The Wolves Roamed Freely

Recent judicial commission reports contain devastating findings about abuse and cover-up in the Irish Church.

For almost two decades, the Catholic Church in Ireland has struggled to come to terms with a punishing litany of revelations about sexual misconduct by priests and religious. The crisis continues to envelop Irish Catholicism and recent judicial reports have led to the resignation of four bishops, public squabbling by members of the hierarchy, and a promise of structural reform from the Vatican.

In 1992, the enigmatic bishop of Galway, Eamon Casey, was forced to step down after it emerged that he had fathered a child with an American divorcée some 20 years earlier and was using diocesan funds to pay for the upkeep of his son. Bishop Casey fled to Ecuador and his scandal was to mark the beginning of a long dark night for Catholic Ireland.

The recently published reports of two separate judicial commissions have shone a light on a deep rot and corruption at the heart of Irish Catholicism. The report of the Child Abuse Commission, chaired by Justice SeÁn Ryan, found that sexual abuse was “endemic” in Church-run care homes and juvenile institutions. The Dublin Report, chaired by Justice Yvonne Murphy, revealed that Church leaders had put the avoidance of scandal and the reputation of the Church ahead of the needs of victims of abuse.

The reports’ findings are a blow to ordinary Catholics. Paddy McCrory, a Dublin-based Catholic youth worker at an inner-city parish, is struggling to help young people make sense of it all. “It’s like one kick in the stomach after another, just when you think you’re making some progress and young people are seeing the value of living the Catholic faith the rug is pulled out from under you time and time again,” he said.

The first public rumblings that something was very wrong began to emerge in the mid-1990s. Within months of Casey’s hasty departure, Irish Catholics faced shocking details about serial sexual abuse by Father Brendan Smyth. He became emblematic of the crisis in Ireland and the woeful errors in Church governance that allowed sexual abuse to go unreported and unpunished.

Born in 1927, Father Smyth joined the Norbertines in 1945. Recently released documents show the congregation was aware of his pathological tendencies before ordination yet he was still recommended for it and served in parishes all over Ireland, wreaking havoc before his eventual arrest in 1994.

In what was to become a depressingly familiar pattern, whenever allegations were made against him, Father Smythe was moved from parish to parish and between dioceses. In some cases, the Norbertines did not inform the diocesan bishop that Father Smyth had a history of sexual abuse and should be kept away from children.

His eventual arrest in 1994 triggered a spectacular series of events that led to the collapse of the Fianna FÁil-Labour coalition government in the Republic of Ireland, over allegations that the attorney general had sought to thwart an extradition warrant for Father Smyth. Having served for a considerable period in Northern Ireland (the six northeastern Irish counties under British administration), he generated a string of allegations.

But by that stage, Father Smyth was serving in the Irish Republic, out of the reach of authorities north of the border. A request for extradition by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) remained unanswered in the office of the attorney general. A furor ensued and it has never fully emerged why the request went unanswered for so long. Opposition politicians spoke of a cover-up and even alleged that so-called “secretive Catholic organizations” conspired to stop the extradition. A subsequent inquiry found, however, that the most likely cause for the delay was sheer incompetence.

Within the Church, meanwhile, apologies and expressions of “profound regret” were issued. Bishops and religious superiors interviewed by the media threw their arms in the air and bemoaned the fact that the cases hadn’t been handled properly. New guidelines were issued in 1996 to ensure the welfare of children in a Church environment and to deal adequately with allegations when they emerged.

The faithful were assured that the hierarchy faced a steep learning curve. But it later emerged that the hierarchy had discussed the increasing numbers of allegations of sexual abuse a decade earlier and, in fact, had taken out an insurance policy to shield dioceses from compensation claims.

As more and more cases began to emerge and more and more victims came forward, a disturbing pattern of inadequacies in the Church’s response emerged. The Murphy Commission, which investigated the handling of allegations within the Archdiocese of Dublin between 1975 and 2004, is the most damning indictment yet of a highly dysfunctional style of leadership within the Church in Ireland.


