DUBLIN // After Ireland's prime minister launched a stinging attack on the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the Pope, Irish newspapers yesterday declared the rebuke courageous and overdue.
The carefully scripted rebuke from Enda Kenny on Wednesday marks a new low in relations between the Vatican and a state which was, for most of its 90-year history, dominated by political and social instructions of Rome. Mr Kenny accused the Vatican of "brazen disregard for protecting children" from paedophile priests.
Newspapers hailed Mr Kenny's blistering attack, saying his speech ended decades of Dublin's "obeisance" to Rome. Several papers in the mainly Roman Catholic country described Mr Kenny's speech to Parliament as "unprecedented", saying that no Irish Taoiseach, or prime minister, had ever spoken of the papal state in such terms.
Several commentators noted that the timing of the speech comes as the Parliament is about to shut down for its summer recess. His remarks, which have struck a chord with a public sickened by a string of clerical abuse scandals, appear to have eclipsed another scandal concerning the prime minister himself.
Mr Kenny appeared to suffer serious damage last week when a newspaper disclosed a recording of him telling an election rally in County Roscommon that he would oppose the closure of the town's emergency ward, a promise he has reneged on since winning the election, and which he tried to deny having made.
Mr Kenny's surprise paedophilia speech follows the publication last week of a report into paedophilia allegations made between 1996 and 2009 against 18 priests in the diocese of Cloyne, which found that the Vatican had secretly written to Irish bishops telling them that they were not bound by their own guidelines requiring them to report abusive priests to the police.
In his speech, Mr Kenny said the report "exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic".
He went on to condemn "the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism - the narcissism - that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day. The rape and torture of children were downplayed or 'managed', to uphold instead the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and 'reputation'."
Instead of being moved by the evidence from victims of clerical abuse, the Vatican had chosen to "parse and analyse it with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer. This calculated, withering position being the polar opposite of the radicalism, humility and compassion upon which the Roman Church was founded".
And in a personal rebuke to Pope Benedict XVI, Mr Kenny referred contemptuously to his statement, made when he was still Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, that "standards of conduct appropriate to civil society or the workings of a democracy cannot be purely and simply applied to the church".
As Taoiseach, Mr Kenny said, "I am making it absolutely clear that when it comes to the protection of the children of this state, the standards of conduct which the church deems appropriate to itself, cannot and will not be applied to the workings of democracy and civil society in this republic". This was no longer an Ireland where, as in the past, "the swish of a soutane [priest's robe] smothered conscience and humanity, and the swing of a thurible ruled the Irish-Catholic world".
Mr Kenny's attack on the Catholic hierarchy has stunned Ireland, both for its cold, carefully crafted anger and for its unexpected source. Mr Kenny, a practising Catholic, heads Fine Gael, a party whose historical roots stretch back to the Roman Catholic right-wing movements of 1930s Europe.
A veteran professional politician who came late to leadership, Mr Kenny is not known for any great ideological or reforming zeal, or for picking fights in public: no advance warning was given of the nature of his speech, which was delivered to a half-empty Parliament.
Terry Prone, a political communications expert, said on a radio show: "This is a line drawn in the sand by the last man you'd expect to be drawing that line."
Rage at a series of clerical abuse scandals has greatly eroded public support for a Catholic hierarchy whose grip on public life was already in decline over the past two decades.
"Enda Kenny, with steely eloquence, has ended decades of government obeisance to Rome," said a sketch in the Irish Times. "Never before has the head of an Irish government spoken of the Vatican in such terms as Enda Kenny did yesterday," it added.
Last week there were calls from within and without Mr Kenny's party for Ireland to expel the papal nuncio (pope's ambassador) and to close Ireland's embassy to the Vatican state. The foreign minister, Eamon Gilmore, summoned the present papal nuncio, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, to demand the Vatican's response to the allegations contained in the Cloyne report.
So far, the Vatican and the Irish Catholic hierarchy have not officially responded. However, a Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, provoked further anger this week by claiming that the infamous secret letter of 1997 contained nothing to encourage Irish bishops to break Irish laws.
The Archbishop of Dublin, Rev Diarmuid Martin, who has become isolated from the rest of the Irish hierarchy because of his support for the naming and prosecution of abusive priests, suggested on Wednesday that there were "cabals" in the church who were refusing to recognise its own guidelines on child protection.
"What do you do when you've got systems in place and somebody ignores them? What do you do when groups, either in the Vatican or in Ireland, who try to undermine what is being done and who simply refuse to understand what is being done?"
One of the findings of the Cloyne report was that leading clergy had put church or canon law ahead of criminal law and obstructed and even lied to investigators about clerical paedophiles.
In one case, the bishop of Cloyne, John Magee, a former private secretary to three popes, had written two different accounts of an interview with an abuser. One, for official diocesan records, said the priest had not admitted the allegations against him. The second, sent secretly to Rome, showed that he had in fact confessed.
* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse