Pope Benedict XVI delivers his address during his annual visit to the Roman Major Seminary in Rome on Feb. 12. The Murphy Commission Report revealed the Irish Catholic Church had been covering up crimes by priests against young people for decades.
Pope Benedict XVI delivers his address during his annual visit to the Roman Major Seminary in Rome on Feb. 12. The Murphy Commission Report revealed the Irish Catholic Church had been covering up crimes by priests against young people for decades. Alessandra Tarantino/AP
The scandal in Ireland is all too familiar: thousands of children abused and neglected as some Irish bishops protected the allegedly predatory priests.
Over the weekend, Pope Benedict XVI took 24 Irish bishops to task for the sex abuse crisis in that country, calling the scandal a "heinous crime."
They were strong words, and according to the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center, it is evidence that the Vatican has changed course in the eight years since the sex abuse scandal erupted in the United States. Benedict is now pope, and his attitude appears to be different.
"I think he takes this very seriously," Reese says. "I think he's dealing with it much better than Pope John Paul II did."
Reese says Benedict has been quicker and more transparent in admitting the abuse and cover-up.
"When he came to the United States, he must have apologized four or five times. He met with victims of abuse. This is something that's never happened before. So I think Benedict gets it. I give him pretty good marks for how he's responded."
But some U.S. victims do not. For example, Alexa MacPherson, who was abused by her priest in Boston when she was a child, is not impressed that the pope said the abuse was a "heinous crime."
"I mean, everybody out there knows that's it a heinous crime, it shouldn't have happened; if it happened once, it never should have happened again," she says. "What's he going to do about it at this point? I mean saying it and doing something about it are two completely different avenues."
Given her experience in Boston, where the archdiocese asked her to serve on an advisory board that stopped meeting after the headlines died down, MacPherson does not believe the Vatican has radically changed.
"I think they're just going to pay people to shut them up and hope that everybody forgets about it."
And Bernie McDaid, a victim who met with Pope Benedict when he visited the U.S. in 2008, says he is let down.
"I don't care if they clean up all of Ireland tomorrow. I mean, that's a good thing," he adds quickly. "But they've got a whole world in front of them that they need to clean up that they haven't. This is 2010! That's what I keep coming back to. And here we are again with the same issue."
McDaid notes that in the U.S., few people were punished. The only Catholic leader to resign was Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, and he was transferred to Rome. McDaid says he's happy that four Irish bishops have offered to resign.
But "why hasn't that happened across the U.S.?" he asks. "Why did [Bernard] Law run to Rome and sit for cover in the Vatican? Why is he still on a board that votes bishops going in and out? What is going on here?"
If the pope wants to regain trust — and bring Catholics back to church — plaintiff's attorney Mitchell Garabedian says Pope Benedict will have to offer more than words, no matter how strong those words are.
"Let's see if the words are followed by actions here," he says. "Let's see whether he'll allow testimony to lawmakers, documents to be released and bishops to admit their guilt publicly."
That may not happen. The Vatican's embassy in Ireland has so far refused to cooperate with the parliamentary committee investigating the abuse claims.
The news from Ireland has more than an emotional echo here, says Joe Rigert, author of An Irish Tragedy: How Sex Abuse by Irish Priests Helped Cripple the Catholic Church. Rigert says by the 1960s, half of all priests and two-thirds of all bishops in the U.S. came from Ireland.
"Many Irish priests were exported to the U.S.," he says. "They helped build the Catholic Church in the U.S. And in the last decades, many of these Irish priests became sexual predators."
Rigert has documents suggesting that at least 70 Irish priests in the U.S. were sexual abusers. He believes most have retired, died or returned to Ireland. But one Irish priest is the subject of a case working its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. And that case could force the Vatican to open its secret files to the outside world.