Report Starts Irish Abuse Furor All Over Again

DUBLIN, Ireland — The United States isn't the only country where the authority and credibility of the Catholic Church has been undermined by incidents of sexual abuse by priests.

Ireland's bishops were already struggling to come to grips with abuse that made headlines in the 1990s. But new revelations have started another media firestorm in 2005.

A recent government inquiry by retired Supreme Court Judge Frank Murphy into allegations of abuse in the diocese of Ferns in the southeast corner of Ireland has uncovered abuse charges spanning 40 years.

The report has raised serious (and, as yet, unanswered) questions about the local seminary and has led to calls for the exclusion of the Church from its role in civic society.

The 271-page “Ferns Report,” released Oct. 25 and commissioned by Ireland's health minister in 2003 after widespread reports of abuse by diocesan priests, makes for grim reading. It details the accusations of abuse in sometimes graphic detail and reveals allegations against 21 priests involving more than 100 alleged victims over four decades.

And while the government report makes no findings on the veracity of individual allegations, media coverage expresses little doubt about the overall scale of the problem.

The report strongly criticizes the handling of abuse by both Bishop Donal Herlihy, diocesan bishop from 1964-1983, and Bishop Brendan Comiskey, who served from 1983-2002. Maintaining that neither bishop removed accused priests from ministry, and instead referred them for counselling and moved them to other parishes, the report accuses both bishops of an “inadequate and inappropriate response” to the allegations.

David Quinn, the religious and social affairs correspondent of the Irish Independent, Ireland's largest daily newspaper, sees similarities between how both Bishops Herlihy and Comiskey handled the situation in Ferns and how bishops handled it in the in United States.

“A large proportion of the blame must be put on a mistaken form of clericalism that would put the interests of priests above all else,” Quinn said. “Just as in the U.S., successive bishops in Ferns wanted to avoid scandal, but in the long run their inaction has caused much more damage to the Church.”

After the report was released, Bishop Comiskey said that he wished to “apologize to those who suffered as a result of my failings and whose suffering was increased by them.”

According to the bishop, his errors were “not deliberate but rather were human failings.”

The report commended the child protection measures implemented by Bishop Eamonn Walsh, the temporary apostolic administrator of Ferns since Bishop Comiskey's resignation in 2002. Commenting on the report, Bishop Walsh praised the courage of all those who had come forward to assist with the inquiry and said he wished to “sincerely apologize” to all who had been hurt, especially where “the abuse was compounded by the response, or lack of response, of the diocese.”

Colm O'Gorman, a victim of abuse in Ferns and the founder of One in Four, a charity that offers advice and counseling to abuse victims, has also praised Bishop Walsh's handling of the issue since his appointment. But O'Gorman also said the extent of the problem in Ferns indicates particularly serious problems exist with respect to sexual abuse in Ireland.

“In the U.S. we know that 4% of priests have faced allegations,” said O'Gorman. “It is clear that the dramatically higher percentage of priests in Ferns facing allegations must be a symptom of a deeper failure on the part of both the Church in Ireland and the state.

O'Gorman is not the only one questioning the size of the problem. Ferns is a small diocese with just 133 priests currently in active ministry, and the extent of abuse uncovered suggests a much higher proportion of priests facing allegations than in other dioceses worldwide.

For Ronan Mullen, a former press adviser to the Archdiocese of Dublin and commentator of religious affairs, it is impossible to get to the bottom of this question without shining a light on St. Peter's College, the diocesan seminary that was closed in 1998. Mullen told the Register that the abuse relates to the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the period during which there was “widespread rejection” of the Church's teaching on sexuality.

“During that time, homosexual subcultures emerged in some seminaries in the U.S. and elsewhere,” Mullen said. “Was St. Peter's seminary such a place? It would appear that the problem of abuse by clergy may not be entirely separate from concerns in the Vatican and elsewhere about lax standards about sexuality and, particularly, homosexuality.”

The “Ferns Report” seems to back up Mullen's analysis. It cites one five-year period during which there were 10 priests working in St. Peter's College against whom abuse allegations subsequently came to light.

In some cases, the accused priests had faced allegations of abuse while still seminarians, and the report criticizes Bishop Herlihy for ordaining men whom he must have known had a propensity for sexual misconduct. One such priest, Father Sean Fortune, committed suicide in 1999 while facing more than 60 charges of abuse against teenaged boys over the course of his 20 years in the priesthood.

Since the report's publication, the Irish government has initiated a similar investigation into the Dublin archdiocese, which is expected to conclude in three years. And the government has indicated that similar probes into other diocese are also on the way.

The fallout from the report has split the government and sparked a renewed debate about the Church's role in society. In early November, Member of Parliament Liz O'Donnell, a member of the Progressive Democrat party, questioned the role of the Church in civic life, calling for an immediate end to all consultations with it on social policy and a state investigation into its wealth and assets.

O'Donnell's comments were broadly supported by Deputy Prime Minister Mary Harney and were quickly followed by calls from the National Parents Council for a review of the Church's role in the educational system.

In contrast, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, leader of the Fianna Fáil party, has responded with a strong public defense of the Church's contribution to Ireland's development and community life, stating that if the Church were to pull out of the educational system it would almost immediately collapse.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin has pledged the full cooperation of his archdiocese with the commission that will investigate how Church and state authorities have handled complaints of child sexual abuse against diocesan clergy.

“It is vitally important that the truth of what happened regarding abuse of children by priests is brought to light,” said Archbishop Martin. “We can only begin to fully address the issue of child abuse when we establish what happened in the past. Horrendous damage was done to people, compounded by inadequate responses.”

(CNS contributed to this report.)

Patrick Kenny writes from Dublin, Ireland.