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The Catholic sexual abuse scandal in Ireland is a major chapter in the worldwide Catholic sexual abuse scandal. Unlike the Catholic sexual abuse scandal in the United States, the scandal in Ireland included cases of high-profile Catholic clerics involved in illicit heterosexual relations as well as widespread physical abuse of children in the Catholic-run childcare network.

Starting in the 1990s, a series of criminal cases and Irish government enquiries established that hundreds of priests had abused thousands of children in previous decades. In many cases, the abusing priests were moved to other parishes to avoid embarrassment or a scandal, assisted by senior clergy. By 2010 a number of in-depth judicial reports had been published, but with relatively few prosecutions.

In March 2010, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a pastoral letter of apology to address all of the abuse that was carried out by Catholic clergy.[1]

On Monday, May 31, 2010, Pope Benedict established a formal panel to investigate the sex abuse scandal, emphasizing that it could serve as a healing mechanism for the country and its Catholics. Among the nine members of the apostolic visitation will be Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley, the Archbishop of Boston (he will investigate the Archdiocese of Dublin); Archbishop Timothy Michael Dolan, the Archbishop of New York (he will investigate the issue of proper priestly formation and will visit the seminaries), two nuns (who will investigate women's religious institutes and the formation there), Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the Archbishop Emeritus of Westminster, England; Archbishop Terrence Thomas Prendergast of Ottawa, Canada; and Archbishop Thomas Christopher Collins of Toronto, Canada.

Early revelations of sexual misconduct

In and before 1980 the accepted norm in the Irish Church was that its priesthood was celibate and chaste, and homosexuality was a sin as well as a crime. The Church forbade its members to use artificial contraception, campaigned strongly against laws allowing abortion and divorce, and publicly disapproved of unmarried cohabiting couples and illegitimacy. Therefore it came as a considerable surprise when the Irish media started to report allegations of lapses in these areas in the priesthood itself. The Church's high standards had also led on in part to the Anne Lovett tragedy and the Kerry Babies saga in 1984.

A series of television documentaries in the 1990s and 2000s, such as Suing the Pope or The Magdalene Sisters, led on to the need for a series of government-sponsored reports and new guidelines within the Church and society to better protect children. In 1995-2002 the emergence of the same problem in the USA led to the view that the Church had attempted to cover up misconduct, and was not limited to sexual misbehavior (see Catholic sexual abuse scandal in the United States). By the late 2000s the misconduct was recognized as a worldwide scandal.

Niall Molloy

In July 1985 the corpse of Father Molloy was found in the bedroom of the wealthy Flynn family at Clara, County Offaly, raising many speculative and unanswered questions about the nature of his relationship with the family. Mr. Flynn was prosecuted for manslaughter and was acquitted on the judge's direction. An inquest jury then found that Molloy "died as a result of acute brain hemorrhage consistent with having suffered a serious injury to the head". The police refused to reopen the case. Both hearings led to considerable press coverage, but the Church made no comment.[2][3]

Eamon Casey

In 1992, the media exposed the fact that Eamon Casey, Bishop of Galway, had fathered a son some 18 years earlier and abandoned both mother and child for years. It was also revealed that Casey had used church funds to buy their silence.

Michael Cleary

In 1993, it was revealed that Father Michael Cleary had fathered two children with his long-time housekeeper. It emerged that Cleary lived with his common-law wife and son while pretending that he was merely giving employment and assistance to her.[4]

Phyllis Hamilton was a patient of Dr. Browne in St. Loman's hospital.[5] Later, she conceived two children with Fr. Micheal Cleary while she was living as his housekeeper.[6] When the story broke after Cleary's death in 1993, Dr. Browne came out in support of Phyllis Hamilton and her children after the Catholic church denied that they were Cleary's family.[6][7] He was denounced by the Church for being antagonistic towards it.[6] In 1997, Professor Browne was censured by the Irish Medical Council for publicly confirming Hamilton's story. The council accepted that he had acted in the best interests of his patient, but found that he had gone beyond what was ethically permissible. Phyllis Hamilton said that she believed that he had acted properly when disclosing information about her relationship with Michael Cleary.[8]

