Pope Benedict letter to Ireland fails to ease anger over abuse scandal

Pope Benedict XVI responded to a blossoming abuse scandal in Ireland with a letter that addressed Church failings in handling sexual abuse of children by priests. But he did not promise an end to the secrecy that has surrounded the church's policing efforts.

Cathal McNaughton/Reuters
A woman holds rosary beads during a Sunday mass in a Church in Armagh, Northern Ireland, Sunday. In a letter of apology read during Sunday services across Ireland, Pope Benedict apologized to victims of child sex abuse by clergy.

A pastoral letter from Pope Benedict XVI addressing the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests was read from pulpits across Ireland on Sunday. The pontiff acknowledged grievous failings by the church, but stopped short of a full repudiation of the secrecy that shrouded the abuse scandal and that many here contend was a key element in protecting alleged child molesters.

In his letter, Pope Benedict referred to "a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations" in the past. "It is in this overall context that we must try to understand the disturbing problem of child sexual abuse, which has contributed in no small measure to the weakening of faith and the loss of respect for the Church and her teachings."

The pope told Ireland's bishops that "only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and good will of the Irish people towards the Church to which we have consecrated our lives."

But many Catholics were not satisfied.

The Guardian newspaper quoted Father Brian D'Arcy, an Irish church reformer, as saying he was disappointed that Benedict had not called for wholesale reform of the church. "Those reforms should include [priestly] celibacy, canon law, and unquestioning authority," he said. He also criticized the pope for, in his view, linking a decline in faith in Ireland with cases of abuse by priests.

Center of the storm

At the center of the latest storm in Ireland is Cardinal Sean Brady, the head of the Irish branch of the Catholic Church.

The Irish church acknowledged in a statement last week that Mr. Brady, acting as an expert in church canon law, had interviewed two boys in 1975 who alleged sexual abuse by the Rev. Brendan Smyth and that at the end of their interviews he had administered an oath of secrecy to the two victims.

Father Smyth was assigned to a number of a church jobs after that 1975 investigation, and went on to abuse more children in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and in the US. Smyth died in prison in 1997 following a conviction for sexually abusing children. No one involved in the investigation ever contacted the police about the 1975 allegations.

The revelation of the extent of Brady's involvement in that investigation has led to calls from some in Ireland that he step down or be removed from his office. Brady has said he will serve until removed by Pope Benedict, who did not address the controversy surrounding Brady in his letter read on Sunday.

Smyth's victims

Freda Donoghue’s abuse at the hands of Smyth began in idyllic surroundings – on the shores of Lough Sheelin in County Cavan in the summer of 1969. She was ten years old and was visiting her mother's family. “He just showed up down at the lake, and he’d chase anybody; it was always those sorts of games, the sorts of games you’d play yourself but when you were caught it was really really dangerous because of what could happen to you.”

Smyth had just arrived back in Co. Cavan from a posting in a parish in Rhode Island, where he had raped two children from the same family, according to Helen McGonigle, now a lawyer who in Connecticut. Ms. McGonigle says she was raped by Smyth when she was six and went public with her claims after the death of her sister from a drug overdose in 2005, who she says was also a victim.

This was the pattern, since his ordination in 1945. Smyth arrives, rapes children and his order hastily moves him on to the next posting: Ireland to Scotland to Wales to Northern Ireland, to Rhode Island, back to Ireland, back to Rhode Island, then to North Dakota.

In his St. Patrick’s Day homily at Armagh Cathedral, Cardinal Brady said he was ashamed of the fact that he has not always upheld the values that he believes in, and apologized for any failures relating to his role in investigating clerical abuses.

But despite calls for his resignation from a range of victims and victim’s groups, Brady has refused to go, saying he will only do so if asked by the Pope. Given that the Pope is himself embroiled in a controversy which starkly parallels that in Ireland, this does not seem likely.

Father Peter Hellermann was suspended by the Church earlier this month after a newspaper revealed that Pope Benedict - then Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger - had allowed him to switch dioceses in the 1980s, despite being accused of sexually abusing children. A subordinate of Archbishop Ratzinger at the time said that while his boss had approved the transfer and knew that Father Hellermann had been assigned to undergo therapy he had not been told Father Hellermann had been accused of molesting children.

Ireland has now seen more than fifteen years of horrendous stories of both clerical child abuse and subsequent cover up by the hierarchy. Newspapers and radio call-in shows continue to seethe with public outrage.

The faithful

Yet it would appear that ordinary Catholics have managed to separate their faith from the misdeeds of their church. A poll conducted in October of last year found that weekly church attendance had risen to 46 percent of the population, up from 42 percent a year earlier, while monthly attendance rose to 65 percent from 54 percent the previous summer.

At the time, David Quinn, Director of the Iona Institute, a right-wing religious group, noted that the poll was conducted just after the release of a government commissioned report into the abuse of children in state institutions from 1936 onwards. Popularly known as the Ryan Report after its chairman, Justice Sean Ryan, it detailed what went on behind closed doors in religious and state institutions in Ireland over a period of sixty years. “It seems,” Quinn commented, “this has had no negative effect whatever on church attendance.”

Now in her 60s, Lily Christie has been a mass-goer all her life. She is horrified by the abuse in the first instance, and the drip-feed of revelations about the extent of the cover up. But none of this has impacted her faith. “They’re just people that belong to the same church as I do. Unfortunately they enforce the laws, but they don’t have anything to do with my conscious contact with God, who’s my higher power… I will always have that conscious contact.”

But not everyone is capable of that detachment. Brian Finnegan, editor of Dublin-based Gay Community News, says that when the Murphy Report came out late last year, he felt he had to act.

This report investigated the rape and molestation of 320 children by 46 priests in the Dublin Archdiocese. Though baptized a Catholic, Finnegan had not practiced this faith in his adult life.

“I just thought well, I don’t want to be a statistic for the Catholic Church," says Finnegan. "I’ve long been disillusioned with the church because of my sexuality, and when the Murphy Report came out, it just hammered home to me the level of power they hold and that they were unwilling to relinquish. One voice is only a small voice, but I believe that you should use it.”

He signed up with countmeout.ie – a web resource for people who wish to officially leave the Roman Catholic Church. Once provided with personal details, the site generates the documentation required to carry out an official "declaration of defection" from the church.

The 'second reformation'?

Freda Donoghue, who said she was abused by Smyth in County Cavan as a girl, finally went to the Irish police in 1993. Her testimony, together with that of her sister and her two first cousins, all of whom were abused by Smyth, led to his conviction on twenty charges of child abuse. He was sentenced to twelve years and died a month into his sentence.

“I’m not a Catholic anymore.” says Donoghue. “Obviously I was baptized as one, but as far as I’m concerned I’m not one. The church obviously needs to be completely overhauled. I heard someone say that this is like the reformation and it is; it’s the second reformation. And I really do feel sorry for priests who are trying to do something from within, because they really do believe and I wouldn’t say anything against anybody’s faith.”

“You remember that rhyme, when we were kids? Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and here are the people. You’d use your hands, and your fingers were the people. That’s what the church has forgotten," says Donoghue. "It has done everything it can to protect the institution. Now it needs to start protecting the people.”

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