American Catholics, Learn from Ireland’s Bitter Experiences

A visitor prays during mass at a Roman Catholic Church in Knock, Ireland, 2010. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)
A country where the Church was enshrined in the constitution, it felt special pressure to cover up clerical abuse.

Last weekend, Pope Francis arrived in Ireland to a very different mood from what John Paul II encountered during the country’s last papal visit, in 1979. With reports surfacing of abuse in the Pittsburgh diocese, anger at inadequate responses to scandals here has swollen. The recent letter by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, accusing Francis of participating in a cover-up himself, belies the pontiff’s already dubious commitment to hold those responsible to account.

America can learn from the long and difficult road Ireland has taken over the past 30 years and avoid repeating some of our mistakes. As the Church’s influence in Irish society began to wane in the late 1980s, stories emerged of horrifying child abuse by clergy. In the years that followed, criminal investigations revealed that thousands of children had been raped and molested by hundreds of priests. These numbers paled in comparison to the routine use of physical violence by clergy. As in America, some abusers were convicted and removed, but many more were shuffled quietly from parish to parish, to avoid scandal.

In 2009, a report commissioned by the government found that state authorities had colluded with the Church to cover up these crimes. And although the taoiseach at the time, Bertie Ahern, vowed to pursue those responsible, no enabler of pedophile priests has seen prison time.

The bungled Irish response served nobody well. Victims got no closure. The Church accelerated its slide into irrelevance and contempt. And Ireland experienced a cultural backlash against ecclesiasticism that went far beyond divorce and contraceptives. The recent landslide decision to legalize abortion was as much about spiting morally bankrupt priests and bishops as it was about cozying up to liberal European norms. Just as post-colonial Ireland embraced the Vatican in repudiation of British rule, the Church now finds itself struggling against a new secular Irish identity that’s distinctly anti-Catholic.

To an Irish person who grew up amid the fallout of Catholic abuse scandals, the only surprising element of the Pittsburgh grand-jury report is that it could happen in the United States. In Ireland, so great was the esteem in which the Church was held that it’s easy — though no less painful — to understand how clerical abuse could run unchecked by state authorities. Bishops and priests become the last line of protection in a society that enshrines the Church in its constitution, and when they fail the aftermath is as predictable as it is harrowing.

This description has never been true of the United States, though, where the Constitution and individual rights are supreme. Indeed, American religious institutions historically played an important role in defending them, and their schools, hospitals, and charities helped obviate excessive government overreach. But the abuses detailed in the Pittsburgh report make a mockery of a society built on God-given rights. That any citizen could suffer such abuse in silence should outrage every American.

It’s not enough only for the abusers to go to jail. The culpability goes further: Those who shielded criminals must be aggressively brought to justice. Should the United States instead shy away, it risks betraying its founding principles, abandoning innocent victims and seeing a prestigious institution collapse anyway. Secular American authorities may be reluctant to act, afraid to be perceived as persecuting a religious institution at a time when leftist activists are once again suing the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop. They need to overcome this fear, for the sake of America and of the Church in your country. The United States has had to be tough in the past to guard values, of liberty and justice, that Ireland never had. It needs to get tough now.

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