Micheál Ledwith

In 1984, a group of seminarians in the 'senior division' of St Patrick's Seminary Maynooth, expressed their concerns to the senior dean regarding the inappropriate behaviour of Micheál Ledwith, then vice president of the College, towards younger students. Ledwith was promoted to President of Maynooth despite the allegations. He subsequently resigned as President in 1994 when allegations of sexual abuse resurfaced.

In June 2002, the bishops commissioned Denis McCullough to investigate allegations reported in The Irish Times that the bishops had not responded adequately to complaints of sexual harassment of seminarians at Maynooth College in the early 1980s. McCullough's report, published on 16 June 2005, found that, while the seminarians had not complained directly to the bishops regarding Ledwith's alleged sexual abuse, "concerns of apparent propensities rather than accusations of actual crime or specific offences" had been communicated to the bishops by the senior dean of the college. McCullough concluded "that to have rejected the senior dean's concerns so completely and so abruptly without any adequate investigation may have been too precipitate, although, of course, to investigate in any very full or substantial manner, a generic complaint regarding a person's apparent propensities would have been difficult".[9]

Brendan Smyth

One of the most widely known cases of sexual abuse in Ireland involved Brendan Smyth, who, between 1945 and 1989, sexually abused and assaulted 20 children in parishes in Belfast, Dublin and the United States.[10] The investigation of the Smyth case was allegedly obstructed by the Norbertine Order. Smyth was wanted for prosecution in Northern Ireland and took refuge in a monastery in the Republic of Ireland. He was arrested in 1995; however, Ireland's Attorney General did not immediately comply with a request from the Royal Ulster Constabulary for Smyth's extradition. The ensuing controversy over the delay led to the collapse of the Fianna Fáil/Labour coalition government.[11]

Abuse in the state childcare system

From the 1930s up until the early 1990s, approximately 35,000 Irish children and teenagers who were orphans, petty thieves, truants, unmarried mothers or from dysfunctional families were sent to a network of 250 Church-run industrial schools, reformatories, orphanages and hostels.

In the 1990s, a series of television programs publicised allegations of systemic abuse in Ireland's Roman Catholic-run childcare system, primarily in the Reformatory and Industrial Schools. The abuse occurred primarily between the 1930s and 1970s. These documentaries included "Dear Daughter", "Washing Away the Stain" and "Witness: Sex in a Cold Climate and Sinners".[11][12] These programs interviewed adult victims of abuse who provided "testimony of their experiences, they documented Church and State collusion in the operation of these institutions, and they underscored the climate of secrecy and denial that permeated the church response when faced with controversial accusations." The topic was also covered by American broadcast media. Programs such as CBS's 60 Minutes and ABC's 20/20 produced segments on the subject for an Irish-American audience.[11]

In 1999, a documentary film series titled "States of Fear" which detailed abuse suffered by Irish children between the 1930s and 1970s in the state childcare system, primarily in the Reformatory and Industrial Schools.

Response of the Irish government to the scandal

In response to the furor aroused by the media reports, the Irish government commissioned a study which took nine years to complete. On May 20, 2009, the commission released its 2600-page report, which drew on testimony from thousands of former inmates and officials from more than 250 church-run institutions. The commission found that Catholic priests and nuns had terrorised thousands of boys and girls for decades and that government inspectors had failed to stop the chronic beatings, rapes and humiliation. The report characterised rape and molestation as "endemic" in Irish Catholic church-run industrial schools and orphanages.

Response of the Church to the scandals

In June 2001, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Ireland established the Catholic Church Commission on Child Sexual Abuse, also known as the Hussey Commission, to investigate how complaints about clerical abuse of minors have been handled over the last three decades. In June 2005 it published the McCullough Report on allegations made by young seminarians at St Patrick's College, Maynooth.

