KNOCK, Ireland — In 1979, Ireland was enthralled as a visit by Pope John Paul II brought out millions at locations across the land. Out of a population of just over 3 million at the time, this massive turnout was seen as a triumphal indicator of the strength of Irish Catholicism.

When Hilaire Belloc wrote “Europe is the faith, and the faith Europe,” he may have had Ireland in mind. Catholicism has been integral to Irish national identity for hundreds of years, and to an extent unequalled in any other European country, save perhaps for Poland.

But all was far from well in the Irish Church. The Pope was welcomed onstage in Galway by Bishop Éamon Casey and Father Michael Cleary, two of Ireland’s best-known Churchmen. Years later, it was revealed that both had fathered children. Soon after the Casey scandal emerged in the early 1990s, stories began to break that some priests had sexually abused children, and as the years went on, the number of allegations rose.

Thirty years after the Pope’s visit, 2009 saw the publication of two reports that have shocked Irish people, led to the resignation of four bishops, and prompted speculation that Pope Benedict XVI will instigate a reorganization of the Irish Church in a pastoral letter scheduled for early 2010 (see related story on page 4).

The 2,600-page “Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse” — the Ryan Report — was an investigation into the treatment of thousands of children, over many decades, in institutions and schools run by religious orders and congregations. It concluded that “physical and emotional abuse and neglect were features of the institutions. Sexual abuse occurred in many of them, particularly boys’ institutions.” The report is not for the squeamish. For example, one case study tells how an abuser blared out music on a stereo system loud enough to cover the victim’s cries.

The second report was published on Nov. 26 and looked into the reaction of Church officials to allegations of sexual abuse of minors in the Dublin Archdiocese from 1975 to 2004. The Murphy Report said that many Irish bishops had shown more concern for preserving the reputation and assets of the Church than defending young people. Andrew Madden was the first clerical sex-abuse victim to go public in Ireland, back in the mid-1990s, and he told the Register that “we need to roll out similar inquiries in all dioceses in Ireland” to get to the bottom of the tragedy and prevent a repeat.

Reacting to the Murphy Report, Cardinal Seán Brady, primate of all Ireland, apologized “to all the people of Ireland that this abuse was covered up and that the reputation of the Church was put before the safety and well-being of children.” Cardinal Brady asked that all Catholics “comply fully with their obligations to the civil law and cooperate with the gardaí (police) in the reporting and investigation of any crime.”

Father Vincent Twomey, professor of moral theology at the National University of Ireland in Maynooth, said that “as a Church we face a rough time ahead.” But he added that an agenda-driven Irish media is using the scandals to attack the Church while glossing over the fact that only a small minority of priests were abusive. Father Twomey is a former student of Pope Benedict XVI who attends an annual papal seminar.

A 2002 report on sexual violence in Ireland, known as the Savi Report, attributed 3.2% of all abuse to “clerical/religious ministers or clerical/religious teachers.”


Growing Irreligiousness

The scandals have added to a growing irreligiousness in Irish life, which Michael Laffan, a historian at University College Dublin, dates to the 1960s and the emergence of secularizing trends. Ireland has not yet rejected the faith to the extent of other European countries, however. A survey carried out on behalf of the Iona Institute, a Dublin think tank promoting the role of religion in Irish public life, suggests that 46% of Irish people attend weekly Mass. This is well above the continental average, though whether it can be sustained remains to be seen.

Other problems persist — and may be getting worse. Father Twomey, author of The End of Irish Catholicism?, said that Ireland lacks a strong theological tradition, something now being exacerbated by what he terms “a dumbed-down version of comparative religion taught in Irish schools,” where the Church’s central role is now being questioned. Laffan, who said he is no longer a practicing Catholic, said the religious orders in Ireland have “an admirable record in providing education, and we became a healthier and better-educated people due to the Church.”

However, this does not mitigate the tragedy of clerical sex abuse in Ireland. Father Twomey said that “nothing can ever make up for the damage done to these children” by what canon law describes as the “worst crime.”

Simon Roughneen filed this report from Knock, Ireland.