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.
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 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 Williams for poor judgment in exacerbating an already tense situation among Catholics in Ireland.
Their outbursts, in turn, led to an apology from 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 had caused, and to offer an assurance that he meant none.
Before Williams’ apology, Martin, head of the largest Catholic diocese in Ireland and the most powerful voice in the Irish church after 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,” 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’ comments,” he said.
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.