In February 2002, 18 religious orders agreed to provide more than 128 million in compensation to the victims of child abuse. Most of the money was raised from church property transfers to the State. The agreement stipulated that all those who accepted the monetary settlements had to waive their right to sue both the church and the government. The identities of the abusers was also to be kept secret.

Brendan Comiskey

In March 2002, a BBC documentary, titled "Suing the Pope", highlighted the case of Seán Fortune, one of the most notorious clerical sex offenders. The film followed Colm O'Gorman as he investigated the story of how Fortune was allowed to abuse him and countless other teenage boys.[13] The Church's practice of parish transfers of abusive priests allowed Fortune to be transferred to other parishes without notifying them about any former abuse allegations.

On April 1, 2002, Brendan Comiskey, Bishop of Ferns, resigned over charges that he had failed to deal adequately with allegations that Fortune and others were sexually abusing children.[14]

Desmond Connell

In October 2002, Ireland's national broadcasting station aired a television documentary titled "Primetime: Cardinal Secrets" which charged Dublin's Cardinal Desmond Connell with mishandling the sex abuse scandal and accusing him of participating in a deliberate cover-up of facts.[11] Connell retired as archbishop on 26 April 2004.

The Murphy Report found that Connell had handled the affair "badly" as he was "slow to recognise the seriousness of the situation".[15] It did praise him for making the archdiocesan records available to the authorities in 2002 and for his 1995 actions in giving the authorities the names of 17 priests who had been accused of abuse, although it said the list was incomplete as complaints were made against at least 28 priests in the Archdiocese.[15] He was criticised[16] for being "economical with the truth" in his use[17] of the concept of mental reservation to inadequately answer questions truthfully[18] about his knowledge of the abusive activities of priests under his control.

Ferns Report

The Ferns Inquiry (2005) was an official Irish government inquiry into the allegations of clerical sexual abuse in the Irish Roman Catholic Diocese of Ferns. The investigation was established in the wake of the broadcast of the BBC Television documentary, titled "Suing the Pope". O'Gorman, through One in Four, the organisation he founded to support women and men who have experienced sexual violence, successfully campaigned for the Ferns Inquiry.

The Ferns Inquiry recorded its revulsion at the extent, severity and duration of the child sexual abuse allegedly perpetrated on children by priests acting under the aegis of the Diocese of Ferns.[19]

Irish Child Abuse Commission 2009

A lengthy report detailing cases of emotional, physical and sexual abuse of thousands of children over 70 years was published on 20 May 2009. The report drew on the testimony of nearly 2,000 witnesses, men and women who attended more than 200 Catholic-run schools from the 1930s until the 1990s.

As per 2002 agreement between the victims on one side and the Roman Catholic brothers and Irish government on other side, all those who accepted the state/Brothers settlements, had to waive their right to sue both the church and the government. Their abusers' identities are also kept secret.

Response of government

Ireland's national police force announced that they would study the report to see if it provided any new evidence for prosecuting clerics for assault, rape or other criminal offences. The report, however, did not identify any abusers by name because of a right-to-privacy lawsuit by the Christian Brothers order.

Shamed by the extent, length, and cruelty of child abuse, Ireland's Prime Minister Brian Cowen apologised to victims for the government's failure to intervene in endemic sexual abuse and severe beatings in schools for much of the 20th century. He also promised to reform the Ireland's social services for children in line with the recommendations of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse report.[20] Further motions to start criminal investigation against members of Roman Catholic religious orders in Ireland were made by Irish President Mary McAleese and Prime Minister Cowen [21]

Response of the bishops

The highest ranked official of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin slammed Irish Catholic orders for concealing their culpability in decades of child abuse, and said they needed to come up with much more money to compensate victims.[22]

At the conclusion of its summer meeting, the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference said that the abuse of children in institutions run by Catholic priests and nuns was part of a culture that was prevalent in the Catholic Church in Ireland. The bishops spent a major portion of their June 8–10 meeting discussing a report from the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, published May 20 under chairman Sean Ryan. The commission found that church institutions failed to prevent an extensive level of sexual, physical and emotional abuse and neglect.

