An interview with Dublin’s archbishop

By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / April 10, 2011

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As part of her coverage of Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s assignment by the Pope to assist the Irish Catholic church in its response the clergy abuse crisis there, Globe reporter Lisa Wangsness interviewed Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. This is an edited transcript of highlights from the conversation.

Q. Have you spent any time in Boston?

I’ve been to Boston three or four times . . . I took part in a course at the Havard Business School, which was a very peculiar one. It was the staff of the World Bank and they brought in about seven complete outsiders. At that stage I was working in international affairs in the Vatican. I spent a very cold month of December . . . We went out each evening to a pub called Grafton Street. Which always amused me because I said there are probably people in Grafton Street (in) Dublin in a pub called Harvard Square.

Q. Did you feel a connection between Ireland and Boston while you were there?

Mayor Flynn was the ambassador to the Vatican at that time . . . I knew Mayor Flynn as ambassador. I have no relatives in the United States of America, which is unusual for an Irish (person). My father’s eldest brother’s children all emigrated to Canada . . . So I have no feeling for Irish-Americanism. I don’t understand it . . . American sentimentalism for a country they don’t know, it’s not my dish.

. . . I’m in no way anti-American. I like the United States and I had a lot of dealings in my past on a professional level with the church and politics. I would have known a lot of American diplomats, and senior American diplomats. I have a lovely photograph of Hillary Clinton — not only a signed one, but with a message.

Q. Did you know Cardinal O’Malley before this?

Not well . . . I knew who he was, he knew who I was. We had spoken to one another.

Q. Did you have an impression of him?

I really didn’t. I knew he had been in an number of dioceses, I knew that he went to Boston in a difficult time. And therefore when I was told that he would probably be the visitor to Dublin I was very happy. Because the reaction to the visitation could have been good or bad here in Ireland . . . To me it was important that the one who came to Dublin would be one whose credentials were good. He’d had experience and was looked on as somebody who had dealt with things in an appropriate way.

Q. When the crisis exploded in Boston in 2002, you were a Vatican diplomat. Did you have any inkling of what this would become?

I didn’t. I went to live abroad when I was 23. I worked in very specialized areas in the Vatican. The Vatican is a strange place. It’s very compartmentalized. I did my work, which was mainly in international affairs, which was mainly with governments.

Q. Was Cardinal Law’s resignation on your radar screen?

It was . . . My memories of it are very unclear. I do remember the Boston Globe website . . . It certainly gave me the impression that this was a serious problem in the US church, but then all these meetings began to take place — the American bishops coming to Rome . . . It became worldwide. I certainly had no idea that the situation in Dublin and the numbers in Dublin were at a comparable level.

Q. Do you feel there are lessons to be learned from Boston? Are there things Ireland can do better at this point because other places have gone through this before?

There’s been a good deal of work done here as well. Some of our norms are probably even tighter than the United States’. It’s very hard to think that there’s a Boston model, or a Dublin model. There are some basic norms and concepts about child protection which are universal.

. . . Now addressing the particular problems of the church: The cultural situation in Ireland was very different than in the United States, even in so-called Irish Catholic Boston. The influence of the church on social institutions, schools and hospitals was much greater. And these industrial schools — it was obviously a slightly different situation. But the basic norms regarding child protection were all in place before I came back to Dublin (in 2003).

Q. Have you spent any time with Cardinal O’Malley during the visitation?

We’ve met. He has worked phenomenally hard, and for that we have to be very grateful to him. He’ll have done a service to the Archdiocese of Dublin. And I think that people here will have seen that, and that those who were skeptical found him a good listener, ready to listen. He met people who wrote to him, he then identified categories of people that he’d like to meet. I may now know everyone he met because he would have sent me his timetable. But on one occasion he asked me my view as to whether (to meet with someone). I said, ‘I’m not expressing my view.’ There’s no way in which he would ever say I tried to manipulate.

Q. But did you ever, for example, go out to dinner?

No. He didn’t have time to go out to dinner. He arrived on Sunday — last Sunday — at 5 a.m. Met with his team, said Mass, came down here. We had a chat before going down to the Pro-Cathedral. And he was back then at 6 o’clock with his team . . . He didn’t socialize.

Q. When he was first named Visitor to Dublin, did he call? What was that conversation like?

He did. It was Father (Robert T.) Kickam (O’Malley’s priest secretary) who called . . . I can’t remember. I would say I was not friendly in what I said, and Father Kickam said, ‘The cardinal absolutely agrees with you.’ . . . I said something, which I can’t remember what it was . . . Both of us had exactly the same reaction to — it was something about the way the announcement was going to be made. And it was done in a different way. But we’ve had no difficulties at all.

Q. Do you feel this visitation is a worthwhile undertaking?

A lot of people don’t really understand the goal. I think it is (worthwhile) . . . It’s not an inspection . . . (or) an audit . . . It’s a limited visitation. It’s to come and see the way we’re addressing the child protection issues. (Are we) compliant with best practice, canonically and civilly? And what is our outreach to victims? And then, to some extent, how has all of this affected the life of the church?

But the aim is not to come up with a report which indicates, you know, they’re bad there, there and there. The aim is to say, ‘Look, how should the Catholic church in Ireland be moving forward on its path, in general, to renewal?’

Q. Do you feel Cardinal O’Malley is the right person to lead this visitation? He has not been as provocative in the same way that you have been in some cases, about challenging the way things are done.

