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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We're reporting, this morning, on the ongoing sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. The Church hierarchy in Ireland has been heavily criticized for its handling of child abuse by priests. Now the scandal has reached the head of the church there.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Cardinal Sean Brady is under scrutiny for the way he handled abuse allegations 35 years ago. In 1975, then priest Brady, heard testimony from two children who said they had been abused. The victims were asked to take a vow of silence. Cardinal Brady recently said he had no duty to tell the police about the alleged abuse, and he says, he will only resign his position if the Pope orders him to.

MONTAGNE: Two public inquiries on child abuse in Ireland, last year, were especially critical of church leaders who tried to cover up the incidents. NPR's Rob Gifford reports that the scandal is driving more people away from the church in Ireland.

ROB GIFFORD: Siobhan O'Rourke can remember very clearly the brutality of her time at a Catholic school in Dublin in the 1970s. She hated it so much, she left the church all together and left the country. O'Rourke returned a few years ago, but is now taking a stand and sending her children to one of Ireland's growing number of secular schools.

Ms. SIOBHAN O'ROURKE: My children are not baptized, they're not confirmed, they haven't made their confirmation. I wouldn't want my children to have any association with an organization that has failed to protect children in the past.

GIFFORD: O'Rourke, who trained as a nurse, represents a growing number of people in Ireland who want to have nothing to do with the Catholic Church. She was among the first to leave, but since last year, a 30-year-old graduate student from the southern city of Cork has been making official departure from the church a whole lot easier.

Mr. PAUL DUNBAR: I'll just take you to the Web site now. It's...okay. Here it is. (Unintelligible).

GIFFORD: Paul Dunbar was like almost everyone in his generation, baptized as a Catholic at birth. But by his 20s, he says he was an atheist. The child abuse scandals led him to feel that he could no longer stay, even nominally, within the church. Since he'd been baptized, he was still a Catholic statistic, if not a Catholic believer. So, he found out how, officially, to leave the church, a process known as defection.

It was complex, so he created a Web site for anyone else who was interested in leaving.

Mr. DUNBAR: Like, for example, when you're filling out the census form, a lot of people will fill out Catholic as if it's an ethnic group rather than a religious belief. So, in Ireland it's almost like a bill(ph) type(ph). People just unconsciously check the box for Catholic. So, I suppose we're trying to change that.

GIFFORD: The downloads on his Web site, CountMeOut.ie, have totaled more than 7,000 since it was set up last year. Dunbar says that's a start but he adds it's really nothing, compared to the 90 percent of Ireland's four-and-a-half million people who are still registered as Catholics.

Mr. DUNBAR: And I think there is still a fear that if you leave the church you're somehow irreligious, or you're irresponsible and you don't have any spirituality. So, a lot of the people, even though they are very, very critical of the church, they still don't want to make that final step and make it official.

GIFFORD: Irish radio and television have been filled with discussions about the child abuse scandals.

(Soundbite of radio show)

Unidentified Man #2: I had my first communion performed by a priest who has since been convicted of sex abuse, and all photos from that day had that priest in them, and have since been burnt.

GIFFORD: One of the reasons the anger at the church has not translated to more defections is the close historical union of church and state in Ireland. In education, for instance, 92 percent of Irish public elementary schools are run by the Catholic Church. So, in many areas there's no alternative, and baptized Catholic children receive preference.

That poses a problem for 33-year-old accountant Eoin Smith and his wife - both atheists, both wanting officially to leave the church.

Mr. EOIN SMITH (Accountant): My wife very wisely argued that it's best to wait to do that until we see what school our son goes into. And with a busy or full Catholic school, they do have a right to refuse children who are not of their faith. So, let's keep the pretense up for a little bit longer that we can slink our way into that faith if we need to, to get him into the school we want to get him into.

GIFFORD: What's more, when Smith's son Ossian(ph) was born two years ago, he and his wife didn't even get him baptized.

Mr. SMITH: Oh, I've heard stories of people going through, getting children baptized at four just because they've now come up against it that they have no options but to get them into this one particular school, and they're in the door straightaway.

GIFFORD: Would you do that?

Ms. SMITH: Yeah.

Mr. SMITH: Yeah. I don't think I've got my moral principles are so strong that I'm not Irish to some sense, that I can't be slightly hypocritical about it and do whatever it takes to get the best result I want.

Unidentified Man #3: (Latin spoken)

GIFFORD: During Lent, mass is said in Latin in churches around Ireland, but numbers have decreased sharply.

Unidentified Man #3: (Latin spoken)

GIFFORD: Breda O'Brien is a teacher at a large Catholic school in Dublin, and also a columnist at the Irish Times newspaper.

Ms. BREDA O'BRIEN (Teacher, Columnist, Irish Times Newspaper): This is a difficult time to be a committed practicing Roman Catholic in Ireland, because there has been scandal after scandal. We feel in a sense, I suppose, tarred with the same brush. A colleague actually called me an apologist for child abuse, because I was trying to present some positive aspects of the Catholic Church.

GIFFORD: O'Brien admits change is needed, but she rejects accusations that she's indoctrinating school children, and pleads for Ireland not to throw the spiritual baby out with the clerical bath water.

Ms. O'BRIEN: The days when children would accept something because it comes from the mouth of a religion teacher are long gone. The only successful indoctrinators in the world today are the marketers, the ones that make young people insecure about how they look, and what they weigh, and what they wear, and the brands that they buy.

GIFFORD: O'Brien worries that the gradual erosion of church influence will leave her students without a strong set of values to prevent them being swept away by the new consumerism. And if that sounds like scare-mongering to some, ironically, the staunch atheist nurse Siobhan O'Rourke who left Ireland more than 20 years ago - agrees.

Ms. O'ROURKE: As a country, we haven't really grown up fully - morally or spiritually. We've replaced a subservience and a belief in a higher power, a blind faith in a higher power that we didn't question, with subservience to consumerism and greed, and it's impossible to tell how the next few years will be. I think we're in a state of disintegration.

GIFFORD: Putting the pieces back together again is not proving easy. The Catholic Church still has influence in Ireland, but it has lost much of its role in gluing together Irish society. And no one's quite sure yet, what, if anything, will take its place.

Rob Gifford, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: We have a follow-up on a story from yesterday, about the child abuse scandal affecting the Catholic Church in Germany. The church has suspended a German priest, saying he violated an agreement not to have contact with minors.

MONTAGNE: Decades ago, Father Peter Holerman(ph) was removed from his parish after allegations he had molested children, then he was allowed to resume his duties after receiving therapy in Munich. The current pope was an archbishop of Munich at the time.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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