LONDON — At a time when his relations with Pope Benedict XVI are already strained over the pope’s offer to dissatisfied Anglicans of fast-track conversion to Roman Catholicism, the archbishop of Canterbury has plunged into the crisis over cases of abuse by Catholic priests, choosing the Easter weekend to describe the Catholic Church in Ireland as “losing all credibility” because of its poor handling of the crisis.
Enlarge This Image
Matt Dunham/Associated Press
The Most Rev. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, said the Catholic Church in Ireland had lost “all credibility.”
In a BBC radio interview, part of which was made public on Saturday, the archbishop, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, described the abuse scandal as a “colossal trauma” for Ireland in particular. He made no direct reference to the personal controversy that has swirled around the pope in the wake of accusations that he failed to act strongly enough against pedophile priests.
But Archbishop Williams, the head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which claims 70 million adherents, was unusually blunt.
“I was speaking to an Irish friend recently who said that it’s quite difficult in some parts of Ireland to go down the street wearing a clerical collar now,” he said. “And an institution so deeply bound into the life of a society suddenly becoming, suddenly losing all credibility — that’s not just a problem for the church, it’s a problem for everybody in Ireland.”
His remarks appeared to anger leaders of both the Catholic and Anglican Churches in Ireland, who criticized Archbishop Williams for poor judgment in exacerbating an already tense situation among Catholics in Ireland.
Their outbursts, in turn, led to an apology from Archbishop Williams, whose office said he made a telephone call on Saturday evening to the Catholic archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, expressing his “deep sorrow and regret” at any offense his remarks at had caused, and to offer an assurance that he meant none.
According to the BBC, Archbishop Martin’s office confirmed the call, but pointedly thanked Anglican leaders in Ireland who had spoken out against Archbishop Williams’s remarks, and not Archbishop Williams himself.
Archbishop Williams’s original remarks could hardly have come at a more fraught moment for the Catholic Church in Ireland, where Cardinal Sean Brady, the church’s All-Ireland primate, faces widespread calls for his resignation. The Irish scandal, building for years, took on new momentum after disclosures last month about Cardinal Brady’s role as a young cleric 35 years ago, when as a participant in an internal church inquiry he helped to shield a priest from the police after two teenage boys accused the priest of abusing them.
Before Archbishop Williams’s apology, Archbishop Martin, head of the largest Catholic diocese in Ireland and the most powerful voice in the Irish church after Cardinal Brady, had issued a sharp rebuke.
“Those working for renewal in the Catholic Church in Ireland did not need this comment on this Easter weekend, and do not deserve it,” Archbishop Martin said in a statement. “The unequivocal and unqualified comment in a radio interview of the archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, that the Catholic Church in Ireland has ‘lost all credibility,’ has stunned me.
“I have to say that in all my years as archbishop of Dublin, in difficult times I have rarely felt personally so discouraged as when I woke to hear Archbishop Williams’s comments,” he said.
Archbishop Martin has been outspoken in his demands for full accountability in the church over child abuse, and was appointed to the Dublin See with a mandate to rebuild there in the wake of revelations about widespread abuses in the archdiocese.
Speaking to reporters after officiating at a Mass in Dublin on Saturday, he said that “church leaders” should be more careful in their comments about the abuse scandal.
“Obviously, the church has lost credibility,” he acknowledged. “But it’s very damaging to those who are trying to restore credibility to be just wiped off with a comment like this.”
Archbishop Williams made his remarks in an interview for a BBC program to be broadcast Monday as part of Easter coverage. His remarks, part of a 40-minute discussion with other leading Anglicans on a range of church issues, were recorded at Lambeth Palace in London, regarded as the principal seat of the Anglican Communion.
The BBC released a partial transcript of Archbishop Williams’s remarks on Saturday. A BBC spokesman said no full transcript would be available until after the Monday broadcast.
Archbishop Williams’s decision to speak out on the crisis in the Catholic Church marked the latest turn in an increasingly strained relationship between the Anglican leadership and the Vatican, which has also taken on a personal edge. Both Archbishop Williams and the pope have said they attach special importance to efforts to bridge the historic schism between the churches, which has its origins in the 16th-century split between King Henry VIII and the pope over Henry’s determination to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
But events in recent months have led to a sharp cooling in those ties that has been unrelated to the child abuse scandal.
(Page 2 of 2)
A watershed came last October, amid a crisis over gay rights and women’s rights in the Anglican Communion, when the pope announced that a special section of the Catholic Church would be established to allow former Anglicans to convert to Catholicism while keeping some of their traditions and services, and even being led by former Anglican bishops, some of them married.
Archbishop Williams said then that he was stunned by the initiative, which he said he had heard about only two weeks before it was announced by the Vatican. Reports in British newspapers said that he telephoned the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, in the middle of the night to protest.
Defending his move, Pope Benedict said he was creating the new enclave for Anglican converts in response to pleas from traditionalist Anglicans. Many of them had declared themselves unwilling to continue in a church that has sanctioned the ordination of women as bishops and hovered on the brink of a schism over the decision of the Episcopal Church in the United States to ordain gay and lesbian bishops.
Archbishop Williams has worked relentlessly to hold the Anglican Communion together, pleading unsuccessfully, at least so far, with Episcopal leaders to suspend the ordination of gay and lesbian priests, and asking traditionalist Anglican bishops, particularly in Africa, Asia and Latin America, to be patient while an accommodation on the issue is worked out.
Shortly after the pope’s announcement in October, Dr. Williams flew to Rome for a brief meeting with the pope that was described as “cordial,” and which was said to have renewed their “shared will” to achieve closer ties.
But Anglican officials have said privately that Archbishop Williams regarded the pope’s initiative as undermining his efforts to prevent a breakup of the Anglican Communion, and as an opportunistic move aimed at taking advantage of Anglican woes.
The new falling out over the pedophile scandal in the Catholic Church comes as Britain prepares for a visit by Benedict in September, his first as pope, when he is expected to press his criticism of a new equality law being moved through Parliament by the governing Labour Party that Catholics fear will have the effect of criminalizing any moves by Catholic-run institutions to deny employment to gays and lesbians, or otherwise discriminate against them.
In the BBC interview, Archbishop Williams appeared to strike an attitude of indifference toward the visit. “The pope will be coming here to Lambeth Palace,” he said. “We’ll have the bishops together to meet him. I’m concerned that he has the chance to say what he wants to say in and to British society, that we welcome him as a valued partner and, you know, that’s about it.”