Empathy for Irish priests


'Irish priests' by Chris JohnstonOn a brief winter visit to Ireland, I paid close attention to the attitude of locals to the Murphy and Ryan reports into the abuse of children. The common thread was anger at the apparent arrogance of the Church leaders, the dodging and weaving and obfuscation.

They pointed in particular to the use by the previous Archbishop of Dublin, Cardinal Desmond Connell, of the concept of 'mental reservation' after he was found out in a public lie, and to the attitude of the papal nuncio who stood on his diplomatic dignity by refusing to answer correspondence from the Murphy tribunal because it did not come through the Department of Foreign Affairs.

For the older generation among whom I spent most of my time, the revelations did not appear to have affected their core religious belief or practice. In two separate households where I stayed, I accompanied a member to a weekday morning Mass and was surprised to find the church car park almost one third full, very much what I might have expected 30 years ago if you could imagine the cars replaced by bicycles.

There were no young people in the pews, and it would appear that their generation is lost to the Church.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the current leader in Dublin, is a minor hero to the ordinary people. He has faced up to the wrongs of the past and his reaction is accepted as sincere. 'Efforts made to "protect the Church" and to "avoid scandal" have had the ironic result of bringing this horrendous scandal on the Church today ... As Archbishop of Dublin and as Diarmuid Martin I offer to each and every survivor, my apology, my sorrow and my shame for what happened to them.'

In May last year after the publication of the Ryan report into abuse in institutions run by religious orders, Martin condemned the way those groups were dealing with their responsibilities. After the release of the Murphy report in November, he supported demands in the media for the resignation of those who were auxiliary bishops of Dublin at the time the abuses were occurring. Four of those have now resigned, but their tardiness in doing so has suggested that their action was a result of public pressure rather than personal conviction.

Martin, born and educated in Dublin — De La Salle and Marist Brothers — was a Vatican diplomat for more than 30 years before his appointment to his native city in 2004. So he had no direct knowledge of the matters investigated by the various reports. Some of his priests have been publicly critical of the way he has handled the current situation and the whispers you hear vary from 'very unpopular' to 'his priests are not talking to him'.

Catholic journals such as The Furrow and The Irish Catholic have published articles critical of Martin and it seems that many priests of the diocese feel they have not been supported by their leader. The hundreds of priests who have devoted blameless lives to their ministry and now find themselves bracketed with abusers feel uncomfortable and may well feel abandoned.

At least part of the problem arises because the agenda is set by the media. Any modern journalist worth her salt must be able to get readers outraged, and the abuse of children by adults is so obviously wrong that fish in barrels come to mind. But not only do the media set the agenda, they also set the pace and this may lead to accusations that are not properly investigated, or to allegations that are presented as facts.

An adult who sexually abuses a minor is a criminal; he or she is not necessarily a certifiable paedophile, a word in today's media lexicon that suggests an offence in which there are no gradations. You may find an excuse for drugs or murder or rape or mugging of a pensioner, but only the child abuser is automatically condemned to the deepest hole in hell.

'When a long abuse of power is corrected, it is generally replaced by an opposite violence,' novelist John McGahern writes in a posthumous collection of essays published late last year. He was comparing what happened during the wave of early 20th century French anti-clericalism with what is happening in Ireland today. 'In the new dispensations, all that was good in what went before is tarred indiscriminately with the bad.'

Spare a thought then for the ordinary priest in modern Dublin. He is no longer a man of power or perhaps even of much authority; instead he is a pastor, a shepherd, the humble representative of a humble master. And he would be happy with that except that he wonders whether his flock — or his archbishop — trusts him.

"'What then?' sang Plato's ghost. ‘What then?'"

Frank O'SheaFrank O'Shea is a retired teacher. His book Keeping Faith: 40 Years of Marist College Canberra was published in 2008.