I believe we still have a great need to waken up people in the Irish church. There’s a lot of burying heads in the sand. And there’s a real danger that the child sexual abuse, because it’s so difficult to deal with, it could become a way for people not to face the very serious issue about what we’re supposed to be doing.

. . . The dangers is, in times of trouble and pressure, the temptation is, ‘Let’s stick to the old show, we know the rules, they worked in the past.’... But we’re gone beyond that stage. Now, I didn’t say the church of Ireland had gone beyond the brink of collapse.

Q. You said “to the brink.”

But I didn’t say “of collapse.”

Q. The brink of what, then?

Cardinal O’Malley (according to second-hand news reports in February) and some other people were saying that there would be five years before it reaches a crucial point where it radically changes and becomes a minority church. I believe we’re much farther advanced in that process.

. . . But there’s a difference between being a minority church, and being a minority church that is irrelevant. And that’s the challenge we have to face, in a different situation — coming from one of total cultural dominance to one in which you’re present in society, but you have to win your corner.

Q. It sounds as if you think the pope understands what is happening here?

I’ve talked to the pope . . . Maybe I’m too pessimistic. I don’t know if any of the other bishops would say things in those terms. It may be that it’s different in rural Ireland. Dublin is the capital city. It’s a cultural center, it’s a media center, it’s a big European city. On the other hand, there are bishops in Ireland who have never ordained a priest. So... the idea that there’s a sort of holy rural Ireland where everybody goes to Mass on Sunday and a secularized Dublin, a pagan city — that isn’t the case . . .

Ireland is not culturally isolated anymore, and it hasn’t been for years. The question I asked (in a recent speech at Cambridge University) was, ‘Is the Irish church ready for that type of cultural change and ecclesial change?’ The answer was it wasn’t. It was too self-assured, the bishops were too protective, and the people had already gone ahead of them.

Q. How is your relationship with the priests in the archdicoese at this point?

I would say there are some who feel I’m doing a good job, and some who feel I’m not doing a good job. One of the difficulties is a bishop has to be with his priests, but you have to lead as well. And there will be a substantial number of priests who disagree with the direction I’ll be leading in, and there will be a number of others who don’t want to make change. I just had a meeting with the deans in the diocese and we had a robust discussion. There is respect on both sides. I think the one thing that priests would say is that in managing this particular crisis, with one or two moments, they would say that they were lucky they had a person who was able to deal with it.

I mean, laypeople stop me on the street and say to me the most aggressive things, like, ‘Keep at it! Knock them down! Don’t take any nonsense from them!’ Extraordinarily strong things. ‘We’re behind you!’ . . . I think that the practically unconditional collaboration I gave to the Murphy Report (a government commission’s investigation of abuse in the archdiocese of Dublin) — I think people said, and I think most priests would say, ‘It had to be done, and you did it, and you did it the right way.’ But I don’t want to be talking about myself.

Q. How do you get the population to reengage with the Gospels, as you were speaking about in Cambridge?

Last year we distributed a quarter of a million copies of St. Luke’s Gospel to parishes. The reaction was extraordinarily varied. The idea was to have it delivered to most of the homes in Ireland . . . How many people it changed, I don’t know. But there are parishes out there which are actually working very hard on this. And there’s no way I’m going to do all of this myself.

I keep going back to, we don’t see enough young people in the church. I have no magic answer for it. But I say to those people who tell me there’s no need for change, if you come to me and tell me that your methods are working and you’ve got a substantial number of young people coming to church, we’ll talk. But there is a need for change because it isn’t working.

Q. Do you think it matters one way or the other that Cardinal O’Malley’s ancestors came from Ireland?

No. That might insult him . . . In fact, coming to Ireland and playing the Irish-American card can actually be — today, there would be a certain amount of skepticism. I remember a man saying to me one day in Rome, he said, ‘Goodbye now, and begorra.’ I think he thought he was being nice. But ‘begorra’ is the sort of thing you see in the American-Irish leprechaun films. We don’t say ‘begorra.’

He’s an American churchman, I’m an Irish churchman . . . What we have in common is not our Irishness, it’s our Catholicity. And both of us, we’re doing the same job.

Q. Have talked to Cardinal O’Malley about what it’s like to be a bishop in a diocese that’s in crisis like this? It must be a pretty lonely job.

A little bit. He’s a very nice person. And you can talk to him. We have many of the same problems. Some of the things I say, he laughs and he immediately says, ‘This is exactly what we have in Boston.’

. . . It was very difficult. I mean the stories I had to read about were horrendous, they were demoralizing. The people I had to meet, the tragedies. People’s lives were destroyed. The horror stories, the details. I mean, you can’t imagine what it was like.

I remember — I’ve told this story — going out to the opening of a school, and the minister of education rang up and said she’d be 15 minutes late. And the teacher said to me, ‘Would you like to start visiting classes?’ I said, ‘I’d like to see 8-year-olds.’ They must have thought I was crazy. But I had a person in who was raped when he was 8 years of age. And I needed to see the face of an 8-year-old. These are things that — they’re shattering . . . These are the things that are lonely.

And then you hear people say, ‘They should get on with their lives and that’s that.’ I understand that priests feel they also have suffered enormously. But the impact of meeting and seeing the damage that was done to people, it can’t but change you, you know?

But I’m not going to go around saying, ‘It’s terrible on me.’ They’re the victims. Not me. I’m robust enough.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at