Accountability and synodality

Accountability is about openness, transparency and being willing to account for stewardship whether an individual, parent, carer or guardian, priest, bishop, or even as the Pope, writes Baroness Nuala O’Loan.

We will all be accountable for how we participate in the Church – we will have to be both very honest and very aware of our own limitations, of the ‘planks in our eyes’. Fairness and respect must be visible in all our listening exercises, even when it is hard to hear what is being said. 


There is a requirement too for each of us to recognize not only our individual but also our institutional accountability for our Church. In our parishes, as we contemplate our responsibilities as parish, and listen to the experiences of those who seek to share with us, we must be alert to the gentle powerful working of the Holy Spirit among us.  This is a great opportunity for individual and parish growth. These meetings, like the whole process of preparing for the synod, could be occasions of healing or they could result in an experience of exclusion, a feeling of not being listened to. At all levels in our Church, we need to be willing to speak up with courage about our realities, and that ongoing need for change and reform which is necessary in any institution. We cannot just leave it to others. 

What are the major challenges faced by the Church today and will the proper understanding and exercise of true accountability assist in resolving those matters? As we contemplate how we can become a Church in which there is the greatest possible communion and participation, resulting in the most effective living of the mission to which we are all called, how can accountability help? 

Sitting and listening in parishes, deaneries and bishops’ conferences can seem like Groundhog Day. We have been there before. This call to communion, participation and mission is core to our faith – we hear every time we leave Mass, ‘Go and proclaim the Gospel’. The issues raised by those to whom we may listen may be familiar: concern about the loss of faith in modern society, the accusations of naivety and superstition when we manifest our faith in the living God, the disdain and, on occasion, contempt for organised religion such as we practice, the loss of some of the traditional ways of being Catholic in liturgy, the difficulty in persuading people to contribute actively to Church, rather than just being passive attenders at Church. It is true also that the fear of being seen as ‘Gospel greedy’ (as if one could ever have too much knowledge and understanding of sacred scripture) or too assertive can undermine our ability to participate, to walk in hope and to see the light which shines even in the darkness. Essential to any discernment process whether at parish, diocesan, national or synod level will be the existence and full acceptance of a conceptual understanding of who and what we are (children of God) and of why we are on this journey of listening and discernment (because the Pope has discerned that this is what we need to do at this time in the world). 

There are many other issues which cause people distress and pain. They include, on occasion, the ways in which parishes function, probably inadvertently. There is always a core group of people in every parish who give without counting the cost, who are always ready to help, but to those who come as outsiders into our midst, parish can seem like a closed shop – a group of those who are in the know, to the exclusion of others who might dream of making what they might perceive as a tiny contribution. However, listened to carefully, given a little space and encouragement, they might contribute far more than the parish or they expect. This synodal pathway is an opportunity to make that space, to provide that encouragement and to wait in anticipation as the Holy Spirit moves among us. 


Other problems may relate to the way in which some parishioners and clergy conduct themselves as people of influence and control in the parish. It is a very real fact that if we are to have functioning churches, we must be prepared to provide the money to pay for clergy stipends, to meet the cost of heating, lighting and maintaining the church and its associated parish centres and other buildings. These are very real costs, and they will continue to rise. In many parishes there is accountability for how parish money is spent, but not in all. When people can see that there is, as required by Canon Law, a finance committee which reports to them about how much income there is in the parish, and what the outgoings are, they may be persuaded that there is a need to be more generous. If we live as Christians, we must be prepared to be generous, not just with our time and our energy but also with our other resources. 


Great power is exercised in our Church especially by those who are ordained, because to them is entrusted the responsibility and task of decision making. It has seemed, on occasion that there is no accountability for the exercise of that power and no reason for the preservation of that power to the ordained only. Indeed, as we contemplate the tragedies of child abuse, of the way in which unmarried mothers were treated, the financial abuses of power which emerge from time to time, the betrayals of priestly vows by some of those among our clergy and bishops, all the occasions on which terrible wrong has been done, we are faced with the terrible reality that these actions have all contributed to the breakdown in trust in Church and the resultant drift away from the Church and even, where the betrayal has been greatest, to loss of faith.  

