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Sins of the fathers still haunting Catholic Church

Wednesday 20 May 2009 10:20 BST

Tomorrow the social earthquake unloosed within the Republic of Ireland in the early 1990s reaches its crescendo when newspapers, television and radio south of the border will be dominated by the first findings of the Government's 3,000-page, five-volume investigation into child abuse by up to 500 priests.

Associated with it is another inquiry limited to the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin, where more than 100 priests stand accused of sexually interfering with children in their care over the two generations between 1940 and 2006.

Today's liberated Irish on the verge of middle age, particularly those in Dublin city and county, have little idea of the Ireland within which their parents grew up; and the Free State of which their grandparents used to speak was not a country they ever could recognise.

Now they are told that, behind that pious cloud of incense, there lurked an evil which at first they did not believe, involving, as it did, the terrorising of destitute, orphaned youngsters by those who had them in their care.

But this was only the outward evidence of an institution collapsing beneath the weight of its own unchecked supremacy; for it is an inveterate law of history, from the days of the Caesars, that — in the words of Acton — power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Lord Acton, in fact, was writing to Mandell Creighton, Victorian Bishop of London. The current agony at Westminster, quite in keeping, involves an administration grown careless of the privileges of government to which it has had access for too long. In Eire, as it was in the 1950s, the Catholic bishops effectively were its rulers.

It was the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, who was the ultimate arbiter of public policy.

When the most notorious collision occurred, in 1951, between a young and inexperienced health minister, Noel Browne, a revealing detail was that, when the bishops took exception to his plans for a free health service, their procedure was not to wait on Dr Browne in his office in the Dublin Custom House to express their views, normal practice in a parliamentary democracy, but to summon him at 24 hours' notice to meet them at the Archbishop's residence.

In the climate of the time, there was no question of his not going. It was well known that the Taoiseach, John Costello, did the Archbishop's bidding in everything. Dr Browne had worked in London hospitals (where his own tuberculosis had been arrested and cured) and his scheme was heavily influenced by the new British NHS of 1948.

But when he had lunch with Archbishop John D'Alton at Armagh and inquired about how it would work in Northern Ireland and why his own scheme was being blocked, the future Cardinal advised, in royal idiom: “We are prepared neither to apologise nor to explain.” Remember, this was to a cabinet minister.

A price was to be paid for the hubris of the bishops, even if the extent of their arrogance, in the pre-television age, was largely concealed from the people. When rumours of brutal physical punishments in a Christian Brothers' industrial school reached the Evening Herald in Dublin at this time, a former editor has recorded how one of the Brothers burst into the office to demand that the manager withhold the report of a court case involving the Artane School.

Before he got an answer, he pushed open the editorial door to tell the staff that the manager had ordered the case to be spiked, ie, dumped.

The dam burst in 1992 when Annie Murphy contacted the Irish Times to disclose that, as his housekeeper, she had had a long affair with Eamon Casey, the Bishop of Galway, to whom she had borne a son. Casey was no ordinary bishop.

He was popular, often on TV, had been MC for Pope John Paul's Irish visit in 1979 and was chosen as number one in a volume of interviews with ‘Irish leaders' — O'Reilly, Smurfit, Gay Byrne — published in 1987. Some old hands at the Irish Times, interestingly, asked to be taken off the Casey story.

But it was established that diocesan funds had been used for Annie and her son.

Since then, the Church has had to learn how to survive on the defensive. There is widespread indifference. Mass attendances have slumped.

So have priestly vocations. Countless convents have closed. The young brazenly follow a secularist agenda. Deprived of its ancient priestly cement, the social fabric in bad spots disintegrates, riven by gang warfare, drug dependence and booze.

Yet Church influence, if more covert, is still powerful in high places.

Bertie Ahern moved smartly to protect the Church's assets in 2006 when he agreed to cap its contribution to the compensation being claimed by the thousands of victims of clerical abuse at €128m.

This is less than 10 per cent of the expected total cost, a bill which the taxpayer must eventually pick up. Tomorrow the tortured story takes another lurch towards that day.

Taken from the Belfast Telegraph

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