Topic tags: frank o'shea, ryan report, murphy report, catholic church, child abuse, ireland, st patrick's day



submit a comment

Existing comments

Yes, it's harsh and unjust when the innocent are condemned along with the guilty and that is a reflection of our blameworthy tendency to find fault in others in broad brush strokes. But clericalism, in my view, has been a problem and a problematic tendency within Christian groups, particularly Catholicism, and I think, that all things being equal, it is good that priests are not, or are not encouraged to aspire to be, "men of power".

Priesthood is clearly not easy and priests need help and support, as we all do. But putting priests on pedestals clearly is and has been the wrong way to do so and seems good neither for them nor for those who put them there.
STEPHEN KELLETT | 15 March 2010

Well may Frank say 'spare a thought for the ordinary priest in Dublin' for no one will say spare a thought for the hierarchy who 'dodged, weaved and obfuscated'. And that surely is the problem with Frank's appeal; while the long-suffering innocent continue to suffer, the guilty hierarchy remains in place, and in power. What the Church needs is a thorough clean out of its management ranks but there is no process whereby that might be achieved.
Ginger Meggs | 15 March 2010

The problem so well spoken of by Frank O'Shea is not limited to the good priests of Ireland. It reaches into the Church in places as far apart as Tasmania and Alaska. The small volume entitled "The Long Dark Winter's Night" by Fr.Patrick Bergquist should resonate throughout the Catholic world - as the author speaks of the pain suffered by honourable priests ever faithful to their calling.
PETER M. ROACH | 17 March 2010

Informative article, beautifully written. Journalism at its best. Thank you.
Alan Gill | 17 March 2010

Ginger Meggs, while you may not have considered the notion before when we all put up with the "management ranks" and their lording it over everyone "beneath" them, there is in fact a process whereby a "thorough clean out" can be achieved.

Think about it! Leaders can only lead if they are accepted by the people. They can be forced to resign even though that may not be a common sight in the Church as we have known it. Who knows, perhaps the Holy Spirit is waiting for the laity to behave less like sheep and more like people on a mission to put the Church back on track - but not back to the old ways and the old thinking!

As a start, Rome could be forced to hand back the powers it has so brazenly grabbed from its all-too-obliging bishops, then it would be up to the laity to keep the bishops on their toes or be fired.
Richard Flynn | 17 March 2010

I guess I will throw a spanner in the works here. No, I don't feel sorry for the average priest. Many of them knew what was going on and did nothing (both here and elsewhere). Even now many make excuses for priests. None spoke out against the way the hierarchy handled things at the time. How many have gone to the victims and helped them? It is time for priests to stand up and say loudly that what happened was inexcusable, distance themselves from the abusers and invite the hurt to tell their stories to them. I have watched priests support abusers, walk with them and be pastorally present. Where are the priests that do that for the victims? In Australia, how was Bishop Robinson treated for standing with victims? It still comes across as "close ranks". When priests speak out maybe they will be believed.
V | 17 March 2010

Well reasoned article, thanks Frank.
During your writing you say or infer that sexual abuse is a criminal activity, I am left to wonder why the criminals in the Church continue to be protected?? AND it is by their own that this has happened and maybe still continues to happen even now!!
Rosemary Keenan | 17 March 2010

Excellent dissertation on the ABC last week defining the way priests are infantilised in their training ... cossetted, given a sense of their power and little understanding of the way the world works ... almost divorced from reality.

This piece reinforces those concepts. Perhaps the church needs to look at its training of priests and the role of celibacy in the mix.
GAJ | 17 March 2010

I was in Ireland last year and my impressions are much the same as Frank O'Shea's. Irish Catholics who go to Mass are still doing so and there is an awareness of the conspiratorial nature of the mass media's reporting of clerical sex abuse, both in Ireland and elsewhere.

The secular media are not an objective player in this drama but include a lot of people with a range of agenda who are exploiting the crisis as an occasion to cause maximum collateral damage to the Catholic Church, its social standing and credibility. We need to be aware of this factor.