Accounts of experiences of betrayal such as those described above may be very hard to listen to, and it may be asserted that these things happened in the past, but the problem is that the loss, trauma and grief experienced does not stay in the past, rather, all too often, it lurks under the surface of a life, ready to emerge when least expected and to plunge the sufferer back to that pain. As a Church, we are challenged by this reality and by the need, above all, to care. 


The scandals of criminal trials such as the current Vatican trial, in which even a cardinal stands trial, the ongoing situations in which lay people, priests and bishops across the world appear charged with financial crime, all these have massive impact whether they result in the acquittal of the defendants or not. There is too the damage wrought by the perception of hard-earned money donated by ordinary people, being spent on causes for which it was not donated. There is even the very common situation in which people donate but are never told what their money is being used for. The effect of these is to reduce trust in the Church’s capacity to manage its earthly affairs with probity. Financial irregularities and fraud, like all criminality, can result in people losing faith in the Church. 

Another area which is undoubtedly a cause for concern as we embark on this journey is the fact that current Canon Law does not provide the necessary timely, and effective resolution of problems and issues which can only be resolved through Canon Law. While the process of seeking decrees of nullity of marriage has become much faster in many areas, it can still be very long for some. In addition, there continues to be a whole range of other issues in which the situation may seem uncertain, is far less speedy and in which there is a perception of procedural unfairness – where people do not feel that they are heard and have the right to challenge the evidence against them, and where people do not understand why an individual identified by the Church as having sexually abused a child has not been laicized, for example. 

Particular difficulties exist for priests or religious against whom an allegation is made of sexual abuse of a minor or an adult at risk, where there is no evidence to bring any form of criminal prosecution, and the matter is returned to the Church to be dealt with.There are no processes within the Church that are similar to those applicable in professions such as teaching, nursing and medicine, where although a person will have to stop working pending investigation, the processes move much more swiftly and there is no necessity to move from home, as often happens in the case of accused clergy. However, if a case moves from the civil law into canonical investigation, the accused and the accuser will know that it will be an even longer time before there is any resolution of the matters. It is unfortunately true that, on occasion, the burden of awaiting resolution of such matters can become so onerous that a person’s mental health is affected, and that there have been suicides. 


For the families and friends of all those affected by such matters the Church’s handling of the process, and particularly the delays inherent therein, can become a cause for great disillusionment and ultimately for people to become disaffected and even to abandon the Church. 

The theology and philosophy of our Church has developed over the millennia as we have grown in knowledge of how we exist and who we are as God’s people.  

There are those matters, on which some have said there is no possibility of change, such as the ordination of women. There are also issues such as the proposal for the abolition of the celibacy requirement for ordination. Current rules are undoubtedly the product of prayer and discernment over centuries, yet we cannot rule out the fact that we may be being led into a new dimension in which these things can and should change. Discernment can be a difficult process, particularly when we are called to discern matters which cause us discomfort or unease. 

Bishops and those who are responsible for the ongoing stages of this synodal process will be aware of the need to create the kind of listening situations in which issues such as this can be raised, rather than simply refusing to engage and thereby enabling the current slow drift of people away from the Church, for reasons which are preventable. 

We cannot predict what this synodal process may bring. The way in which we conduct ourselves during the process will be instrumental in our final ability to discern the best possible way forward as Church. We know that as we participate in it, we are accountable for our responses to each other in our Church, and to God. I have come to realise too, that the ways of God are not predictable and that the Holy Spirit will enlighten, warm and hearten us on the process and lift up our eyes to greater understanding, greater selflessness and greater love if we but listen. 

Nuala O’Loan DBE is a member of the UK House of Lords. From 2000 – 2007 she was the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and she currently serves as Ireland’s Roving Ambassador for Conflict Resolution and Special Envoy to Timor Leste and for UNSCR 1325, Women, Peace and Security.  

Baroness O’Loan is a qualified solicitor. She previously held the Jean Monnet Chair in European Law at the University of Ulster and has received honorary degrees from four universities. 

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