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Kenny is riding Ireland's anti-clerical wave

Political opponents of Enda Kenny, especially Fianna Fáil leaders during the heyday of the late Celtic Tiger, were always inclined to dismiss the Mayo man as a political lightweight.

But Kenny's political tenacity has enabled him to become the longest serving member of Dáil Eireann, to energize his party's rank and file from its very weak position after the 2002 national election and lead it to significant advances in subsequent contests, whether local, European, or national, and to narrowly survive a leadership challenge by a major portion of his own front bench.

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Kenny's political astuteness seemed confirmed by Fine Gael's winning its greatest ever number of seats in last February's general election, so enabling it to form a coalition with the Labour Party.

True, Kenny's well-paid speech writers caused him some embarrassment when he employed the words from President Obama's own electoral victory speech in 2008 in introducing Obama to the crowd at College Green, Dublin during the presidential visit in May.

But the same writers earned him the almost universal plaudits of the Irish media for his speech on July 20 supporting an all-party resolution deploring the Vatican for having "contributed to the undermining of the child protection frameworks and guidelines of the Irish State and the Irish bishops."

The resolution was prompted by a recently issued report of a commission about the mishandling of reported clerical sexual transgressions in the Diocese of Cloyne in County Cork under the now retired Bishop John Magee.

The Vicar General of Cloyne, Monsignor Denis O'Callaghan, admitted to not abiding by the directives of the Irish church's own 1996 framework document on such matters. He based his position on a 1997 statement by the Vatican's Congregation of the Clergy which suggested the directives might complicate canon law proceedings against the accused clergy.

While the problem of clerical abuse of children has preoccupied Irish society for more than fifteen years, Kenny, whether as a member of a government from 1994 to 1997, or as leader of his party since 2002, has had very little to say on the issue.

But suddenly he became quite outspoken, insisting that the Cloyne report on "child sexual abuse exposes an attemptby the Holy See, to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic."

He went on to say that it "excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism - the narcissism - that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day," where "the rape and torture of children were downplayed or 'managed' to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and 'reputation.'"

Insistent that the "church needs to be a penitent" because of "the horrors it perpetrated, hid and denied," Kenny called for action by the government to make sure the law "will always supersede canon laws that have neither legitimacy nor place in the affairs of this country."

Kenny's remarks seem oblivious of the very public acknowledgement by Pope Benedict of the problem in Ireland, his meeting with the Irish hierarchy specifically on this matter, and his sending to Ireland significant churchmen, including Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, to inspect the situation.

As even Kenny acknowledged, the Cloyne report categorized the church's standards as "more stringent that those adopted by the state", which are difficult to implement and less precise.

The criticisms of the Cloyne Diocese are very serious, but it should be borne in mind that the complaints examined were directed against 15 priests of the diocese, the priestly ranks of which fell from 163 in 1996 to 143 presently. Of the 15, 12 were the object of a single complaint. Eight of them are now dead, three retired, and two are no longer in ministry.

Most of the complaints were from adults, and were "historic", that is to say based on abuses occurring before 1996, and in one case in the 1930s.

Only one priest was convicted, while the prosecution of another was stopped because of his advanced age. Not surprisingly, the Cloyne Report regarded the standards of the state on handling the abuse question as difficult to implement and less precise than those of the framework document of the Irish church.

In his anti-Papal onslaught, the taoiseach quoted the then Cardinal Ratzinger out of context from a 1990 document: "Standards of conduct appropriate to civil society or the workings of a democracy cannot be purely and simply applied to the church."

Kenny, as taoiseach, wanted to make 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."

In reality, Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, was not insisting on church immunity from the state law, but asserting that the church must, and does, set its own standards as to right and wrong on absolutes on a higher criterion than the simple political process.

A classic example would be the claims made by totalitarian societies like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, but evendemocratic societies are not morally infallible.

One cannot help but suspect that Kenny's outrage was directed not so much at the not new, and generally under-control, problem of clerical abuse of children, as it was an attempt to ride the wave of anti-clericalism so prevalent in the Irish media.

His insistence that the Irish Republic of 2011 was not Rome, and his refusal to be intimidated by "the swish of a soutane" and "the swing of a thurible," was a curious appeal to that modern anti-clerical liberalism and to a more ancient anti-papalism that even Northern Ireland has finally abandoned.

Given the demise of Irish sovereignty to the International Monetary Fund and the European Community, Kenny might believe that attacking the Vatican gives him and the Irish state some sense of being its own master.

How ironic that while Pope Benedict was received so amiably in Britain in 2010, doubts are now rising as to the appropriateness of his coming to the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 2012.