Ireland furious at priests' behavior
DUBLIN, Ireland — An independent report on sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests in Ireland has led some members of Parliament to call for a severing of the formal ties between the Irish government and the Roman Catholic Church, and has led the justice minister to promise new child-protection laws and a nationwide audit of how the church handles such cases.
The report, by a three-member panel appointed by the Irish government, showed that the Catholic Church hierarchy in Ireland was only one part of a system that enabled cover-ups allowing known sexual predators to retain their positions within the church — and their access to young victims.
Before 1990, the panel found, the police were reluctant to investigate claims of sexual abuse by the clergy because they were fearful of challenging the privileged position of Roman Catholic Church authorities.
Most schools in Ireland are run by the Catholic Church, so even lay teachers found it difficult to sound alarms. In addition, public health authorities failed to follow up on some accusations of abuse and cut other inquiries short.
For nearly three years, the commission, led by a former Supreme Court judge, heard more than 100 accusations of abuse against 26 priests over a 40-year period in one diocese, Ferns, on Ireland's southeast coast.
One-fifth of the report's 271 pages is taken up by testimony, often verbatim and frequently explicit, from the victims. It includes accounts of priests at a Catholic boarding school who measured boys' penises at night, of boys who were forced to perform oral sex on priests and of girls who were molested during confession, one even on a church altar.
The sense of outrage that has simmered in Ireland since the late 1990s, when abuse cases began coming to light in the United States, here and elsewhere, has reached the boiling point with the release of the report. Newspaper headlines and angry pub conversations have referred to Ferns as "the most evil diocese in the world" and to abusive priests as "the Devil's disciples."
An investigation into 60 accusations of abuse in the Dublin archdiocese began this week, and a public debate has begun about whether to end the Catholic Church's role in the Irish education system. About 95 percent of Ireland's elementary schools are state-financed but run by Catholic authorities.
Internationally, victims' support groups and campaigners for changes within the Catholic Church have hailed the Ferns report as a watershed in the history of the sexual abuse scandals.
"We at last now have a government coming out on the record against this institution," said Paul Baier, a director of Bishop Accountability, a nonprofit group based in Boston that documents cases of sexual abuse by priests. "It is showing what a lot of us know — that this is a worldwide problem."
The inquiry uncovered greater detail than six recent American grand jury investigations, said David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, which is based in St. Louis.
"Tremendous secrecy is still the norm," Clohessy said. "Any external peek into how it works is very rare and very valuable."
Pope John Paul II, who was pope when many of the sexual abuse scandals became known, said in 2002 that he was "deeply grieved by the fact that priests and religious have themselves caused such suffering and scandal among the young."
His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, has given no response to the Ferns report, in keeping with Vatican policy of refusing to comment on specific cases.
Few people in Ireland have been as instrumental in exposing the scale of the abuse as Colm O'Gorman, who said he was abused as a boy in Ferns by Sean Fortune, who became known as Ireland's most notorious pedophile priest.
After Fortune committed suicide in 1999, while facing 66 criminal charges of sexually abusing boys, O'Gorman founded One in Four — the name refers to the concept that one in four people is a victim of sexual abuse — a counseling and support organization. Lobbying by O'Gorman's group was integral to setting up the Ferns inquiry.
"On a professional level, there is a real sense of relief," O'Gorman, 39, said in an interview after the report's release. "Nobody will ever be able to say again, 'We didn't know.' Nobody will ever be able to say again, 'We didn't understand the implications,' or 'This is best left to the church."'
As in the United States, the Catholic Church in Ireland has financially compensated many victims of abuse to avoid legal proceedings, including O'Gorman's own settlement for $350,000 in 2003. At the time, an admission of church negligence was read by Bishop Eamonn Walsh into the Irish High Court record. Walsh, who was appointed to Ferns after the scandal broke, has publicly accepted the findings of the report and repeated his apology to victims.
The Irish government's publications office has sold more than 3,000 copies of the report, and thousands more have been downloaded from the Boston group's Web site, www.bishop-accountability.org. The government declined to publish the report online for fear that doing so could expose it to defamation lawsuits in other countries, including the United States.
The report's harshest judgments were against Donal Herlihy, the former bishop of Ferns who has since died, and his successor, Brendan Comiskey, who resigned in 2002 after the BBC broadcast a documentary about O'Gorman.
The Ferns report also touched on the Vatican's demand for secrecy in sexual abuse cases — on pain of excommunication — and revealed how Herlihy and Comiskey repeatedly placed priests whom they knew to be pedophiles in positions that made it easier for them to abuse children.
"Bishop Herlihy's failure to take even basic precautions to protect children from men known to have abused in the past must be seen as inadequate and inappropriate," the report said. "He does not appear to have recognized that the wrongdoing was a serious criminal offense. Neither he nor the medical and health care community appreciated the grave damage which child sexual abuse can cause to its victims."
In the 1970s, Herlihy knew that two men studying in the local seminary had been accused of sexually abusing children, but still ordained them as priests. When additional accusations against them emerged, Herlihy sent the two for psychiatric treatment, then made the "inexplicable" decision to appoint them to curacies despite their "manifest unsuitability," the report said.
Comiskey continued similar practices, the report said, appointing known abusers to manage elementary schools as late as 2002.
The report referred to the 15 priests it investigated by Greek letters, like "Father Alpha," which left many victims feeling that the reckoning was incomplete. "It has been very difficult for people whose abuser hasn't been named publicly," O'Gorman said.
Even accusations against Greek letters are damaging to the Catholic Church, which is at the lowest point in its history in Ireland. For the first time, the Dublin archdiocese will not ordain any new priests this year.
Gina Menzies, an Irish theologian and author, said she suspected that the government might next choose to investigate religious orders.
"This is only the tip of the iceberg," she said, referring to the report.MORE IN NewsPORTLAND, Maine — U.S. Sen. Full Story
- Most Popular
- Most Emailed
- MEDIA GALLERY