In a joint statement, the bishops said that, "the Ryan report represents the most recent disturbing indictment of a culture that was prevalent in the Catholic Church in Ireland for far too long. Heinous crimes were perpetrated against the most innocent and vulnerable, and vile acts with life-lasting effects were carried out under the guise of the mission of Jesus Christ. This abuse represents a serious betrayal of the trust which was placed in the church."[23]

Cardinal Seán Brady expressed remorse on behalf of the church and the religious saying "we are ashamed, humbled and repentant that our people strayed so far from their Christian ideals, for this we ask forgiveness." The abuses were the result of "a culture that was prevalent in the Catholic Church in Ireland for far too long", said Brady.[23]

The bishops offered four immediate responses to address the issues raised in the report:

  • Sadness over the "suffering of so many for so long."
  • An invitation to survivors to "engage with us" in an effort to understand how to assist the victims of abuse.
  • The intention to respond as pastors "despite the inadequacies at times of our previous pastoral responses."
  • Praying for the "well being and peace of mind for all who suffered" and urging all Catholics to join them in prayer.

Response by religious orders

Following a 4 June meeting with the Irish government, the 18 Irish religious orders implicated in the abuse have agreed to increase their contribution to the compensation fund for victims. The orders also agreed to an independent audit of their assets, so that their ability to pay further compensation can be determined. In a joint statement following the meeting, the orders said they were willing "to make financial and other contributions toward a broad range of measures, designed to alleviate the hurt caused to people who were abused in their care."[24]

Summary of diocesan sexual abuse inquiries

Archdiocese of Dublin

Fr. Paul McGennis abused M Collins when she was in Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children in 1961, when she was 13. Collins was later told that McGennis had admitted abusing children. However, Cardinal Archbishop of Dublin Desmond Connell refused "on legal advice" to supply his file on McGennis to the Irish police. McGennis was nevertheless convicted and gaoled. Collins subsequently received an apology from Connell.

In November 2009, an independent report [25] commissioned by the Irish government investigated the way in which the church dealt with allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests over the period 1975 to 2004. It concluded that "the Dublin Archdiocese‟s pre-occupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid 1990s, were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities. The Archdiocese did not implement its own canon law rules and did its best to avoid any application of the law of the State".

Diocese of Ferns

On 22 October 2005 a government-commissioned report compiled by a former Irish Supreme Court judge delivered an indictment of the handling of clerical sex abuse in the Irish diocese of Ferns. The report revealed over 100 cases of child sex abuse in the diocese, involving a number of clergymen, including Monsignor Micheál Ledwidth, the former head of the National Catholic seminary, Maynooth College.

Archdiocese of Tuam

An eight-year (1999–2007) enquiry and report by Dr. Elizabeth Healy and Dr. Kevin McCoy into the Brothers of Charity Congregation's "Holy Family School" in Galway, the major city of the archdiocese, and two other locations was made public in December 2007. Eleven brothers and seven other staff members were alleged to have abused 121 intellectually disabled children in residential care in the period 1965–1998.

Diocese of Cloyne

In 2008, bishop John Magee found himself at the centre of a controversy surrounding his mishandling of child sex abuse cases in the diocese of Cloyne. It transpired that he had failed to implement self-regulatory procedures agreed by the bishops of Ireland in 1996. In February 2008, the Irish Government had referred two allegations of Child Sex Abuse to the National Board for Child Protection, an independent supervisory body established by the Irish bishops. When the chief executive of that body made contact with the diocese on the matter, he was met with lack of cooperation. Meetings held with him and representatives of the diocese in March failed to elicit his full cooperation with the National Board for Child Protection's investigation. A report into diocesan oversight of alleged abusers is expected in 2010.

