Catholic priest abuse claims Ireland

Slea Head in south-west Ireland

By Hieke Jippes

While Ireland struggles with child abuse by Catholic priests and nuns, the question is: how could this continue for so long?

Father James McNamee was a very popular priest. A charismatic man around whom children swarmed like bees round honey. But he loved to bathe naked with the boys of Stella Maris football club and, later, in his private swimming pool, with a select group of altar boys. All the children in the poor Crumlin Road area of Dublin knew they should avoid him, but the church turned a blind eye.

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Father Edmondus, a priest at Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children, systematically abused girl patients between the ages of 8 and 11 until in 1960 he sent photos of girls’ genitalia to be developed in England. The photolab alerted the church. Father Edmondus told his bishop that coming from a family of all boys he had been curious about girls and that the photos had not led to "me suffering a physical disturbance in myself". The bishop accepted his explanation. Father Edmondus continued abusing young girls for another thirty years with the church's knowledge. The church judged it "a bit harsh" to remove him from several posts.

There are thousands of such examples in three thick reports about child abuse by priests and nuns dating back to the 1950s and continuing until at least 2004.

Church and state entangled

Ireland is the most Roman Catholic country in north-western Europe. The church has its tentacles in all aspects of political and social life. But now the Irish people are disgusted with the church and what has been done in its name. It's not so much the cruelty of the nuns running children’s homes or the abuse of young boys by priests. It's more that the church knew of this "tsunami of abuse" and did nothing other than protect its own reputation and power.

Canon law has stated since the middle ages that sexual molestation of a minor sexually is a mortal sin, but for decennia the church has been ignoring its own laws and doing its utmost to shut out Irish criminal law. The archbishop of Dublin defended the church's position by saying that since the late 1990s it had been on a "steep learning curve". But the recent Murphy commission points to the fact that as far back as 1987 the church took out an insurance policy to cover any claims from abuse victims. The church hierarchy is therefore "in denial, arrogant, secretive, incompetent, ignorant, power hungry and underhand".

From cradle to grave

Why is the Catholic church so much more powerful in Ireland than in, say, the Netherlands? Before it joined the European Union, Ireland was isolated from the rest of western Europe with most of the population living in poverty. In addition, Ireland was under British protestant rule until 1923 with the Church offering safe haven for centuries, providing education, care for the sick and elderly, and offering a better life after death.

Just as in the Dutch provinces, Brabant and Limburg, every family, where possible, sent one son to the seminary for an education. It was an honour for the family and meant one mouth less to feed. It was either that or emigrate to America.

Until Ireland joined the European Union and the economy boomed, the Catholic church remained a closed institution. The lack of accountability and the Church's influence in politics led to disastrous results. "It was precisely because of the church's status," says the Murphy commission report, "that the state dare not take action."

Church attendance had already begun to drop in Ireland before 1992, the year the first abused altar boys found the courage to talk to the media. The result of the commotion around the abuse claims and the way in which the church protected its priests is not yet clear.

Four bishops have already left. A fifth states: "personally I have done nothing wrong" and remains in position for the time being. The church's present policy is to call in the police the moment there is suspicion of abuse. In some cases, compensation has been paid, partly from the insurance policy of 1987, partly by the abusers themselves. This week, Pope Benedict will react to the abuse in a letter to the Irish Catholic population. It will act as guidance for how the scandal will be treated elsewhere.

Father Edmondus, a priest at Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children, systematically abused girl patients between the ages of 8 and 11 until in 1960 he sent photos of girls’ genitalia to be developed in England. The photolab alerted the church. Father Edmondus told his bishop that coming from a family of all boys he had been curious about girls and that the photos had not led to "me suffering a physical disturbance in myself". The bishop accepted his explanation. Father Edmondus continued abusing young girls for another thirty years with the church's knowledge. The church judged it "a bit harsh" to remove him from several posts.

There are thousands of such examples in three thick reports about child abuse by priests and nuns dating back to the 1950s and continuing until at least 2004.

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