses of the past are less likely to be perpetrated, she warned that concerns had also emerged over whether -- in seeking to uphold the rights of children and vulnerable adults -- the protection of the rights of those working within the church are in danger of being undermined.
Focusing on Canon 1717, which deals with a preliminary investigation in the penal process, she underlined that a "vague rumor alone is not enough to begin this process."
Costigane also highlighted that Paragraph 2 of Canon 1717 reflects Canon 220 in affirming that care must be taken so that the good name of a person is not endangered from this investigation.
"Part of the problem is that once an aspersion is cast, it is very difficult to restore a person's good name. Injuring illegitimately somebody's good name is a very serious issue," she told NCR. "We have to be very careful about taking that away."
Costigane argued that a bishop has a duty of special care for his priests but that the process for dealing with accusations of abuse all too often indicated that bishops have presumed guilt in accused priests, which overturns a fundamental tenet of law.
Of the resolution passed by the ACP, the canon lawyer said it was not in any way undermining survivors of clerical abuse, with whom she has worked.
"Justice has to be for all. You can't discriminate against one group to try and rectify an injustice," she said. "You don't correct one injustice by multiplying injustices on the other side."
She also called for one set of clear policies to be implemented to deal with those found not guilty of abuse but emphasized that once such policies are introduced they must be reviewed to see how they are working.
Costigane said that once a priest is incardinated into a diocese, a bishop has responsibilities for that person.
"It is a bit like a family; you don't kick your son out the door and say never show your face again -- we're are all sinners," she said. "We are a church of sinners. I think we need to look at the system of justice in the church very carefully."
"We need to look at categories of sexual offence because they are not all the same," she added.
[Sarah Mac Donald is a journalist based in Dublin.]