On 7 March 2009 Pope Benedict XVI appointed Archbishop Dermot Clifford of Cashel and Emly as apostolic administrator of the Cloyne diocese, though Magee remains Bishop in title.[26][27] Bishop Magee requested that the Pope take this action on 4 February. Magee said that he would use the time to "devote the necessary time and energy to cooperating fully with the government Commission of Inquiry into child protection practices and procedures in the diocese of Cloyne".

On 24 March 2010 it was announced by the Holy See that Bishop Magee had formally resigned from his duties as Bishop of Cloyne and was now bishop emeritus.[28]

Diocese of Raphoe

The current Bishop of Derry, Séamus Hegarty, was Bishop of the Diocese of Raphoe in 1982–1994, at a time when one of his priests, Father Eugene Greene, raped 26 young men.

Diocese of Limerick

Abuse by religious orders

As well as the diocesan clergy, a number of Irish members of Roman Catholic Orders have been named in criminal prosecutions for abuse; some were tried outside Ireland. These cases amplify, but were not covered by, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse findings (see above).

Other cases

As well the reports, many other victims of clerical abuse came forward with their own stories; including actor Gabriel Byrne[29] and Derry Morgan.[30] In each case the victim was told to keep quiet, and the priest involved was usually admired by the victim's family; this made it difficult for victims to speak out, adding long-term psychological injury to the abuse itself.

In 2010 Fr. Patrick Hughes was convicted on four counts of indecent assault.[31] Detective Sergeant Joseph McLoughlin said that the Garda Síochána were "getting the run-around from church authorities".[31]

Investigations continue where Irish abusers were sent abroad by the church to other countries, where they abused other children.[32]

Some convicts have been acquitted on appeal, such as Nora Wall, whose 1999 conviction was found to be based on evidence from unreliable witnesses.

Pastoral letter from Pope Benedict XVI

After the pressure gathered from the Ryan and Murphy Reports and the resignation of bishops, Pope Benedict XVI summoned all of the Irish Bishops to the Vatican in January 2010.[33] Following their meeting, it was announced that a pastoral letter would be written to address the issues involving the sexual abuse of children.[34]

The letter was released by the Vatican on 20 March 2010.[35] In the letter addressed to the Catholics of Ireland, the Pope said he was "truly sorry" for the harm done to Catholics who suffered "sinful and criminal" abuse at the hands of priests, brothers and nuns.[36] He acknowledged the "serious mistakes" made by the clergy.[1] The letter did not ask for the resignation of the Cardinal Primate of All Ireland, Seán Brady, and did not address the Ryan and Murphy reports.[37] The letter was to be read out at Mass on 21 March 2010.[38]

