Page last updated at 14:02 GMT, Saturday, 3 April 2010 15:02 UK

Williams criticises Irish Catholic Church 'credibility'

Dr Rowan Williams

The Archbishop of Canterbury has said the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has lost "all credibility" over the way it had dealt with paedophile priests.

Rowan Williams said the problems, which had been a "colossal trauma" for the Church, also affected the wider public.

BBC religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott said Dr Williams' words represented unusually damning criticism from the leader of another Church.

Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin said he was "stunned" by the remarks.

He said those working to renew the church would be "immensely disheartened" by Dr Williams' comments.

Robert Pigott
Robert Pigott, BBC religious affairs correspondent

Rowan Williams' assessment of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland as having lost all credibility is unusually blunt and damning.

It should be remembered that relations between the two Churches have been strained since Pope Benedict offered disgruntled Anglicans easy conversion to Catholicism last October.

But Dr Williams' remarks do reflect a growing sense of alarm at what is perceived to be the Catholic Church's disastrous loss of moral authority. His comments will strike a chord with increasing numbers of people who feel the Vatican has yet to realise, let alone accept, the seriousness of the plight it shares with the Church in Ireland.

While it is very unusual for one Church leader to make such comments about another, Dr Williams will feel the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and the UK's Anglican Churches are fighting the same battle against secularism and the erosion of Christian influence and status.

On the most important weekend in the Christian calendar, when the Church is supposed to be talking about renewal, it faces a real crisis which Dr Williams believes needs to be sorted out.

The Church in Ireland said the issue of abuse was being taken "very seriously".

Last month, Pope Benedict XVI apologised to all victims of child sex abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland.

He has also rebuked Irish bishops for "grave errors of judgement" in dealing with the problem.

Dr Williams' voiced his first comments about the scandal in an interview to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week programme.

He said: "I was speaking to an Irish friend recently who was saying that it's quite difficult in some parts of Ireland to go down the street wearing a clerical collar now.

"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 is a problem for everybody in Ireland."

The Archbishop of Dublin, head of the biggest Catholic diocese in Ireland, said those working to renew the Catholic Church did not need the comment.

He said: "I still shudder when I think of the harm that was caused to abused children. I recognise that their Church failed them.

"I also journey with those - especially parents and priests - who work day by day to renew the Catholic Church in this diocese and who are committed to staying with their Church and passing on the faith in wearying times.

"Archbishop Williams' comments will be for them immensely disheartening and will challenge their faith even further," he said.

It should be remembered that the archbishop has neither experience of Irish life nor any direct ecclesiastical authority in this country. I hope that he will reflect on his comments, and I deeply regret the hurt that he has caused
Bishop of Meath and Kildare, Richard Clarke

Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin Dr John Neill - a senior figure in Ireland's Anglican communion - said he had listened to the remarks of Dr Williams with "deep regret".

"As one who... acknowledges the pain and deep suffering of the victims of abuse, I also feel for the countless priests and bishops who daily live out their Christian vocation," he added.

Fellow Anglican the Most Revd Richard Clarke, Bishop of Meath and Kildare, said Dr Williams' remarks were "careless and reckless" and "deeply hurtful".

"As those of us who live in this country know very well, most bishops, priests and religious of the Roman Catholic tradition minister faithfully and selflessly under very difficult conditions with the love and support of their people," he added.

But Catherine Pepinster, editor of Catholic weekly newspaper The Tablet said Rowan Williams' comments were "very striking" and that many Catholics would share his opinion.

Vows of silence

Dr Williams' comments came after Pope Benedict's personal preacher, the Rev Raniero Cantalamessa, compared criticism of the pontiff and Church over child abuse to "collective violence" suffered by the Jews.

Speaking at Good Friday prayers in St Peter's Basilica, Father Cantalamessa quoted a Jewish friend as saying the accusations reminded him of the "more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism".

The Vatican said this was not its official position and the comments were criticised by Jewish groups and those representing abuse victims.

On Sunday, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, is expected to apologise during his Easter address in Edinburgh to the victims of paedophile priests.

The Start the Week programme will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Monday at 0900BST.

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