In what is being lauded as the most explicit and visible sign of the Irish Church’s contrition for the grave sins and crimes that took place in that nation regarding the clerical abuse of minors and the ecclesiastical efforts to cover them up, the archbishop of Dublin apologized before a crowded cathedral and got on his knees to wash the feet of the abused.
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin, was joined by Cardinal Séan O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, for the service, which, according to Reuters News Service, began with the two prelates laying prostrate in front of the altar as a sign of penance and solemnity.
“For them to get down on their knees, it was humbling,” said Darren McGavin, 39, who was abused as a child by a priest in his west Dublin parish. “I’ve found it hard to forgive, but today I found a small bit of closure.”
A damning 2009 Irish government report on widespread child abuse by priests in the Dublin archdiocese between 1975 and 2004 said the Church in Ireland had “obsessively” concealed the abuse.
“For covering up crimes of abuse, and by so doing actually causing the sexual abuse of more children… we ask God’s forgiveness,” Martin told the congregation.
“The archdiocese of Dublin will never be the same again. It will always bear this wound within it.”
There were eight abuse victims invited to participate in the foot-washing, five women and three men. “Three of the victims held hands and sobbed as Martin poured water on their feet and O’Malley dried them with a towel. Others stared into the distance, expressionless,” Reuters reports.
The apology on the part of Martin marked something of a new phase in the Irish Church’s response to the wide-spread abuse and coverup made public in recent years. Clear admittance of responsibility and culpability was something the victims and general public had not yet experienced.
“Today was a day of liberation for me,” said one of the eight, a 63-year-old, who declined to give his name. “I never thought I’d live to see this day when the church gave full recognition for the horror that was there.”
Martin has apologized for abuse in the diocese before, but the Irish church has never as clearly acknowledged the fact that the actions of the Catholic hierarchy actually caused abuse, said abuse survivor Marie Collins.
“They were absolutely clear about the accountability of the leadership in the diocese and not just the abusers… That is something we have not heard clearly before,” said Collins, who was abused by a priest as a 12-year-old in Dublin in 1960.
Not everybody present for the liturgy, which included the apologies and symbolic feet-washing, was impressed by the gesture. One man interrupted the service, shouting of his experience of abuse. Others have seen this effort as something of an “empty gesture” from which one could expect little. Still others look across the water to Rome, “Why has the pope not apologized to the Irish people?” [one man] said. “Washing the feet of people in this church will not give us peace.”
It seems that the public sign of washing the victims’ feet, kneeling in humility after apologizing face-down on the cathedral floor (a long-standing symbol of penance in the Christian tradition, particularly in the monastic orders) was indeed a powerful experience for some, hailing a new day in Church-victim relations.
But one must not forget what Jesus’s foot-washing was a prelude to — a total offering of self, the highest sacrifice. Certainly one is not asking for the lives of the bishops, many of the current prelates have inherited the problems of the predecessors now long deceased. However, the symbolism of total self-offering present in the life of Christ should remain forefront in the minds of bishops.
The foot-washing didn’t end in the upper room at the Last Supper. If it did, no one would have heard about it and its significance, its fullest meaning would never have emerged. It is only because it was later appreciated within the full context of Christ’s life, death and resurrection that it has such power and meaning.
This gesture in Ireland can also bear much power and meaning, but only within the context of serious change, reform and transparency. It can mark a new beginning, let’s hope that it isn’t simply an end in itself as the cynics protest.