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The Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) is a voluntary association of Roman Catholic clergy in Ireland. The association was established in September 2010 with the objective of having "a forum, and a voice to reflect, discuss and comment on issues affecting the Irish Church and society today". One of its founders was Fr Tony Flannery who, in April 2012, was silenced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for questioning whether Jesus Christ had instituted the priesthood. However he continues to write for the Irish Times. His brother Frank Flannery is a former General Secretary of the Fine Gael party.
It is the stated position of the ACP that it accepts the Creed and that it does not seek to overturn the defined teaching of the Catholic Church. The Leadership Team has defended itself against accusations by critics of the association. According to Fr Brendan Hoban, such critics have confused what the teaching of the Church is and what those critics present as the teaching of the Church. Similarly, such critics have confused the teaching of the Church with Church governance, which, in the opinion of the Leadership Team, has resulted in some people suggesting that the ACP does not accept fundamental Church teaching.
It is the stated position of the ACP that it supports the Pastoral teaching of the Second Vatican Council. Members of the Association claim that Catholic magisterium has failed to maintain the spirit of Vatican II – that spirit of hope and confidence and equal dignity in the church. Seán Ó Connaill has written that there has been "a betrayal by the magisterium of not just the spirit but the letter of Lumen Gentium". In support of this claim, Lumen Gentium, 4(37) is cited in relation to the laity who are: "empowered to manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the Church .... through the institutions established by the Church for that purpose".
The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has been the subject of criticism following publication of state sponsored reports into abuses such as the Ferns Report, the Ryan Report and the Murphy Report. In the case of the Ryan Report, the Commission found that some religious officials encouraged ritual beatings and consistently shielded their orders amid a "culture of self-serving secrecy", and that government inspectors failed to stop the abuses. The Murphy Report, published some months later, concluded that "the Dublin Archdiocese's preoccupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid-1990s, were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities. The Archdiocese did not implement its own canon law rules and did its best to avoid any application of the law of the State". These scandals and the perceived inadequacy of the ecclesiastical response had the effect of eroding the trust placed by the laity in the hierarchy. The response of the Holy See was to send Apostolic visitators, (actual spelling), to Ireland whose report was published in 2012. The summary of the report was criticised as lacking in detail, One in Four repeated its accusation that "the Vatican is still not accepting responsibility for its role in creating the culture of purposeful cover-ups of the sexual abuse of children". The report notes that many lay people have experienced a loss of trust in their pastors, while many good priests and religious have felt unjustly tainted by association.
In an attempt to bridge this communications gap between the laity and the institutional church, the association was formed:
"The ACP wants to have a conversation about the realities of Irish Church life today and about issues we believe the Irish Church urgently needs to discuss....At a time when our Church has lost so much credibility in so many areas, we need the pastoral and intellectual credibility of a robust debate in the Irish Church and the much-needed confidence that will bring.
The report of the Apostolic visitation to Ireland expressed some concerns about the communio (communion or unity) of the Church. It is the stated position of the ACP that "We cherish and we value and we wish to further the unity of all our people, with our fellow clergy, with Religious, with our bishops and with the Successor of Peter.". That is, the ACP "is not trying to start a movement away from the definitive Communion".
Members of the association have been censured by the Roman Curia. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) placed restrictions on the association's founder, Fr Tony Flannery who is a member of the Redemptorist Congregation. He was advised by Rome to go to a monastery where he might "pray and reflect" on his liberal views and his role with the association. His monthly column in the congregation's monthly magazine, "Reality", has been discontinued. Restrictions have also been imposed on the magazine itself and its editor, Fr Gerard Moloney.
Fr Flannery is a supporter of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council which promised an open and, in his view, a dialogical church, willing to engage with the secular world. Supporters of the ACP have speculated since the 1980s, there has been in Rome a retreat from its reforms. Members of his congregation have written in support of their fellow Redemptorists. The ACP has described the Vatican's intervention as "unfair, unwarranted and unwise". The association has warned that the silencing may well increase the public perception of a significant "disconnect" between the Irish church and Rome.
"We believe closing down debate and dialogue is a recipe for disaster at both public and pastoral levels. Opening up a conversation not only makes great sense but has a theological basis in the rights and obligations of the baptised and an equally strong basis in church law and, we believe, will produce a pastoral dividend."
Canon 212.3 is cited by the ACP in support of this position. Supporters of the censure cite that the Vatican has "a sacred obligation to investigate any religious whose teaching is contrary to that of the church: to defend those sacred teachings: and to protect the faithful from all taint of error and corruption." Other supporters advocate that those censured by the CDF are free to set up a rival church:
"Those with strong private theories and opinions have plenty of churches to choose from and, if they find none to their liking, they can always set up another.
Its intervention in the case of Fr Kevin Reynolds, who was libelled in RTÉ's "Prime Time Investigates" programme – Mission to Prey – in May 2011 was instrumental is securing an apology from the broadcaster.
In April 2012 it published a survey that it commissioned which revealed that nine out of 10 of the 1,000 interviewed practising Catholics (35 per cent attend Mass once a week, 51 per cent once or more each month and 20 per cent a few times a year) said priests should be allowed to marry, with 77 per cent believing women should be ordained and three-quarters of respondents not seeing Catholic Church teachings on sexuality as relevant to them or to their family.
On 30 May 2012, a steering group under the umbrella of the ACP met in All Hallows College, Dublin. The meeting, was attended by about 200 people and resulted in the establishment of a new lay organisation for Irish Catholics with an interim title of the "Association of Catholics in Ireland". The new association committed itself to "the renewal of the Catholic faith in the changed and changing circumstances of the 21st century and to the reform of the institutional church which, at this time, is experiencing conflict, crisis and lack of credibility". In November 2012,at a meeting attended by over 300 people, the objectives of the Association of Catholics in Ireland were formally approved.