We also need to remember that the vast majority of priests is innocent of these crimes and offenders have violated their ordination promises and the moral values of their Church. Celibacy is not the cause of this problem. Most child abusers are married men.
Sylvester | 17 March 2010

In response to V. No, 'many' did not know what was going on and failed to speak out. In fact very, very few people did know about the occurrence of abuse among priests, religious, families or society as a whole. Sexual abuse, a long hidden problem, is now recognised as something that occurs in all professions (and more widely in families)

In the past while individuals knew about individual situations no-one understood the extent of the problem or how best to deal with it - thankfully that has now changed but we should not judge the past in the light of what we know now.
BB | 17 March 2010

there is an old Christian tradition of the "Communion of Saints", our Christian family of which we are all members, some of us not as faithful to the family as we should be. Might it be that the Communion of Saints idea urges us all in love for the whole body of Christ to share in the guilt so to speak, and therefore to the reparation to the victims, and that includes financial reparations. Certainly as members of the Communion of Saints victims especially must be compensated for the harm that some members of the family has done to them. So let us not walk away from any responsibility to help our Christian family, but rather be generous in our continued financial support of our Christian family so that it can continue to have the resources to make proper restitution to those whom members of our family have harmed. After all, what would Jesus have done?
Norbert Kelvin | 17 March 2010

Sylvester's comments miss the point. The harsh and widespread public reaction to the revelations of long-running abuse by those in power in the Church is not so much directed toward the perpetrators but against the hierarchy which has deliberately and knowingly covered it up, compounded the problem, and declined to report the allegations to civil authorities. For the most recent evidence that this cover-up is continuing see www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/catholic-abuse-cover-up-starts-at-top/story-e6frg6zo-1225842013029

Sylvester also implies that 'because 'most child abusers are married men' it follows that 'celibacy is not the cause of this problem'. The logic of this reasoning escapes me and it certainly wouldn't be accepted in Logic 101. I don't know whether celibacy is the problem or not, but I do know that there is a lot about the way that priests are, or at least have been, selected, trained and treated that is suspect. For a good airing of this issue see the ABC Background Briefing program by Stephen Critenden on 7 March 2010 to which GAJ has already referred. You can find the podcast at www.abc.net.au/rn/backgroundbriefing/stories/2010/2834210.htm

The Church would be better served and it might also regain some of the respect it once had, if it addressed these problems openly and honestly rather than trying to sweep them under the carpet.
Ginger Meggs | 18 March 2010

Ginger Meggs challenges Sylvester’s implication that 'because 'most child abusers are married men' it follows that 'celibacy is not the cause of this problem'.
You may be interested to know that police records reveal that most child abuse is actually perpetrated by the child’s parent/guardian/relative and most commonly by a step-father (more than 85%); by persons unknown to the child (approx.15%).

I am yet to hear your words of outrage, when you must know by now for this to be the case.

Church would be better served and it might also regain some of the respect it once had, if it addressed these problems openly and honestly rather than trying to sweep them under the carpet.

This has in fact been and is being addressed. The tree is “being shaken out” quite vigorously to cut it free from such evil men who have been prepared to go extraordinary lengths to carry out such evil. Their behaviour (of breaking so many of the Ten Commandments) betrays them as having no belief in God at all. A criminal cannot call oneself to be a exemplary law-abiding citizen and certainly not a follower of Christ.

I am still yet to hear your words of outrage about the 42 million people, mostly women and children used as sex-slaves and slaves throughout the world. Everyone, please write tirelessly to your parliamentary members and to those of other countries, to keep the issue alive until something is done.

Oppy | 18 March 2010

Ginger Meggs didn't get my point, which is that many people in the mass media are not objective bystanders but are actively involved in shaping opinions and obfuscating reality by biased reporting and commenting.

