When Bishops Can’t Resign: Why has the Pope Refused to Let Bishops Walsh and Field Stand Down?

Pope Benedict XVI

Ireland’s Saturday papers are teeming with commentary and opinion about the latest development in the Irish Catholic Church: The Pope’s refusal to allow the resignations of two bishops named in the Murphy Report, Eamon Walsh and Raymond Field.

The immediate reaction from most victims has been that this is yet another injustice, just one more example of an autocratic church drunk with power and desperately trying to protect its leaders.

The Pope communicated his decision in a private letter to the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin. Some are interpreting the Pope’s refusal to accept the resignations as a direct blow to Martin’s authority.

Clerical abuse survivor Marie Collins told the Irish Independent that it was apparent that “Rome is not behind [Martin]’ and that,

"The message that is going out to the other bishops is ‘don’t do as Archbishop Martin did, don’t be accountable, open and transparent’. It’s just putting us right back to where we were before. Nothing has changed at the top, all the messages from the Pope about taking responsibility were just that — words."

Prof. James Mackey, a theologian at Trinity College Dublin, has reacted in a similar way, saying that it would be more just if ALL of Ireland’s Catholic bishops resigned, not just Walsh and Field. He told the Irish Times,

“In a way, it would be the only fair outcome. “Why pick on the ‘little fellows’? [The lack of resignation is] just another form of hypocrisy.”

The Pope may or may not be trying to undermine Archbishop Martin. But Mary Raftery’s feature piece in the Irish Times puts the situation in a broader perspective. She claims that were the Pope to allow these resignations it could unleash floodgates all over the world.

For example, Raftery says that Walsh and Field,

‘did not appear to have done anything too terrible themselves, but … were offering (however reluctantly) to resign on the basis that they shared in a collective responsibility for a culture of cover- up during their periods in office.

Essentially if every priest in every country who did not challenge the church’s corrupting clerical culture were to resign, there would be almost none left. The structures of the Catholic Church as we know it would collapse.

Marie Collins’ also told the Irish Independent that the only hope for the Church now is at the grassroots. This reflects a certain ambivalence about the existing structures of the Catholic Church.

I sense that there are a good few Irish Catholics out there who believe they would get along just fine, maybe even better, without the hierarchy.

I have some sympathy with that view, but think that in her reaction to the Pope’s decision, Baronness Nuala O’Loan struck a reasonable enough note. In Friday’s Irish Times, she told Patsy McGarry,

“Where men or women have been shown to have responded wrongly, action should be taken, but each case must be dealt with on its merits. In terms of Bishops Drennan, Field and Walsh, I do not believe that resignation was necessary.”

Having looked again yesterday at the references to each bishop in the Murphy report, she concluded that, “taking all this into account, I think that it is vital to the future of the church that we do not perpetrate further injustice. This would be wrong.

“What is far more important to my mind is that the church should review its canonical procedures to ensure that what happened can never happen again and that archbishops and bishops, who are autonomous in their dioceses, should become accountable.”

Thinking like O’Loan, it may be the case that the Pope has refused to accept the resignations because he believes they are unnecessary, even unjust.

But the nuances of the Walsh and Field cases are likely to be lost on laypeople already angry and wounded by the way the Vatican has handled the abuse scandals.

3 thoughts on “When Bishops Can’t Resign: Why has the Pope Refused to Let Bishops Walsh and Field Stand Down?”

  1. Provided that the bishops’ decision to resign was made freely, it seems to me that the rest of the church, including the Pope, ought to accept it. If they are less culpable than others, if an ‘injustice’ is done to them by their resignations, is that not entirely in keeping with their role as servants and followers of Christ who himself accepted personal injustice for the sake of others? If those who have suffered enormous failures of justice on the part of the church are joined freely by members of the hierarchy, taking up their lesser crosses, is that not a sign of hope for the future? Within the church as well as in civil society, peace and justice require not only that rights and resources be given to the weak but that the strong be prepared to lay aside their power and wealth in solidarity with their brothers and sisters.

  2. It appears to me that the more victims are fed into the maw of the mob the more are needed. Therefore when these two tasty morsels are denied them the roar goes up all the louder. Will we see another Rwanda here? “If there is to be peace on earth let it begin with me” – what resolution is to come from attacking our brothers in Christ?

  3. I don’t see the situation like this – sorrow and disappointment are not the emotions of a mob and such metaphors seem to me inappropriate to these circumstances. This issue isn’t about attacking anyone but about accepting expressions and actions of regret and repentance and about building a renewed, open and just Christian community together, wherever our instinctive allegiances lie.

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