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Priest Scandals a Deep Betrayal for Many Irish

Religion: Increasing allegations of abuse by the clergy have rocked a nation that strongly identifies with Roman Catholicism.

April 14, 2002|WILLIAM GRAHAM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

DUBLIN, Ireland — It should have been nothing but joy when Cardinal Desmond Connell celebrated Mass to mark the bicentenary of the birth of a founder of the Christian Brothers order.

But outside the Royal Dublin Society building where the service was held this month, some of the 150 protesters broke down and wept for childhoods that they said had been lost when they were abused by priests.

"It just brings back bad memories for me," said George Bell, 54, of Dublin, who now lives in Manchester, England. He said he had been "raped, battered and abused" at the order's Upton Industrial School in Cork in the late 1950s and early 1960s. "I just want them to be punished for what they did."

Such scandals have rocked dioceses across the United States, but these are extraordinary times on this island where the lines separating church, state and lifestyle often blur.

To say this country is predominantly Roman Catholic is to understate the power of centuries of sainted lore, an education system built to support the church and generations of the faithful who sent their sons off to spread the word. That much history has deepened the impact of the scandal that dominates public discussions and even the letters to the editor columns of local newspapers. Mary McAleese, president of Ireland, weighed in recently, calling such abuse by clergy "a heinous betrayal of trust."

Even ordinary Catholics who have not been abused say their faith is being tested. "The abuse of children by priests is so contrary to the very heart of Christian teaching," said Joe Fitzpatrick, a Catholic in Belfast, the provincial capital of Northern Ireland. "I have seen, particularly, in the south of Ireland, a falloff in attendance at Mass during the last two or three years."

Church Law Won't Hamper State Inquiry

Almost weekly, there are new details about the amount of abuse and questions about how completely the church will investigate. Following discussions at a special meeting April 8 of the country's Catholic bishops, Irish Primate Archbishop Sean Brady, the president of the bishops conference, indicated that church law would not hinder cooperation with any state inquiry.

A week before the meeting, Brendan Comiskey, the bishop of Ferns in County Wexford, resigned after complaints about how he handled charges of abuse against priests in his diocese. The abuse focused on several priests--including Father Sean Fortune, who committed suicide in 1999 shortly before he was to stand trial on 66 criminal counts of sexually abusing boys.

The Catholic bishops said that the countrywide scandal had caused great pain and shame to the church in Ireland, and they apologized for inadequacies in tackling the problem.

"We felt a real depth of urgency about the need to establish a full truth about how complaints of child sexual abuse have been dealt with," the bishops said in a statement. "The safety of children, the welfare of victims and the common good are all supreme concerns and shall be the sole determining factors in carrying out this audit so that the truth can be established."

Last week, Irish Health Minister Micheal Martin appointed Senior Counsel George Birmingham to examine what kind of state investigation should be carried out.

State authorities "will have full access to all church records in every diocese in Ireland, and the bishops are determined this will happen very quickly and the findings will be published," said Paul Bailey, executive director of the church's Child Protection Office.

Civil authorities had already announced an investigation into physical and sexual abuse in child-care institutions in the last 60 years. A commission headed by High Court Judge Mary Laffoy is leading the inquiry, but its final report is not expected until at least 2005. The number of those who wish to appear before the commission has doubled to more than 3,000. Most of the applications have come from Ireland but more than a third are Irish living in Britain, other European countries, the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Claims of Abuse Date to World War II

Earlier this year, Ireland's religious orders offered to pay $110 million to a fund compensating children sexually abused by their clergy. The victims date to World War II and include former residents of child-care institutions.

One such former resident is John Kelly, coordinator of Irish Survivors of Child Abuse, an organization of about 800 members who say they have been abused by clergy. As a child, Kelly said, he was beaten and abused at an institution for criminal youth run by the Christian Brothers order. Kelly said a court sent him there for two years after he was convicted of stealing chocolates.

After a troubled life in London, where he worked as a station inspector, he said he finally sought psychiatric help to cope with his memories of abuse. He now lives in Dublin with his partner, Marie, and their son, Ryan, 7.

"I wanted to die," said Kelly, 51, one of the organizers of the demonstration against Cardinal Connell. "I lost my religion. I lost God that night."

The Christian Brothers order has apologized for the abuse and its leaders did so again at the commemorative Mass. There, Connell noted the "unspeakable harm and suffering" to the victims and the suspicions that have clouded how parishioners view their clergy.

"This is a profoundly difficult moment for the church, not only here in Ireland," the cardinal said, "but as we know, in other parts of the world."

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