Vatican attention for a Scottish church in trouble

Papal Nuncio Antonio Mennini The Holy See's ambassador to the UK, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, is in Scotland to address the crisis

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At first glance the retirement after more than three decades of service of Joseph Devine as the Roman Catholic Bishop of Motherwell is a routine event.

Bishop Devine tendered his resignation last year, in line with Church convention, at the age of 75.

But his replacement by an administrator, appointed by the Vatican, rather than a permanent replacement is the latest sign that all is not well in the Scottish Catholic Church.

Bishop Devine has stayed in post, despite ill health, for 10 months beyond his 75th birthday, and might have expected to hand over to a younger successor with the calibre to lead a diocese in challenging times.

Instead a fourth vacancy has been created in a church with only eight dioceses.

Of the four remaining serving bishops, one is himself over 75 and due for retirement.

Senior Catholics have blamed the situation partly on a Vatican bureaucracy that moves at glacial speed, but also on what they say is the lack of candidates of sufficient calibre from within the dwindling Scottish clergy to appoint as bishops.

When Cardinal Keith O'Brien resigned in March after admitting sexual misconduct towards priests and seminarians in his care, Roman Catholics were shocked and disappointed.

Bishop Joseph Devine Bishop Devine tendered his resignation on his 75th birthday last August but was told to stay in post

Many hoped that with his retirement, and the Vatican's decision to remove him from Scotland for a period, the Church's problems would come to an end.

But instead the true extent of its problems has been revealed.

Cardinal O'Brien's departure exposed an institution overly-reliant on a big, but flawed, personality, concealing a top-heavy hierarchy composed of ageing and largely -unaccountable bishops.

Bishops have, up to now, been allowed to run their dioceses without much, if any, scrutiny by their peers, let alone senior lay people.

The Vatican's intervention, and the presence in Scotland of the Holy See's ambassador to the UK, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, shows, however, that Rome is now fully aware of the Scottish Church's plight and is ready to act.

Opportunity for change

A spokesman for Bishop Devine denied claims that his resignation was connected to criticism of the way the bishop had handled allegations of sex abuse in the Church, and indeed it seems to have been the sense of a church adrift in heavy waters that prompted the Vatican to act, and to start in Motherwell.

Archbishop Mennini announced that a permanent replacement for Cardinal O'Brien as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh would be appointed by the end of June, followed closely by a successor for the vacant dioceses of Dunkeld and Paisley.

But this is also likely to be the moment for profound change in the Scottish Catholic Church.

For a start the replacement bishops are likely to include at least one from outside Scotland.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien Cardinal O'Brien resigned after three priests and a former priest alleged improper conduct in the 1980s

He's likely to be a Scot, but serving overseas, possibly in Rome.

New bishops will be relatively young - in their forties or early fifties - born too early to remember the Second Vatican Council, let alone the way the church was before it was convened.

It is not certain that all the dioceses will get new bishops; this could be the moment for a rationalisation in the Church's structure.

Some senior Roman Catholics in Scotland have been pressing for fewer bishops and a less hierarchical system of authority in the Church.

They point to the Church's roots - serving a population in the 19th Century made up largely of immigrants from Ireland - to explain its development as an isolated domain in the wider Church, dominated by its clergy.

Sectarianism created a tight-knit relationship between Roman Catholics, in which clergy retained great personal authority.

Roman Catholic Scots relied on their priests as an ultimate source of authority, while in England and Wales for example, they looked to other social institutions as well.

Some Roman Catholics see the continuing crisis in the Church - underlined by Archbishop Mennini's presence in Scotland on Thursday - as providential, an opportunity to rebuild the Church, and to do so along more modern lines.

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