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Ireland Is Reduced to Its Last Seminary

Religion: The declining observance of Catholicism and growing anger over the sex abuse scandal are blamed for the closures of the training schools for priests.


DUBLIN — The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, whose network of theological schools once exported priests worldwide, closed another hallowed institution last week, leaving just a single seminary in this predominantly Catholic country.

The directors of St. Patrick's College in Thurles, County Tipperary in southwest Ireland, said their few remaining seminarians would transfer to the church's flagship seminary, Maynooth College near Dublin, which is struggling to produce enough priests for the next generation of Irish Catholics.

The closing of St. Patrick's, along with that of other seminaries, is indicative of a declining observance of the Catholic faith in Ireland and growing public anger at church authorities' mishandling of decades of sexual abuse within the church.

"The decision to suspend seminary work in St. Patrick's College will, understandably, cause disappointment to past students and friends of the college. However, circumstances rendered unavoidable the present painful decision," said the institution's president, Father Christy O'Dwyer.

He said school officials would "pray for the day when increasing numbers of vocations to the priesthood may render it possible again for St. Patrick's College to resume its ministry of priestly formation."

The college will continue to offer theology classes to lay members.

Since 1994, public confidence in the Catholic Church in Ireland has steadily eroded as hundreds of cases have been exposed involving church officials' sexual abuse of children dating back to the 1950s.

The government in January established a compensation fund, expected to pay out more than $500 million to victims of physical and sexual abuse at church-run schools and orphanages. That deal doesn't cover parish priests, more than 20 of whom have been convicted of criminal counts of sexual abuse.

The government and Catholic bishops this summer launched investigations into the extent that church leaders concealed abuse from civil authorities until the 1990s. The scandal has hit Maynooth, where trustees in June appointed a senior lawyer to investigate allegations that seminarians were abused in the early 1980s.

St. Patrick's, founded in 1837, used to train diocesan priests for service throughout the world, including parishes in the United States and Australia. Among its more than 1,500 graduates, about 180 still serve in U.S. parishes.

The Thurles seminary was the seventh to close in the Republic of Ireland since 1993, leaving only Maynooth, the first Irish seminary, founded in 1795. This summer, Maynooth enrolled 15 seminarians. A handful of others entered the Irish College in Rome and a Belfast seminary, St. Malachy's, in neighboring Northern Ireland.

Father Kevin Doran, who is in charge of recruiting seminarians in Ireland, found out Thursday that Thurles was being closed.

"I was surprised. It feels like when a relative, who has been sick for a long time, finally dies," Doran said. "It is very sad. All these seminaries meant so much to so many people who passed through them."

Catholicism and Irish nationalism were once closely linked. Until the 1960s, ambitious families sent their sons into seminaries in hopes of escaping an Ireland that produced few high-status jobs and many emigres.

But since the 1960s, as Ireland increasingly opened its doors to foreign investment and cultural influences, the church's standing has declined.

In 1972, weekly Mass attendance was more than 90%. Recent polls put it at less than 50%.

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