ROME—The scandals are nearly a decade apart, but there are stunning similarities between the recent Pennsylvania grand jury report on abuse of 1,000 children by hundreds of priests and the exhaustive reports published in 2009 about horrors inside Ireland’s Catholic institutions that affected tens of thousands of children.
What we keep learning and re-learning is that church leaders—and just as often the secular authorities—pretend that the rot in the clergy is contained geographically to this diocese or that, this state or another, this country or another. It’s always “there” and “their fault.” But that’s a lie.
The huge body of evidence suggests the plague of clerical pedophilia can be found almost anywhere, but that it is “discovered” only when public denunciations reach a critical mass, as it were, and the headlines explode.
Pope Francis must address that sordid reality directly on his visit to Ireland this weekend, where the church has long faced demands for a clear, powerful, unequivocal program of action, not just thoughts and prayers and scriptural references. And there is no better venue than Ireland for something more than another mea culpa. It was the scene of so much evil in years past that, from the 2009 reports, it seems a Catholic version of Mordor.
But whatever pressure there was for the 81-year-old pontiff to take a bold initiative before has been compounded by the Pennsylvania revelations, and what should be his realization that his belated “letter to the people of God” published Monday, lamenting that “we showed no care for the little ones,” while tough, simply isn’t enough.
When Ireland’s Minister for Justice and Equality released the 2009 reports, few thought the Irish church would ever recover. The ghastly findings about Catholic orphanages, schools, the Magdalen Laundries, and other institutions throughout the country, and in particular situations in the Dublin archdiocese, were every bit as scandalous as those coming out of Pennsylvania last week.
Just one relatively tame example: “In some schools a high level of ritualized beating was a routine. Girls were struck with implements designed to maximize pain and were struck on all parts of the body.”
Sean Ryan, the high court judge who wrote the 2,600 page nationwide report that bears his name, called the atrocities “endemic” in the Irish church. More than 30,000 children, many of them young girls from dysfunctional families or unwed teen mothers, were sent to Catholic facilities between the 1930s and 1960s. Their babies were taken from them and given away and the women kept to work in the Magdalene Laundries. The youngest victim in the report was nine. The oldest was 89. Mass graves were found on the grounds of several church properties.
The 2013 film “Philomena” depicted one of thousands of stories of despair. The 2002 film, “The Magdalene Sisters” looked at the suffering of the women in painful detail. Now, the Magdalenes, as they are called, have formed a powerful lobby group of survivors.
Before the Pennsylvania scandal broke, the pontiff’s most difficult moment in Ireland was likely to come during an appearance on the same street where one of the last Magdalene Laundries stood. Now, Francis’s whole trip is a minefield as survivors around the world wait to hear if he addresses what is simply the latest sex abuse scandal—not the first, and certainly not the last. “If he doesn’t lay out a plan about how the church is going to deal with this, people will see his trip as a failure,” Vatican expert John Allen says. “There is a lot riding on this trip.”
When the Irish scandal broke in 2009, Benedict XVI was pope. He ordered apostolic visitations to four Irish dioceses where the greatest atrocities had occurred. He also wrote new guidelines that local bishops were encouraged, though not obligated, to notify police of all abuse complaints. Clearly, those guidelines have been neither universalized nor followed. Nearly a decade later, there are still allegations of cover-ups and lies by church officials.
Before Ireland, the biggest clerical sex abuse scandal the church had faced was focused on the Boston diocese. That was under Pope John Paul II, and the American church was quite literally in the spotlight when widespread sex abuse was exposed there under the administration of Cardinal Bernard Law. That abuse scandal was discovered and detailed by the Boston Globe and led to Law’s resignation (and an Oscar-winning movie). Cardinal Law was sent to Rome and settled in a cushy post in one of the city’s most magnificent churches. When he died last year, his funeral was held inside St. Peter’s Basilica.
Where the next eruption of the rot simmering under the surface will happen is anyone’s guess. In 2018 alone, smaller scandals have rocked the churches in Chile, the Dominican Republic and Guam. In 2010, focus was on churches in Norway and Belgium. In 2013, it was Poland. Several high profile clerical sex abuse cases are winding down in Australia, where Cardinal George Pell is standing trial for historical sex abuse. He still has his Vatican job as head of the Vatican’s Secretariat of the Economy.
Even those charged with cleaning up the mess have been tainted by conspicuous failure. Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, just apologized publicly because he ignored for three long years a letter about sex abuse allegations against American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., who, finally, was asked to resign from public ministry on June 20. O’Malley says his office lost the letter.
McCarrick, who was one of the highest ranking prelates in the American church, is accused of fondling an altar boy during preparations for Christmas mass in the 1970s and then carrying on an abusive sexual relationship with another young man for more than two decades.
“Allegations regarding Archbishop McCarrick’s sexual crimes were unknown to me until the recent media reports,” O’Malley wrote in a letter published in part by the Boston Globe. “I understand not everyone will accept this answer given the way the Church has eroded the trust of our people.”
On Tuesday, the Vatican announced the official itinerary for the pope’s Irish visit. He will be meeting with victims of clerical sex abuse in private as he often does when he travels around the world. But this time, the victims have the upper hand. The world is watching and waiting to see if Pope Francis can finally rid the church of the rot at its very core.