Catholic Church’s Abusive Relationship with Irish Society.

“The Roman Catholic Church’s great achievement in Ireland has been to so disable our capacity to think about right and wrong that parents of abused children apologised for the abusing priest.”

-The Irish Times, Sat 28th November 2009

The parents apologised.  Not the Vatican.  Not the Dublin Archbishops (with the notable exception of the present incumbent, Dr Martin). Not the Papal nuncio, who refused even to co-operate with the commission  to respond to its requests for information.  Not the offending priests.  Yet, some parents found it necessary to aplogise. When I first started writing about the scandal of clerical abuse in the Catholic Church, I said that I had previously held back, because the problem is far wider than usually recognised.  It is not just about sexual abuse of young children, bu also about other kinds of abuse, affecting children, adolescents, young adults, older adults – and the entire church and society.  The most respected analysts of the problem agree that one of the three root causes is that of the excessive concentration and abuse of power within the church.  Becoming accustomed to the uncontrolled exercise of power by those above them, ordinary prelates come to expect to wield the same power over those they see as “under them” – the members of their congregations, inappropriately referred to as their “flock”. Sadly, far too many of us go along with the charade that we are, or should be “under them”, and too readily submit to this unwarranted extension of control.

When a society allows itself to be so dominated by this culture of church control, is it surprising that we not only see a blaming of the victim, but even the parents, who should be protecting and speaking up for the vulnerable young people in their care, effectively blaming the victims by apologising to the clergy?

In both the John Jay and Irish reports, a crucial, but underemphasised fact is that the number referred to are only of those incidents which were reported, and made it through to investigation. It is well known that many more were simply not reported.  It is disturbing that many more were reported, but then withdrawn.  One of the reasons was pressure by the authorities.  Another was precisely this pattern of blaming the victims. One of the leading figures in uncovering the problem, Marie Collins, has said that when she reported  her own abuse to the clergy, the response was that she could be “absolved of any sin” on her own part.

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Of course, this is Ireland – well known for the extraordinary dominance of the church in the past, possibly more so than in many other countries.  The pattern though, also applies elsewhere. Right around the world, Catholics collectively are far to reluctant to speak out against the abuse of power by those who hold it.  We have an obligation to do so – an obligation imposed on us by the church itself, written into canon law.  The problem is far, far bigger than just one of sexual abuse, but of the institutional church attempting to set itself well outside and above the law.  Just one example of this is the religious superior of one offender (yes, his “superior”), who told the man involved to disregard the words of his therapist, as no lay person was in a position to make judgement on a priest.

This is one command of  the church that we should be following, and broadcasting, more vigorously than we do at present.

Some more extracts (Read the full report at the Irish Times):

IN HIS pastoral letter of February 1979, Archbishop of Dublin Dermot Ryan drew attention to the “corruption of the young”. And he was quite specific about the forces that were responsible for it. He attacked “the modern era of enlightenment and permissiveness”, and stated that “the new frankness and openness in regard to sexual matters had not made people more healthy in mind and body, but less healthy”.

The corollary of Archbishop Ryan’s complaint was, of course, that a lack of frankness and openness in sexual matters would make for a healthier society, and would protect the young from corruption. Like the three other holders of the office scrutinised in the Murphy report, Ryan certainly practised the first part of what he preached. He was a great enemy of openness and frankness, and a great practitioner of the arts of evasion and cover-up. It was the second part of the formula – the protection of the young – that gave him trouble.

In 1981, for example, Ryan sent a Father X as curate to Clogher Road church in the Dublin Corporation housing estate of Crumlin. He knew that this man was a dangerous and manipulative paedophile who was set on attacking children, as Ryan himself noted, “from six to 16”. He knew that X cultivated parents who involved themselves in school or parish activities so as to gain access to their children.

He knew that in one previous case, “Having got access to the home through this acquaintanceship, Father X abused a young son of six years of age.”

Yet not alone did Ryan send X to Crumlin to continue his assaults on children, but he colluded with the activities of his auxiliary bishop, James Kavanagh, in interfering in a criminal investigation into X’s behaviour, persuading one set of parents not to press charges against the priest.

As the commission concludes, Ryan took a “close personal interest” in the case of Fr X: “He protected Fr X to an extraordinary extent; he ensured, as far as he could, that very few people knew about his activities; it seems that the welfare of children simply did not play any part in his decisions.”

In attempting to come to terms with the institutionalised depravity of the Roman Catholic Church’s systematic collaboration with child abusers, it is useful to start by considering the contradiction between Ryan’s preaching about the “corruption of the young” and his role as a facilitator of sexual assaults on children.