My statement about celibacy and child abuse was a sociological rather than a strictly academic logical comment. The point is that if there were a direct, structural causal link between the two then one would expect that far more priests would offend in this way than actually do and far fewer married men. A lot of the motivation behind the journalistic distortion of the news in this area lies in a campaign to force change onto the Catholic Church masquerading as concern for victims. This needs to be taken on board if we are to understand what is really going on in this very complex and murky situation.
Sylvester | 18 March 2010

I readily accept the point that Sylvester makes that the media, mass or specialised, are not always or even ever completely objective. Some of that lack of objectivity is intentional and malicious, some of it simply reflects the position and background of the 'reporter'. I readily accept the consequential point that at least some and perhaps much of the reporting of this issue is biased and intended to cause harm to the institution.

I also accept Sylvester's expansion of his comment on celibacy, and cannot but agree fully with his observation that this is a 'very complex and murky situation'. Frankly, I would be surprised if there was a 'direct, structural causal link' between celibacy and abuse and even more surprised if celibacy were to be seen to be the only or major factor. Most men, nominally celibate or nominally married (and the two classes are not mutually exclusive) do not abuse. The causes of abuse are almost certainly complex and I accept that at least some parts of the Church are trying to understand the causes and deal with them. Some of these efforts are reported positively in the Background Briefing program to which GAJ and I referred.

That said, I think it reasonable to say that abuse has occurred within the Church, the abuse has not been isolated in time or space, that abuse has been covered-up, and that many people feel that the hierarchy of the Church has still not come to terms with past, tried to understand the causes, or taken the actions necessary to put an end to the abuse (so far as is humanly possible) or to ensure that there are no further cover-ups. For until that happens, the innocent, as I think the article suggests, will be tarred with the same brush as the guilty and the attacks from the media - objective or otherwise - will continue.
Ginger Meggs | 18 March 2010

Frank O'Shea's article effectively but not explicitly reminds us to extend the presumption of innocence to the average Irish priest. We don't lock up people who may be guilty and not even those who are likely to be guilty.
But when the decision is not whether or not to imprison or otherwise punish someone, but whether or not to leave your children in their care, whether or not to listen to their advice on personal moral matters, whether or not to simply show affection for their institution there is a far lower hurdle to clear than the discovery of some reasonable doubt.

People with power in the church have failed to weed out the appalling element which has cast a shadow over all the priesthood. It is human and not even unChristian for people to be wary of the average cleric in this context. In most cases this will be very unfair Frank but this fact is just one of the ripples flowing from the original splash of evil. In politics absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Church with its extraordinary influence in Ireland had a proportionate duty to be without such abuse. The Bishops may have felt unable to judge but they did not with that gain the sole right to absolve.
Andrew Coorey | 19 March 2010

Correction: In my post of 18.3.10, I forgot to add that of the approx 15% of child sex abuse offenders, less than 0.001% are clergy (world-wide). But of course, the media being still driven by ratings will sensationalise this category our of all proportion in comparison to other offenders. This is not to excuse any crime against children. Ever. But it does illustrate the lengths evil people will go to in order to have access to children and to use even the most noble of professions or organisations as a “cover” for their activities. This is where society must realise that the cost of freedom is “eternal vigilance” against all evil as well.

It is essential for society, especially parent groups, to become more closely involved in children’s activities, sports, school, transport, and in the home, etc etc and to set up transparent safety procedures where adults can be openly accountable. Of course, we (parents especially) will also have to make the time to castigate the media quite harshly for the deliberate sexualisation of children by advertising companies and corporations targeting children.
Oppy | 19 March 2010

There are no ordinary priests in Ireland or Austrlasia. All share the guilt of knowing about the offenses being committed and not speaking out. The same criticism can be applied to the laity. Talk of errant clergy has been common in Catholic Laity for nearly a century and yet we were silent. We are sharers in the guilt. We are still shares of the guilt because we accept the cover up. We accept that criminal behavior should not be reported to the police but should be dealt with within the church.
Ken Fuller | 19 March 2010

Of course we should be very angry at the church not reporting these evil men to the police immediately. In not doing this, and in not following Christ’s attitude (“that it would be better for such evil people who harm children, to tie a millstone around their own neck and throw themselves into the sea” to drown) the church has in fact lost much credibility. There is never a justification for such evil, under any circumstances and we should never tolerate or sweep it under the carpet.We should expect and demand a higher standard of behaviour from all sectors of community as well.

