Proud 2 Be Irish and Catholic

The youth of Ireland are forging ahead in faith in the face of a report that details four decades of sexual abuse by Catholic religious.

DUBLIN, Ireland — The so-called Ryan Report recently brought forth devastating revelations of past abuse of youth in Catholic institutions.

Judge Sean Ryan released the report, a nine-year study by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, in May. The 2,600-page report cast light on severe and systemic abuse of children by Catholic religious in Ireland since 1914, particularly in the period of 1936-1970.

But the report, which seems extremely damaging for the Church, does not seem to have halted a recent trend among Irish youth.

Like Catholic youth in other countries living in the years immediately following the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, Irish youth are active and faith-filled, and youth movements are vibrant. Religious vocations seem to be picking up.

Compared to the Church in the United States — which usually separates ministries to high school, college and young adult members — Irish organizations can reach out to all three. Youth 2000’s festival in August near the historic grounds of Clonmacnoise monastery drew around 1,000 people from the age range of 16-35.

Pure in Heart is another Catholic group on the rise in Ireland, with three weekly prayer groups in the Dublin area that feature Mass, Eucharistic adoration and talks on the teaching of the Church, often about sexuality and chastity.

Michelle Manley, 28, spent a year on the Pure in Heart mission team that gives chastity talks in schools and retreats. She recently spent time training the new mission team.

Reflecting on the Ryan Report, Manley recalled being upset that those abused in the time period of the report would have their faith lives damaged. However, she also recalled Christ’s love for the abusers.

“I remember praying about it and just thinking that Jesus really wants to save those souls of those priests and those who’ve done harm, you know, and abused, and that he loves them as much as he loves me and died on the cross for them,” she said.

Conal O’Callaghan, 21, has decided to take a year out from his undergraduate history and theology studies to be on the Pure in Heart mission team. Though O’Callaghan states that the secular media can use the Ryan Report as an attack on the Church, its findings must be acknowledged and addressed.

“So I think it’s important that we must deal with it before we move on,” he said. “I don’t think there can be any redemption for the Catholic Church in Ireland or any proper move forward, any New Evangelization, unless we properly make amends for what has gone on in the past, unless we acknowledge it, accept responsibility and really try to move forward in terms of healing.”

Catholic Culture

Another significant factor lies in the challenge of reaching a populace that is overwhelmingly Catholic, at least nominally.

Auxiliary Bishop Donal McKeown of Down and Connor refers to this as a “social Christianity” where almost everyone has belonged to a Christian church.

Bishop McKeown recently gave a spirited talk to youth 18-35 at the Knock Summer Youth Festival held on the grounds of the Knock Marian Shrine in the West of Ireland.

“I find great energy, great goodness and great generosity coming from young people, especially when you ask a lot of them,” said Bishop McKeown. “They really rise to the occasion because so many young people nowadays think, feel ‘I’m just a consumer; I have to conform to somebody else’s agenda.’”

In regard to the effect of the Ryan Report on those attending the festival, Bishop McKeown said combating today’s secular culture is the biggest challenge to reaching young people. He said the report is “speaking about a different world,” compared to the youth’s experience of the Church.

Helen Toner, 23, is the head of youth ministry at the Knock shrine and was the lead organizer of this year’s three-day festival, which several hundred youth attended. Among her peer group, she calls the findings of the Ryan Report “absolutely horrendous. … It does test you.”

But she said that over the weekend, she hadn’t heard discussion about it.

“I think what this weekend is about is really getting in touch with God and getting in touch with themselves, and I don’t think the Ryan Report does affect that,” she said.

Carole Brown, an American graduate student in Dublin, works for Youth 2000 Ireland. She has introduced the use of dramas in its programs as a way to reach young people. She contrasted the Ryan Report to the United States clergy abuse scandals.

“In America you could possibly go through your whole Catholic life and never meet anybody who was molested,” she said. “But in Ireland, after a tragedy of this magnitude, it’s very difficult to go around very long without meeting somebody who was, who was directly impacted by what happened. … There’s a lot less geography to absorb it here, you know; it’s a tiny place.”

Yet, it seems the Ryan Report is not a major obstacle to overcome in reaching out to contemporary Irish youth.

“We’ve been focusing more and more on trying to bring young people to an awareness that they’re making a decision to follow Jesus and to learn about him, and to discover him and to pattern your life on the teaching of the Gospel, a decision to turn away from sin,” she said.

And groups such as Youth 2000 and Pure in Heart are producing vocations in a parched Irish landscape. This year the Irish Dominican Province has 14 men signed up to start formation.

But challenges remain. “The Dublin Report,” which will look at clerical sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Dublin between 1975 and 2004, will probably be released this fall. A website called has tallied 2,312 people who have made their “Declaration of Defection” from the Catholic Church.

Nonetheless, if recent trends among young people in Ireland are any indication, this island that has produced saints and scholars will produce more.

Justin Bell writes from Boston.