Irish Question Catholic Identity After Abuse Report

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Kevin Flannigan, left, and John Kelly from the group Survivors of Child Abuse i

Kevin Flannigan, left, and John Kelly from the group Survivors of Child Abuse, protest in Dublin, Ireland, at not being allowed into the launch of a long-awaited report on child abuse in the Catholic Church, May 20, 2009. The report revealed that the Catholic Church was aware long-term sex offenders were repeatedly abusing children while working in Ireland's church and state-run institutions. Niall Carson/Press Association via AP hide caption

itoggle caption Niall Carson/Press Association via AP
Kevin Flannigan, left, and John Kelly from the group Survivors of Child Abuse

Kevin Flannigan, left, and John Kelly from the group Survivors of Child Abuse, protest in Dublin, Ireland, at not being allowed into the launch of a long-awaited report on child abuse in the Catholic Church, May 20, 2009. The report revealed that the Catholic Church was aware long-term sex offenders were repeatedly abusing children while working in Ireland's church and state-run institutions.

Niall Carson/Press Association via AP

In Ireland, an explosive report by an independent commission into child abuse in schools and orphanages run by Roman Catholic religious orders has renewed debate over the power the church wields in Irish society — especially in the field of education.

The report, known as the Ryan Report after the senior judge who led the investigation, found a shocking level of sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children in the church's care throughout the 20th century.

Not long after the Ryan Report was released last month, Irish broadcaster RTE held a televised question-and-answer session. Audience members put questions to various politicians.

One member of the audience, Michael O'Brien, a 72-year-old former local politician and mayor, asked a question, received an answer and was then asked for his thoughts on the subject. With his wife sitting beside him, O'Brien stood up, and the floodgates opened about how he and his seven siblings were taken into care in the 1940s.

He recalled how the children were taken to a court and "left standing there, without food or anything" until a man in a "long black frock and white collar" came and took them away.

"Two nights later, I was raped," he said.

Referring to his wife, O'Brien said, "That woman will tell you how many times I jumped out of the bed at night with the sweat pumping out of me, because I see these fellows at end of the bed ... pulling me into the room, to rape me. "

O'Brien went on to catalog the ensuing attempt by the Catholic religious orders to cover up the abuse, and the aggressive cross-examination he received from lawyers representing the religious orders.

"You had seven barristers there questioning me and telling me I was telling lies, when I told him that I got raped [on] a Saturday, got a merciful beating after it, and then [the rapist] came along the following morning and put Holy Communion in my mouth," he said.

Helping Victims, Questioning Church

O'Brien's impassioned outburst reverberated through heavily Catholic Ireland. An estimated 150,000 children have passed through the schools and orphanages run by the Christian Brothers, the Sisters of Mercy and 16 other Catholic orders. Most were from poor families, some the children of unwed mothers, some teenage mothers themselves.

Marianne O'Connor, director general of CORI, the Conference of Religious in Ireland, which represents the religious orders, says the focus now has to be on those who suffered.

"We, in humility, have to look at how best they can be helped, whatever can be done to help the Michael O'Briens who have suffered in these institutions," she says.

"I'm not excusing," she adds. "But there is a wider picture here with regard to the whole of society, and we all got it wrong."

Critics called that blame-shifting and a semi-apology — and years of stonewalling from the church has created public fury at the religious orders.

The affair has Ireland asking deeper questions about itself, its identity and the link between the state and the church, which still runs 98 percent of all elementary schools in Ireland. That kind of control is now being called into question.

Nondenominational Schools Limited

Educate Together is a parent-led network of nondenominational, multi-faith, multicultural schools across Ireland.

At an Education Together school in the town of Swords, just north of Dublin, students do not sing hymns or learn Catholic doctrine like most other pupils in Ireland.

The teaching and the classrooms here reflect Ireland's new international feel, and all religions are treated equally. The schools emphasize the rights of the children.

Educate Together schools are in demand. Parent Joan Fitzgerald says she and her husband — both educated in strict Catholic schools — knew Educate Together was the right place for their son the moment they walked in. But she says it's still difficult for her son when he mixes with boys from Catholic schools at home.

The family no longer practices Catholicism and her son did not make Holy Communion. Other children told him he would be damned to hell as a result.

"I thought that was all gone, I really did think that was all gone, but it wasn't," Fitzgerald says.

The Swords school is one of 56 Educate Together schools around the country, compared to more than 3,000 schools still run by the Catholic Church. But there are still no Educate Together high schools, meaning Fitzgerald may well have to send her son to a Catholic high school.

But she says she will take a legal case to the Supreme Court or wherever necessary to maintain the right of her son not to be confirmed and take Communion in order to get into the school of his choice.

"I won't buckle, I just couldn't now. After doing all this, I'm not going to turn around to him and say, 'Now you must go to church because you have to, we live in Ireland,'" she says.

As more people in Ireland make similar decisions, the country is undoubtedly changing. But Michael Kelly, deputy editor of The Irish Catholic newspaper, says the reality is it is a slow change: He says 47 percent of people in Ireland still attend Mass on Sundays.

And there are plenty of people who didn't suffer and who have positive experiences from church schools, says Kelly, who has been extremely critical of the church on the issue of abuse. While he doesn't expect a blanket rejection of the church, he hopes that Irish Catholics can develop a critical faculty on church matters.

"My hope, my desire would be that Irish Catholics ... can develop the ability to critique the church, the ability to think about their faith, the ability to approach things with a little bit of reason and the ability to question church authorities," he says.

Disillusionment With Church Growing

But if the 20-something generation in Dublin is a gauge, the church is losing adherents. Sitting in a pub near their alma mater, Trinity College, Daire Hickey and Mark Grennan — both in their early 20s, both brought up in Catholic schools — say the Catholic Church has already lost many in the younger generation.

"The revelations [of abuse] were the straw that broke the camel's back. Looking at the Catholic Church as a whole, I just don't see its relevance to anyone of my age, and I don't see the relevance to the vast majority of people living in Ireland today," Grennan says.

"It's had a profound effect on people. I know talking to my friends, they say things like they are never going to Mass again," says Hickey.

The Ryan Report is not the end of challenges facing the Catholic Church in Ireland. Within a few weeks, another report will be published, an investigation into abuse by priests within the Diocese of Dublin, that many in Ireland say will be even more shocking than the Ryan findings.

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