Before the report was published in late November, it was common among some commentators to insist that the root of the crisis was too heavy a reliance on canon law. Michael McDowell, a former Minister for Justice, even insisted that the abuse of children was compounded by canon law.

Judge Murphy’s report demolishes that mythical thinking in one fell swoop and serves as a vindication of the Church’s law. The report makes it clear that canon law was not the problem. In fact, the problem of child abuse by clerics was made worse by the reckless actions of Church officials, who simply refused to implement canon law. In the opening pages of the Murphy Commission report, it is made clear that Church law refers to the abuse of a minor as the “worst crime.”

As the commission wrote: “There is a 2,000-year history of biblical, papal, and Holy See statements showing awareness of clerical child sexual abuse…. Over the centuries, strong denunciation of clerical child sexual abuse came from popes, Church councils, and other Church sources. These denunciations are particularly strong on ‘offences against nature’ and ‘offences committed with or against juveniles.’”

“The 1917 Code of Canon Law decreed deprivation of office and/or benefice, or expulsion from the clerical state for such offences,” the report notes. The commission goes on to report that “in the 20th century, two separate documents on dealing with child sexual abuse were promulgated by Vatican authorities.” The documents, says the commission, were “little observed in Dublin.”

The report also notes that in Dublin “the Church authorities failed to implement most of their own canon law rules on dealing with clerical child sexual abuse.” In a vindication of the law of the universal Church, the report notes: “The commission is satisfied that Church law demanded serious penalties for clerics who abused children. In Dublin, from the 1970s onwards, this was ignored.”

The report goes on: “Canon law provides the Church authorities with a means not only of dealing with offending clergy, but also with a means of doing justice to victims, including paying compensation to them.”

For David Quinn, director of the Iona Institute, the reports’ findings about canon law are crucial. “What we see in the report is a rejection of canon law by more liberal elements within the Church,” he said. “From the 1960s onwards the Church’s penal process is virtually abandoned in Dublin and a purely therapeutic approach to the issue of sexual abuse by priests is adopted.”

According to Quinn, “within liberal elements canon law began to be discredited and this has wreaked the most terrible havoc.”

His contention is backed up by the report itself. Judge Murphy notes, “Canon law, as an instrument of Church governance, declined hugely during Vatican II and in the decades immediately after it.”

“What’s clear is that an attempt to correct an excessive legalism in the Church pre-Vatican II led to an opposite extreme where the laws of the Church became so disrespected in some circles that it was impossible to enforce them,” Quinn added.

The general disrespect for Church law is made clear time and time again in the report. In one section, the commission notes the case of a Father Vidal (this is a pseudonym) who admitted to abusing young girls and to being engaged in an ongoing sexual relationship that began when the girl in question was just 13 years old. By the time the girl reached her early 20s, Father Vidal decided to marry her and applied for laicization.

However, before his laicization process got underway, Father Vidal was illicitly and invalidly married to the girl in a Catholic ceremony by one of his fellow priests. When the marriage broke up five years later, he seamlessly returned to ministry and, to avoid public scandal, was transferred from the Dublin archdiocese to the Diocese of Sacramento, California. The US diocese was never informed of Father Vidal’s past.

For Marie Collins, who was sexually abused by a priest while she was a patient in a children’s hospital, the Church’s response to her abuse destroyed her once-cherished Catholic faith. “My abuser didn’t take my Catholic faith,” she told CWR. “That was taken from me by the appalling way I was treated when I came forward. I was accused of lying and I was bullied. I am still a Christian, I have my faith and devotion to Jesus Christ, but my Catholic faith, which I loved and cherished so dearly, I have lost that and it makes me very sad.”


The damning revelations within the reports have led many people to ask how such a culture could have spread and been allowed to continue in the Church for so long. Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor, the most recently appointed member of the Irish hierarchy, has called for the Church to appoint a panel of experts to find out why the abuse occurred.

“We simply have to see this evil and the crimes that were precipitated straight in the face and that means we have to examine why they happened,” he said. “To do that will require an interdisciplinary discussion with people who are members of the Church, involving victims who were abused and even going beyond our borders of our Church so that we have the best anthropological and scientific analysis available to understand why this happened,” he said.