But where is everyone’s moral outrage at the far greater number of child sexual assaults by doctors (remember the Hipocratic Oath), by sports coaches, scout masters, teachers, etc.? Where is everyone outrage at the 42 million people (mostly women and children kept in sexual slavery and slavery across the world? Who will be the voice for these voiceless?
AO | 22 March 2010

AO says 'where is everyone’s moral outrage at the far greater number of child sexual assaults by doctors (remember the Hipocratic Oath), by sports coaches, scout masters, teachers, etc.?'

I'd like to see the evidence to support your 'far greater' assertion, but in case there is a critical difference between the Church and the bodies to which those others belong which you have ignored.

Medical associations, sports coaching bodies, the scouting movement, and state school administrations have never sought to systematically cover up instance of abuse or to protect abusers. On the contrary, they have reported all cases to the proper civil authorities. Compare that with the Church's practice, where it has sought to place itself above the civil law.

Don't you understand that it is the systematic high level cover-ups that infuriate people? The abuse is bad enough wherever it happens; the cover up is, for the vast majority of people, literally unforgivable.
Ginger Meggs | 22 March 2010

To Ginger Meggs, Re: “…they have reported all cases to the proper civil authorities. Compare that with the Church's practice…” This is incorrect. In the past there were an extraordinary number of cover-ups by all organisations and I agree that the church should not have copied them; (in trying to preserve its name) and in not immediately reporting offenders, it has unnecessarily done itself untold damage. This infuriates me as well. It was also avoidable from the point of view that a even far more strict selection method still allowed unsuitable individuals to “slip under the radar“..

The whole of society will have to have a serious re-think about this issue because “…Law enforcement officials and doctors tell us that … efforts fail to address one group that, statistically, poses the greatest threat to children: male relatives and trusted family or community friends…” Patricia Tummino (April 18, 2008)
Statistics gathered by Mouzos and Makkai, 2004, reveal that nearly 1 in 5 girls are sexually abused before the age of 16 (18%); approx 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 10 boys report some sort of sexual exploitation by an older person; approx. 87% of girls were abused by someone they knew; 64% of girls were abused by family, friends or neighbours; 13% of child sexual assault is committed by strangers and approx 0.001% by clergy.

Research by Debra Haffner CEO of Sexuality Information and Education Council in the United States, differs slightly, but emphasises that in the vast majority of cases of child sexual abuse, by far the most common abuser is an adult that the child knows (being relatives, babysitters, grandparents, parents and particularly step-parents).

Haffner lists a minimum safety-check that all organisations should be required to implement in order to keep children and youth safe from sexual predators. Predators (despite their claims to the contrary) do not (sincerely) believe in other people’s rights to be treated with dignity; do not believe in the brotherhood of mankind nor in the fatherhood of God; indeed rarely believe in God or in living by the Ten Commandments; let alone the teachings of Christ and responsibility for one’s own actions. Most offenders actually believe that they are not subject to anyone’s law. They often also gravitate to positions of power over others and to positions where they would have access to their victims, teachers, sports coaches, clergy, judges, etc. The increase in offences have also been fuelled by the explosion in child sex pornography, which a civilised can no longer ignore.

Also “Law enforcement has found that child molesters increasingly use internet “chat rooms” to groom children and teens for exploitation. Parents have a duty to warn their children that they should never provide anyone with private or personal information, and especially their physical location.” (Source: Bob Farley, “Exposing the Dangers of Chat Rooms”, March 14, 2004)
AO | 23 March 2010

There are a minimum number of policies that every congregation should consider in order to keep children and youth safe and to build the foundation for dealing with a convicted sex offender.

