Along with many other Americans of Irish descent, so entwined as the country’s heritage is with love for the Catholic Church, I have found the current clergy sex abuse crisis in Ireland particularly distressing.
The crisis lately took on a new dimension when Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, himself Catholic-educated and a practicing Catholic, delivered a blistering criticism of the Vatican’s handling of the crisis on the floor of the Irish parliament.
Such a rebuke of Church authority had never before been heard in Ireland from such an important public official and in such a setting.
In response, the Holy See recalled its apostolic nuncio from Dublin to Rome for “consultations.” Although the Vatican explained this action in moderate terms, the implication was that the Holy See was particularly stung by the turn of events.
All this occurs amid a dramatic decline in Catholic practice in Ireland. For anyone aware with what once was Catholic fervor in Ireland, the numbers are virtually unbelievable. In the Dublin archdiocese, the country’s only major urban center, weekend Mass attendance is strikingly low. (In rural areas, it is better.)
Vocations also are drying up. One seminary is left in the country, and it was not that long ago that Ireland was a virtual fountain of candidates for the priesthood and the religious life.
Overall, the country, together with the rest of Western Europe, has become arguably much more secularist than it is religious. Certainly some old traditions remain, but if the current trend continues, they soon will die.
The clergy sex abuse crisis has come at the very worst time.
I was in Dublin a decade ago, when the first series of sex abuse by clergy came to the public eye. I attended a press conference held by the Irish bishops. Alas, I have attended many other press conferences on the same subject, but always in the United States. The Dublin event was different. Although anger and disgust certainly have been visible in such meetings in this country, never have I detected such a bitter sense of betrayal.
It was no wonder. For four centuries, through persecution — subtle or muted, but always relentless, determined and vindictive — the vast majority of Irish people held fast to their ancient Catholicism. Almost unreasonably, they put priests on a pedestal, because the priests stood with them and championed them.
Then, the clergy sex abuse incidents revealed a dark side. To compound the problem, cases were widespread and, often it would seem, not constructively managed by Church authorities.
Frankly, I wonder what the future of Irish Catholicism will be. Please God, steps will be taken effectively to assist victims of such abuse and to eliminate future abuse. Still, so much damage has been done. And aside from this crisis, the creeping shift away from religion in Western civilization will, in all likelihood, continue.
Pope Benedict XVI has taken special interest in the Irish situation. I pray that his ongoing leadership and guidance will repair the Irish people’s trust in the Church.
More broadly, his papacy is already historic because of his quite scholarly, but obviously deeply felt, call to modern humanity to see the Lord Jesus, to ponder on the meaning of salvation in the Lord, and with hope and conviction to accept Jesus as the light of the world.
Admitting past sins of every kind and turning to Jesus is the only answer for individual persons, as well as for societies, in this world. The present Irish-Church conflict, as real and disturbing as it is, simply fuels the basic fact that we need the Lord.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.