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Ireland's Archbishop Martin, Catholic Church maverick

Peter Muhly, AFP | Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin apologised to victims of sexual abuse in a press conference on November 26, 2009.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin is receiving Pope Francis on Sunday in Dublin, while the Catholic Church continues to be embroiled in sexual abuse scandals, an emotive issue Martin has been praised for tackling head-on.


Known for his direct manner, the archbishop of Dublin said that the pope “has to speak frankly about our past” and the abuse scandals that have rocked the Church over the past decades. The pope will be in Ireland for the World Meeting of Families in Dublin. Martin said that during the pontiff’s 36-hour visit, he should speak about the abuse not as part of the past, but as part of the present.

The 73-year-old archbishop said that the wounds from the incidents run deep and many stories are still emerging.

Behind the scenes too, Martin is working to ensure the pope’s visit – the first papal visit to Ireland since Jean-Paul II in 1979 – marks the end of a code of silence that has “provoked deep-seated resentment among believers”. In recent years, the abuse scandals have caused many faithful members to become disaffected in what has long been a bastion of Catholicism.

‘The truth must come out’

In the face of this crisis, Martin said this week that he hopes the Catholic Church in Ireland can evolve “to become a more authentic church in a culture in the midst of profound upheaval”.

Since being named Primate of Ireland in 2004, the archbishop has sought to understand the gravity of the church’s abuse problem and cooperated with the so-called Murphy Commission, providing over 80,000 documents from the diocese archives to aid the investigation into the sexual abuse of children in the Irish capital.

He has not hesitated to overtly criticize the way the Church hierarchy covered up scandals by transferring priests away from their dioceses and failing to report them to civil authorities. “The truth, as hard as it is, must come out,” he said in an interview this week with French Catholic daily La Croix. His stance has prompted resentment among priests and bishops.


On the other hand, “outside Catholic clerical circles he is probably the most widely respected church leader in Ireland, certainly among the wider public,” wrote Patsy McGarry, Religious Affairs correspondent for the Irish Times, in 2016, calling the archbishop “a maverick among Irish bishops”.

This Irish Primate is one of the most progressive members of the Irish Catholic clergy, as evidenced by his stance on a number of social issues in recent years. This summer, when 66 percent of Irish voters called for an end to the country’s abortion ban, Martin recognized that the Church needs to adapt to changing culture and values. He said that many see the Church as “somehow weak in compassion”.

Three years earlier, when Ireland voted to legalise gay marriage, he called it “a social revolution” and said that the Church “needs a reality check. […] It’s very clear that if this referendum is an affirmation of the views of young people that the Church has a huge challenge in front of it to find the language to be able to talk to and get its message across to young people, not just on this issue but in general.

Despite a petition that gathered nearly 10,000 signatures earlier this month, the archbishop also refused to disinvite a pro-LGBT priest from the World Meeting of Families this week. Father James Martin, the priest in question, gave a talk on August 23 in Dublin on how parishes can welcome LGBT Catholics.

A supporter of victims of abuse

A reformer, Martin is intransigent when it comes to sexual abuse, said historian Odon Vallet. “There is no doubt that this demanding man, concerned less with the prestige of the church than with serving and respecting the faithful, was named archbishop in order to advance this cause,” he said.

“Among survivors of clerical abuse, no other Catholic Church leader comes close in their esteem,” said McGarry of the Irish Times. “He has been passionately, consistently supportive of them personally and in policy since appointment to Dublin. It remains the case, and he has been central to making the Catholic Church in Ireland one of the safest places for children today,” he wrote.

During his tenure, the Church in Dublin has set up new support structures to help victims. “There has been a lot of progress on this subject in Ireland in recent years,” said Vallet.

Limited influence

Respected for his handling of this sensitive issue, Archbishop Martin seems to have the pope’s ear. Last May, he told the media that he asked the pope to meet victims during his visit as he has during visits to other countries. On August 21, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke confirmed that the pope would do so.

Is it a sign of Martin’s influence? This week, five days before his visit and a week after the pedophilia scandal in the United States, Pope Francis released a letter to “the people of God” condemning “these atrocities” in an unprecedented move for a pontiff.

At the same time, the archbishop recognizes that “Pope Francis will not work miracles”. In two days, “it will not be possible for him to design a new road map for the Irish Church. At most he can offer the Irish Church the instruments on which that new road map can be drawn.”

If Martin does have influence, it is limited. Far away from the Vatican in Dublin, Martin is far from the inner circle. In the Irish Times, he criticized the Vatican Commission for the Protection of Minors, saying it is too small and not robust enough. The commission is “not getting its teeth into where it should be”, he said, and that “puts all the pressure back on the pope”. Pope Francis “really needs a better, stronger and more robust team around him.”

Martin is also working against time: he is scheduled to retire in 2020.

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