There was a mixed reaction to the contents of the letter. The letter was well received by Cardinal Brady, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin and the Conference of Religious of Ireland (CORI).[39] Survivors of Child Abuse coordinator John Kelly said in a statement, "This letter is a possible step to closure and we owe it to ourselves to study it and to give it a measured response. We are heartened by the Pontiff’s open acceptance that the abusive behavior of priests and religious were criminal acts."[40] Others did not think the letter went "far enough".[36] One victim of abuse, Andrew Madden, called upon the Pope to resign.[41] One in Four, a group representing victims of sexual abuse, said that they were "deeply disappointed" with the letter.[36]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Pope Benedict apologises for Irish priests' sex abuse". BBC News. 20 March 2010. Retrieved 21 March 2010.
  2. Irish Independent article, 30 Dec 2001
  3. RTE TV programme broadcast 25 Sept 2006
  4. Secret Love: My Life with Father Michael Cleary by Phyllis Hamilton and Paul Williams (1995) Mainstream Publishing – now out of print
  5. Spain, John (5 April 2008), "The man who railed against Ireland's shameful Bedlam", The Irish Independent,, retrieved 13 June 2010
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 McKittrick, David (11 September 2007). "The secret life of Michael Cleary (entertainer, radio show host, father of two... and priest)". The Independent (London). Retrieved 14 June 2010.
  7. Scanlan, Margaret (2006). Culture and customs of Ireland. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 42. ISBN 0313331626.
  8. O'Toole, Fintan (11 January 1997). "Medical body censured Browne but ruled he acted for patient". The Irish Times. Retrieved 17 June 2010.
  9. "Judge bishops by what they do, not by what they say". The Crimson Observer. 2009-12-19. Retrieved 2010-01-13.
  10. Irish News. "Fr Brendan Smyth". Retrieved 2009-06-10.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 [1]
  12. "Past Catholic sexual and physical child abuse in Ireland". Retrieved 2010-01-07.
  13. Suing the Pope BBC News
  14. News story of Ledwith compensation in 2002
  15. 15.0 15.1 "Irish Catholic Church covered up child abuse, report says -". CNN. 26 November 2009. Retrieved 28 April 2010.
  16. The lies that Connell claims he never told
  17. Murphy Report, Page 643
  18. Cardinal Connell explained the concept of mental reservation to the Commission in the following way: "Well, the general teaching about mental reservation is that you are not permitted to tell a lie. On the other hand, you may be put in a position where you have to answer, and there may be circumstances in which you can use an ambiguous expression realising that the person who you are talking to will accept an untrue version of whatever it may be – permitting that to happen, not willing that it happened, that would be lying. It really is a matter of trying to deal with extraordinarily difficult matters that may arise in social relations where people may ask questions that you simply cannot answer. Everybody knows that this kind of thing is liable to happen. So, mental reservation is, in a sense, a way of answering without lying".
  19. Ferns Report 2005
  20. Shamed by child abuse, Ireland to reform services Reuters, May 26, 2009
  21. Irish Church Abusers Should Face Law, McAleese Says Bloomberg, May 30th 2009
  22. Archbishop slams Irish Catholic orders over abuse AP, May 25, 2009
  23. 23.0 23.1 Cullen, Shay (2009-06-24). "The Catholic Church's March of Misery in Ireland". Retrieved 2009-07-27.
  24. Molloy, Cian. "Irish religious orders agree to boost compensation for abuse victims".
  25. "Report by Commission of Investigation into Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin".
  26. Bishop Magee steps aside over Cloyne controversy, Eoin Burke-Kennedy, The Irish Times, 7 March 2009, retrieved 9 March 2009
  27. BBC
  28. Press Office of the Holy See
  29. Times online; 14 Dec 2008
  30. Sunday Independent, 27 Dec 2009, p.14.
  31. 31.0 31.1 Former priest who sexually abused boy jailed for one year, The Irish Times, 3 February 2010, retrieved 4 February 2010
  32. WPost article Dec 2009
  33. "Bishops summoned to Vatican meeting". RTÉ News. 20 January 2010. Retrieved 21 March 2010.
  34. "Survivors' disappointment acknowledged". RTÉ News. 20 February 2010. Retrieved 21 March 2010.
  35. "Pastoral Letter of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI To The Catholics of Ireland". Retrieved 21 March 2010.
  36. 36.0 36.1 36.2 "Pope 'truly sorry' over Irish abuse". Aljazeera English. 20 March 2010. Retrieved 21 March 2010.
  37. "Pope apologises to victims for 'grave errors' of church". The Irish Times. 20 March 2010. Retrieved 21 March 2010.
  38. "Pope says 'sorry' for Irish church abuse". CNN. 20 March 2010. Retrieved 21 March 2010.
  39. "Pope 'truly sorry' for child sex abuse". RTÉ News. 20 March 2010. Retrieved 21 March 2010.
  40. "Landmark Pastoral Letter Sparks Mixed Reactions". The Catholic World Report. Retrieved 22 March 2010.
  41. "Andrew Madden calls upon Pope to resign". The Irish Times. 20 March 2010.

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