Here's a quick self assessment check list for your congregation.
Institute a Safe Congregations Committee or a Sexual Misconduct and Abuse Response Team with primary responsibilities for these issues. Provide them with support to maintain their knowledge and skill strengths. Have opportunities for them to regularly inform the congregation of their role.

Create and implement a written policy on safe congregations. Share it with the congregation. Train appropriate staff and leaders in its application. Review and update it as needed
Make sure the Minister, the Religious Educator, and the Board Chair know the state laws for reporting concerns about child abuse. Implement annual training for all volunteers in the Religious Education Program on how to recognize possible signs of abuse and sexual abuse, and subsequent actions to take.

Teach Our Whole Lives (OWL) Program including the sessions on sexual abuse at each of its grade levels as a routine part of religious education for all ages

Adopt and use a screening form for all employees, regardless of position, and all volunteers who work with children and youth. The form should ask directly about histories of sexual offenses.

Create and use a Code of Ethics for persons working with children and youth. Review it with each such individual each year. Have them sign the Code annually and keep a signed copy on file.

Create a template for a limited access agreement or develop a check list for convicted or accused sex offenders.
Develop and implement a policy that requires two adults be present in each class or program for children and youth as well as in cars transporting young people to activities.

Make education about child sexual abuse prevention a routine part of the religious education program. Offer such education at least twice during elementary school and once during middle school and high school.
Offer annual adult education programs on sexual abuse prevention for parents and families as well as one for religious education teachers.
Create and distribute a referral list of community organizations and therapists who specialize in sex abuse prevention and treatment in cases where such referrals are necessary and appropriate.

Have support groups and/or counseling for those who have survived child sexual abuse.

AO | 23 March 2010

Ginger Meggs, As I read it, AO has addressed all your concerns. You also may be interested in today’s news (March 24, 2010) that “Hundreds of Queensland teachers are reportedly under investigation for inappropriate behaviour in schools, with the Courier-Mail newspaper saying 26 teachers have had their registrations suspended. It says the information is in documents obtained under Right to Information laws, and almost all cases cited involve sexual misconduct.

The paper says one state pre-school teacher, who was previously investigated for molesting young children, got his students to strip naked and paint each other while he took photos, while another had a threesome with students in the back of his car after a Gay Pride march“.

Need more convincing? I rest my case.
Leonie | 24 March 2010

Leonie, again, like AO, you've missed the point. So I'll put it again -

'Don't you understand that it is the systematic high level cover-ups that infuriate people? The abuse is bad enough wherever it happens; the cover up is, for the vast majority of people, literally unforgivable.'

Where is your evidence of a cover up in the Queensland state system? And where is the opportunity to do an FOI discovery in the Church?
Ginger Meggs | 26 March 2010

But Ginger, I am as angry as you at the delay in reporting such criminals to the police. The Church no longer investigates such crimes first but hands them over to the police right away for investigation. It must be handled by the law of the land.
AO | 29 March 2010

I'll grant you, AO, that the Church has changed its policy so that it now reports allegations to the civil authorities. An that's good and welcome, albeit long overdue. But I'm not convinced that the culture has changed across the board.

Take for example the recent incident in Ireland where Monsignor Maurice Dooley, a former Professor of Canon Law, and at the time a parish priest, said, while being interviewed on the BBC, that if a paedophile priest approached him in confidence, he would not report that priest to the Gardia.

His archbishop was quick to distance the Church from Dooley's comments, and sought to reassure the public that Dooley's views were contrary to the Church's position but Dooley is, I understand, still in place and still, I assume, of the same opinion. And I wonder how many others there are like him?

For a couple of links see

http://www.independent.ie/national-news/monsignor-would-not-report-paedophile-to-gardai-2102871.html and http://www.catholicbishops.ie/media-centre/press-release-archive/71/1800-18-march-2010--statement-of-archbishop-dermot-clifford-regarding-mgr-maurice-dooley
Ginger Meggs | 30 March 2010


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up