When a bishop loses the confidence of his flock, the sooner he goes the better
The Bishop of Dromore, Dr John McAreavey, has resigned his see. Dromore is the diocese that covers the counties of Antrim, Armagh and Down in Northern Ireland. The Bishop made a statement, published on the diocesan website, explaining his dealings with the late Malachy Finnegan, an abusive priest, prior to a BBC investigation into the case. Later, as the Irish Times reports, the Bishop decided to step down with immediate effect because it was clear that his decision to say the funeral Mass for Finnegan back in 2002 was the wrong decision and had caused hurt to the victims of the abuser, as well as a loss of confidence in the people of the diocese, some of whom were now wishing their children not to be confirmed by him.
Usually one congratulates a Bishop on his elevation to a see. In this case, the opposite is true. Dr McAreavey should be congratulated on doing the right thing, and doing it so swiftly. When a Bishop loses the confidence of his flock, it is time to go. How can he lead a diocese when some of the people no longer wish to be led by him? How can he be a focus for unity in such circumstances? Unable to do the job for which he was appointed, resignation is the best thing for him and the diocese.
Moreover, Dr McAreavey seems to have grasped the essential point about the toxicity of child abusers. No one has accused the Bishop of misbehaviour, but he clearly made a misjudgement in celebrating that funeral, for Finnegan by the time of his death was no longer a priest in good standing. (It is to be noted that the late Malachy Finnegan is no longer referred to as “Father’ having, by his actions, lost the right to that honorific.) Clearly Bishop McAreavey sees that trying to defend his decision of celebrating the funeral would in fact be attempting to defend the indefensible, so there is no recourse to the usual arguments along the lines of “At that time…” or appeals to “context”. Instead the Bishop has put his hand up and admitted a misjudgement. That is the right thing to do. His courage is to be commended. He has put the needs of the flock, and the survivors of abuse, first.
While the right decision has been made in Ireland, on the other side of the world, another Bishop – Juan Barros of Osorno – is still in office. Witnesses have claimed that he was in the room when Fr Karadima behaved in a most inappropriate way. Bishop Barros has denied allegations of wrongdoing. However, a large segment of his own diocese has made it clear that they do not want him. A considerable number of Chilean bishops seem to think the same. Barros has twice offered his resignation, but it has been rejected by Rome.
What does this tell us? It tells us that the Church in Ireland realises that child abuse is an abominable thing, and that the way the Church deals with it will have a huge impact on the Church’s credibility. Hence the swift response in Dromore. But the difference between Chile and Ireland tells us that the global Church has yet to adopt a uniform approach. They need to do this fast, and they could do a lot worse than following what has been done in Dromore.