Irish Pedophile Legacy Highlights Challenge to New Pope

For Irish victims of priestly sexual abuse, Pope Francis needs to disclose what the Vatican knows about the crimes -- and fully apologize for them.

“He could start telling the truth about the extent of Vatican knowledge,” Andrew Madden, a computer consultant from Dublin who claims priests molested him when he was an altar boy in the 1980s, said by phone. “If an apology was preceded by that level of honesty, that would be very significant.”

As Francis begins his reign as the 266th pope following his inauguration yesterday, he faces a global wave of disgust and mistrust toward the church amid abuse cases from the U.S. to Latin America. The wounds run deep in Ireland, one of Europe’s most Catholic countries, underscoring the challenge the pope faces to reviving a religion eroded by secularism and shaken by scandal.

Priests engaged in “endemic” molestation of children for decades, according to two reports by the Irish government issued since 2009, with prelates usually more interested in avoiding scandal to the church than exposing offenders and protecting children.

The Vatican’s handling of the Irish abuse cases has been dominated by “elitism and narcissism,” Premier Enda Kenny said in July 2011, in an unprecedented attack on the church by an Irish leader.

Pope’s Letter

His comment came more than a year after former Pope Benedict XVI had written a “pastoral letter” to Ireland offering an apology for what he called the Irish church’s “sins against defenseless children.” He also spoke of his own “dismay” on learning of the years of abuse by Irish priests.

Still, the letter stopped short of an admission that the central authority of a global church with 1.2 billion followers also bore some responsibility. Sinead O’Connor, the Irish singer, urged Catholics to avoid mass until the Vatican made “a full confession,” according to a letter she wrote in the Washington Post in March 2010. She said she’d suffered neglect and humiliation in a church-run institution as a child.

Under Benedict, the Vatican did begin to take important steps to tackle abuse. It doubled the statute of limitations on prosecuting priests to 20 years and published guidelines for dealing with accused clerics. Benedict also met and prayed with victims, though he never visited Ireland.

Bigger Questions

“The church is addressing the abuse issue within an institutional framework -- it’s not asking the bigger questions,” Tom Inglis, a lecturer in sociology at University College Dublin, said by phone. “This is a church that is in the bunker of a consumer, capitalistic society, hoping it will pass by.”

As Buenos Aires archbishop, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as the future pope was then known, at times failed to take decisive action when molestation charges surfaced, the Washington Post said yesterday, citing a lawyer for abuse victims.

Sister Martha Pelloni, a well-known activist against abuse and human trafficking, praised his actions. During 14 years as archbishop, Bergoglio took an increasingly harder line on abuse and eventually ordered church officials to ensure that all allegations were reported to the police, Pelloni said yesterday by phone from Goya, northern Argentina.

“I’ve worked with him and he’s been a great defender of the dignity of the human person and against exploitation, whether sexual abuse, organized crime or trafficking of humans and organs,” she said.

‘Zero Tolerance’

Bergoglio said he supports “zero tolerance” for priestly sexual abuse and criticized previous cases in the U.S. where accused clerics were simply moved to other parishes, according to a 2010 book of dialogs with Rabbi Abraham Skorka. In it, Bergoglio also said celibacy isn’t a cause of pedophilia and that the church could eventually review the issue of priestly celibacy for “cultural” reasons.

“It’s a matter of discipline, not of faith,” he said in the book, according to a transcript posted on the website of Catholic group Aleteia. “It can change.”

At his inauguration yesterday to thousands of faithful and dozens of world leaders, Francis urged people in positions of responsibility to be “protectors of creation” including nature and people.

“Whenever human beings fail to live up to this responsibility, whenever we fail to care for creation and for our brothers and sisters, the way is opened to destruction and hearts are hardened,” the pope said in St. Peter’s Square.

Cardinal Law

Francis may seek to remove retired Cardinal Bernard Law, who covered up sex crimes as Boston archbishop, from his post as emeritus arch-priest at St. Mary Major, Italian daily Il Fatto reported on March 15, without citing anyone. The basilica was the first Roman church Francis visited after his election.

U.S. sex-abuse claims alone have cost the church $3 billion in claims, according to In Ireland, religious orders have paid or offered victims about 300 million euros ($388 million) cash and real estate, though the government has said the bill should total 1.4 billion euros.

Catholicism’s special position in Irish society was recognized by the nation’s 1937 constitution, which called the church “the guardian of the faith of the great majority of the people.” While that clause was later removed, the religion’s tenets have continued to underpin Irish law.

Condoms, Abortion

Until 1985, condoms could only be bought with a doctor’s prescription, divorce wasn’t legalized until 1995 and abortion still isn’t allowed in most cases. Eighty-five percent of Irish are nominally Catholic, Central Statistics Office data show.

Francis, who called on the church to focus on the needs of the poor last week, took his name after St. Francis of Assisi, the Italian medieval saint who embraced poverty, loved animals and became a symbol of humility.

For Irish abuse victims, the pope will need to back up his words with action.

“I am completely fed up,” said Colm O’Gorman, who heads Amnesty International in Ireland and said he was abused by priests as a child. There’s been no real apology and “it’s hard to see how even” a new pope can impart “a significant change in direction,” he said prior to Francis’s election.

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