His call is echoed by the influential theologian Father Vincent Twomey, a former student of Pope Benedict XVI, who believes an inquiry is “necessary to establish how this was allowed to happen and to examine the situation of religious life and the Church in Ireland as it stands now, not just historically.”

“This will allow us to attempt to ensure, as far as is humanly possible, that the mistakes of the past are not repeated,” Father Twomey said.

As a result of the Murphy Report, the bishop of Limerick, Donal Murray, resigned in December. The commission contended that his mishandling of abuse allegations had been “inexcusable.” Bishop James Moriarty of Kildare and Leighlin followed Murray in resigning less than a week later; both Murray and Moriarty served as auxiliary bishops in Dublin during the period covered in the Murphy Report. By the end of the month Bishops Eamonn Walsh and Raymond Field, both Dublin auxiliaries, had also resigned.

As bishops met for their winter plenary meeting, Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who has been at the vanguard of tackling the crisis, insisted he would not attend a meeting with some of the bishops criticized in the report. An embarrassing impasse was avoided when some bishops stayed away from the meeting. The bishop of Galway, Martin Drennan, who served as an auxiliary bishop in Dublin during the time in question, robustly defended his position at the time and insisted that Archbishop Martin was calling his integrity in to question.

Reflecting a wider rift within the hierarchy, Archbishop Martin later revealed to journalists that only two of Ireland’s 32 serving bishops had been in contact with him to discuss the report after its publication.

One senior media consultant, speaking on condition of anonymity, told CWR that “they’ve had drafts of this report for months and they’re behaving like it is a new revelation to them.”

As public anger mounted over the hierarchy’s response, Pope Benedict XVI summoned Primate Cardinal SeÁn Brady and Archbishop Martin to Rome for a crisis summit with senior members of the Roman Curia. Archbishop Martin is reported to have told the Pope that “the grandmothers of Ireland are angry.”

A recent editorial in The Irish Catholic newspaper seemed to capture the mood when it noted: “The Shepherds who should have been minding the flock have, in fact, strayed from their mission and allowed wolves to roam freely among the faithful, wreaking the most terrible havoc and destroying many lives.”

A Vatican communiqué released in early December stated that “the Holy See takes very seriously the central issues raised by the report, including questions concerning the governance of local Church leaders with ultimate responsibility for the pastoral care of children.”

“The Holy Father intends to address a pastoral letter to the faithful of Ireland in which he will clearly indicate the initiatives that are to be taken in response to the situation,” the communiqué concluded.

Speaking after the Rome summit, Archbishop Martin hinted at “significant” structural reforms within the Church in Ireland. One idea that has been floated is a radical reduction in the number of Catholic dioceses. The country currently has 26 for a Catholic population of around 4 million people. “Some dioceses have populations of less than 25,000 people,” according to David Quinn of the Iona Institute. “There’s just no reason to have so many dioceses in such a small country.”

Former Police Ombudsman and prominent Catholic Baroness Nuala O’Loan has called on the hierarchy to adopt a new, more transparent approach. “It is time for the Catholic Church, in admitting its terrible failings in this matter, to examine its wider canonical structures and to create new accountable, inclusive processes and systems for the governance of the Church in Ireland,’’ she told CWR.

Father Twomey believes the Pope’s first move should be to put a moratorium on all episcopal appointments in Ireland.

Some left-wing politicians have called on the Church to be removed from governance of schools and hospitals. But the call has gained little traction in the political sphere. The Minister for Children, Barry Andrews, has insisted “we need to help the Church handle these things better,” because “the people of Ireland need a strong church to build a strong society.”

His opposition counterpart, George Lee, agrees. “The faithful people of Ireland want a vibrant Church. This is not about kicking the Church. It is about helping the Church to be the Church it needs to be,” he said.


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About Michael Kelly 29 Articles
Michael Kelly is editor of the Irish Catholic, Ireland's best-selling religious newspaper.