Is there, indeed, a contradiction at all? Or are we not, rather, dealing with two sides of the same debased coin?

The arrogance and obscurantism of a church leadership that could rail against openness and frankness is in fact completely consistent with the same hierarchy’s consistent preference for secrecy over truth and for self-interest over the interests of children and families.

When all the numbing details of the report are absorbed, we have to reassemble the big picture of the institutional church’s relationship with Irish society. And we have to say that that relationship itself has been an abusive one. The church leadership behaved towards society with the same callousness, the same deviousness, the same exploitative mentality, and the same blindly egotistical pursuit of its own desires that an abuser shows towards his victim.


But in the case of the institutional Catholic Church we have an organisation with an unusually powerful mechanism of self-protection: the capacity to convince the society it is abusing to take part in the cover-up. The damage the church has done to Irish society lies in the ways it has involved that society in the maintenance of an abusive instrument of control and power.

It is easy to miss a central aspect of this whole scandal. The report is concerned with the actions of the church authorities and describes in damning detail their sense of being above the law of the land. …. But it is striking that parents, teachers and wider communities seldom went to the police either.

This was not a matter of ignorance. It is clear that some of the paedophiles were not secretive and cunning, but reckless and flagrant. In the early 1970s, for example, Fr James McNamee, who had built a swimming pool in his house into which only young boys were allowed, was so notorious among the children in his Crumlin parish that “whenever the older boys in the area saw Fr McNamee, they either ran away or started throwing things and shouting insults at Fr McNamee. Apparently he was known as ‘Father smack my gee’.” If children were shouting abuse at a priest in 1970s Ireland, adults undoubtedly noticed. They must have known why.

.. the appalling Patrick Maguire…. actually told the parents of a child he had just abused that the boy had a problem with his testicles. “Not surprisingly, the parents wondered how he had discovered that.”

“The parents involved have, for the most part, reacted with what can only be described as incredible charity. In several cases, they were quite apologetic about having to discuss the matter and were as much concerned for the priest’s welfare as for their child and other children.”

This was the church’s great achievement in Ireland. It had so successfully disabled a society’s capacity to think for itself about right and wrong that it was the parents of an abused child, not the bishop who enabled that abuse, who were “quite apologetic”.

It had managed to create a flock who, in the face of an outrageous violation of trust, would be more concerned about the abuser than about those he had abused and might abuse in the future. It had inserted its own “instrument of control and power” so deeply into the minds of the faithful that they could scarcely even feel angry about the perpetration of disgusting crimes on their own children.

This is, of course, precisely what paedophiles do to the children they abuse. They convince them that they are the guilty ones. The well-meaning local priest to whom Marie Collins – who has been a key figure in bringing this scandal to light – disclosed the fact that she had been abused as a child in Crumlin children’s hospital, told her “not to feel any guilt about what had happened”. He then, however, told her that “if she had guilt I could give her absolution”.

The suggestion that the victim should be absolved of sin speaks for itself. And it had its effect – Marie Collins did not disclose the abuse again for a number of years.

This ultimate triumph of making the victims guilty and their parents apologetic produced both an underlying contempt for the laity (especially in the working-class parishes where abusers were generally sent) and a sense of belonging to an untouchable elite.

The religious superior of the serial abuser Patrick Maguire captured both when he advised him not to pay too much attention to the views of the therapist he was attending: “You are a priest and you should not allow any person other than yourself to conclude that you ought not remain in ministry, albeit a limited one. I am distrustful of the capacity of any layman or woman to know what it means to be a priest.”

What it meant to be a priest was that, in the eyes of the church authorities, you were held to a different standard than the mere layman or woman. It was not just that you were not subject to the law, but that you were not really subject to Catholic teaching either.

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2 comments for “Catholic Church’s Abusive Relationship with Irish Society.

  1. colkoch
    December 1, 2009 at 9:45 pm

    Interesting Terence that we both chose this article from the Times to write on. You are absolutely correct that we can not emphasise enough the damage done by the abuse of power inherent in the clerical system.

    The Holy Spirit is working overtime trying to get this point across.

    • December 1, 2009 at 10:49 pm

      Absolutely Colleen. Sometimes I feel like a stuck record, banging on about this abuse story and its ramifications. But it is not just about sexual abuse, or about Ireland or the USA – it’s the entire relationship that the “ecclesiatical mechanism” has foisted on us. The relationship is clearly an abusive one, at every level. It is imperative that we (and here I means all of us in the church) do whatever we can to forge a completely new, fraternal realitionhsip based on mutuality and equal dignity. This is why I am once again finding James Alison so helpful, and why I am also ploughing through the dreary church documents: we need to hold the institution to its own instructions and rules.

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