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Issue Date:  November 11, 2005

Report chronicles abuse, cover-up in rural Irish diocese

Government considers inquiries into church nationwide

Dublin, Ireland

The Catholic church in Ireland is in free fall after the first government inquiry into its internal affairs has revealed that in the small rural diocese of Ferns in Country Wexford on the southeast coast between 21 and 28 priests raped and sodomized young boys and girls over a 40-year period.

The report, released Oct. 25, says that priests used their access to primary schools to prey on defenseless victims. In one instance, the late Fr. Jim Grennan sat near the altar molesting 10 submissive girls as they knelt before him to make their pre-confirmation confessions. One editorial writer here, in the wake of the report, described the diocesan seminary as “an academy of debauchery.” Two bishops covered up these heinous crimes because they put loyalty to Rome and its Code of Canon Law above the welfare of children, the report claims.

The core of the 271-page report of Justice Frank Murphy catalogs a litany of abuse that reads like pornography. It tells how when the late Bishop Donal Herlihy, a former rector of the Irish College in Rome and a man famed for his Romanitas and for his knowledge of the classics and fine wines, discovered that the priest science teacher in St. Peter’s College had been abusing boys, he arranged with the archdiocese of Westminster in England for Fr. Donal Collins to spend two years there for his “penance” -- and did not alert the Westminster authorities to the priest’s pedophilia. On his return, Collins was promoted by Herlihy to the vice presidency, and later by Herlihy’s successor, Brendan Comiskey, to the presidency of the college.

In the case of Fr. Sean Fortune, Herlihy ordained him even though Fortune began abusing boys as a seminarian. Herlihy assigned Fortune to a rural parish where for 20 years Fortune was kept in ministry as “a blister waiting to burst,” the report said.

Although Comiskey sent Fortune for treatment, he did not remove the still-offending priest from ministry. When Comiskey consulted canon lawyers, he was advised that a priest suffering from pedophilia could escape sanction from the church. According to the report, the priest was not to receive “a penal response” but was to be called in for a private chat with his bishop. Any disciplinary measure by the bishop, or a referral of the priest to the police, would lead to civil authorities seeking “discovery” of documents. Comiskey became a self-professed alcoholic. Fortune committed suicide in 1999 while on trial for 29 charges of molesting and raping teenage boys.

Astonishingly, the year before Comiskey became bishop of Ferns in 1984, a group of parishioners had written a letter of complaint against Fortune to the papal nuncio in Dublin, the late Gaetano Alibrandi, a Sicilian known for playing the theme from the film “The Godfather” on the organ in his splendid residence in Dublin. Alibrandi informed them the problem was under consideration by the Vatican. This was the Vatican of John Paul II.

Nothing happened. Eight of Fortune’s victims, now young men, took a civil action against Fortune. Their attempt to bring Alibrandi’s successor to court was frustrated when the Holy See invoked diplomatic immunity.

Finally, the young men turned to the media. In March 2002 the BBC, the British public service broadcaster, ran a television documentary, “Suing the Pope,” which awakened the Irish public to the horrendous scale of abuse in Ferns. Comiskey resigned, admitting he had failed to do enough to prevent priests from abusing children. The Vatican appointed Eamonn Walsh, an auxiliary bishop in Dublin, as apostolic administrator to Ferns.

Walsh, a lawyer, promised full cooperation with a government inquiry.

Although Walsh was applauded at Mass on a recent Sunday in Wexford, it is now known that the inquiry nearly collapsed in July when lawyers discovered that Walsh had not given files relating to allegations against eight priests, listed as Fathers V, W, X, Y, and Z as well as by Greek alphabet names, Fathers Kappa, Iota and Lambda. Yet, before the report was published the Ferns diocese had submitted a legal bill to the state for 100,000 Euro (about $120,000).

With Ferns as notorious as Boston and Philadelphia, the Irish government is to conduct an independent audit of all 26 dioceses. Justice Minister Michael McDowell has warned he will not be satisfied by mere assurance from the bishops that they have put in place child protection schemes.

Newspaper probes have strengthened the government’s hands. So, too, have radio and television chat shows where victims are finding a voice. On one show a woman, who alleged she was raped by a priest while a young girl in the 1970s in the West of Ireland, lamented: “They are going on about Ferns but as far as I am concerned the West of Ireland is just as bad.”

The archbishop of Tuam has suspended two West of Ireland priests who were still in ministry while under police investigation for alleged rapes of women. The bishop of Elphin has suspended a parish priest thought to be wanted in the United States for an alleged rape of a woman in 1965. The bishop of Derry has suspended a priest who is under police investigation. A new day, a new abuse story.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern is threatening to initiate Ferns-style inquiries into every diocese. His government planned to frame the terms of reference for a Commission of Inquiry into the Dublin archdiocese. The police have already assembled allegations against 67 Dublin diocesan priests. This does not include allegations against members of religious orders. So the total in Dublin could jump significantly.

Some Irish Catholics feel insulted by the Vatican’s refusal to comment on Ferns and are angered by Pope Benedict XVI’s reaffirmation of obligatory celibacy for a men-only priesthood at the end of the recent international synod of bishops.

Among the findings of the Ferns Report is a unanimous opinion from a panel of psychiatrists that celibacy contributed to the scandal in Wexford.

Opinion polls in recent years have shown a growing distrust of Rome among Catholics. Many have left the church in disgust over the sex abuse scandal.

John Cooney, a former religious affairs correspondent of the Irish Times, is the Irish correspondent of The Tablet and author of John Charles McQuaid, Ruler of Catholic Ireland published by Syracuse University Press.

National Catholic Reporter, November 11, 2005

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