Ferment in Ireland as New Report on Sex Abuse Looms

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, April 29, 2011 | Go to article overview

Ferment in Ireland as New Report on Sex Abuse Looms


Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


DUBLIN, IRELAND * As Ireland prepares for yet another damning government report on the Catholic church's handling of the sexual abuse crisis, this one focused on the rural southern diocese of Cloyne, anger in this once almost homogenously Catholic nation continues to fuel calls for fairly sweeping reform.

A conference on the sexual abuse crisis sponsored by the Jesuit-run Milltown Institute in Dublin in early April, for example, heard proposals for revisions to Catholic theology of sexuality and the priesthood, democratizing authority structures in the church, and broader cooperation with civil authorities.

One speaker warned that without such reform, the Catholic church risks "moral bankruptcy."

Public outrage could be glimpsed just outside the gates of the conference site, where a small knot of abuse survivors unfurled a banner denouncing the Catholic church for fielding a "worldwide pedophile army."

In a vintage instance of truth in labeling, the group calls itself "Anti-Catholic Church Activists, Ireland."

Facing that already agitated context, observers say the pending Cloyne report represents something of a wildcard.

On the one hand, the report will almost certainly deepen popular suspiciousness of the church, as it reveals breakdowns that occurred even after the Irish bishops supposedly endorsed tough new sex abuse standards. Yet it could also be seen as a "darkest before the dawn" moment, proving that fail-safe mechanisms put in place by the church are working.

Three government commissions in Ireland have already issued reports examining aspects of the sex abuse crisis: the Ferns Report in 2005, treating the southeastern diocese of Ferns; the Ryan Report in 2009, focusing on schools run by religious orders up to the 1970s; and the Murphy Report in 2010, looking at the Dublin archdiocese.

While those studies largely focused on older cases, the report on Cloyne examines complaints made between Jan. 1, 1996, to Feb. 1, 2009. That's significant because the Irish bishops adopted a groundbreaking set of policies in 1996, among other things pledging to report alleged abuse to police and prosecutors. The new report apparently shows that those commitments were not honored in Cloyne as recently as 2008.

According to accounts in the Irish media, the report examines charges against 19 priests in Cloyne, at least some of whom continued in ministry despite accusations of abuse. Ireland's High Court ruled in early April that the report could be published, with the exception of a chapter dealing with the case of a retired priest from Cloyne currently facing a criminal trial.

Irish observers say the Cloyne report could have the same effect as a recent grand jury report in the Philadelphia archdiocese in the United States, casting doubt on official claims of "zero tolerance."

The Cloyne report is also likely to garner interest for the prelate who stands at its center: Bishop John Magee, 74, who ceded control of the Cloyne diocese to an apostolic administrator in 2009 amid controversy sparked by a church review of his handling of sex abuse cases, and who then resigned in 2010.

Magee is a legendary figure in church circles, having served as a private secretary to three popes--Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul III. Especially coming around the May 1 beatification of Pope John Paul II, the critical spotlight on a veteran Vatican insider represents a further embarrassment both for the Irish church and for Rome.

Yet Irish observers also suggest a different way of reading the Cloyne report, as proof that the internal monitoring procedures adopted by the Irish bishops are functioning as advertised.

That's because the first public report on breakdowns in Cloyne came from a church body, the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church, established by the bishops in 2006. That board, headed by a Presbyterian child protection expert, launched a review of the Cloyne diocese after five people filed complaints against two priests.

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