Roman Catholic bishops in Ireland agreed Monday to mount an internal investigation into what they called the “great pain and shame” of sexual abuse within the priesthood — including admitted deficiencies in their own leadership.
Speaking after an unprecedented emergency session of the Irish Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Sean Brady said they would meet later this month to appoint a panel “to establish the full truth about how complaints of child sexual abuse have been dealt with.”
Reporters pressed Brady to say whether the church would provide this panel with private records detailing when church authorities were first informed of allegations against specific clerics. Bishops have been accused of repeatedly transferring pedophile priests to new parishes rather than reporting them to police.
If investigators requested secret documents, they would get them “if they consider them necessary,” Brady said after trying to sidestep the question several times.
Church authorities have previously protected such records. That traditional secrecy, underwritten by the church’s own canon law, is being eroded in Boston and New York, where Catholic dioceses have been rocked recently by revelations of long-running sexual abuse by priests. In both U.S. cities, records have been handed to police and prosecutors.
But Brady said church law should pose “no such difficulty” in Ireland either. “The supreme law of the church is to serve the common good. We are citizens of the state,” he said.
The bishops convened a week to the day after their most outspoken and popular colleague, Bishop Brendan Comiskey of the southeast diocese of Ferns, resigned after admitting he had done too little to stop abuse by priests in the 1980s and 1990s.
Comiskey became the highest-ranking church casualty in Ireland, where more than two dozen priests and other Catholic officials have been convicted of molesting or raping children in the past decade.
Then last Thursday, the Irish government announced, after meeting several sex-abuse victims from Comiskey’s diocese, that it had appointed a high-profile lawyer to prepare a plan for a state-funded inquiry into why some priests managed to keep abusing children for years, even decades. The lawyer is supposed to make recommendations within three months.
Brady, sitting beside Cardinal Desmond Connell, leader of Ireland’s 4 million Catholics, said the scandals “have caused great pain and shame to the whole church in Ireland. … We again express our deepest apologies for the inadequacies in our response to that pain.”
“Child abuse leaves deep scars on victims, and we want to help heal those scars. Knowing the truth is part of the healing,” Brady added.
One alleged victim of sexual abuse harangued bishops as they took a break from their meeting at Maynooth College, the major seminary in Ireland.
Gerard Kelly, 44, who said he was raped repeatedly in a Dublin orphanage in the 1960s and early 1970s, confronted the Vatican (news – web sites)’s senior representative in Ireland, Bishop Giuseppe Lazarotto. He demanded to see Connell, whom he said had ignored his letters and telephone calls for six years.
When a visibly uncomfortable Lazarotto said he understood Kelly’s pain, the Dubliner shot back: “How could you? You weren’t sexually assaulted when you were 10. I was defenseless, a defenseless child. … I have to come out here and beg for answers. I shouldn’t have to do that.”
Kelly also tried to prevent another bishop, William Smith, from driving away by climbing into his car. The two had a tense standoff as Kelly wouldn’t let go of the parking brake.
Representatives of the more than 3,000 priests in Ireland were planning their own summit Tuesday at Maynooth. They accused their bishops of handling the sex-abuse scandals incompetently, relying too much on legal rather than moral guidance.
“The church is in the very sad situation it is in because we avoided making comments, maybe on the basis of legal advice,” said the Rev. John Littleton, a Limerick priest who is president of the National Conference of Priests in Ireland. “But the time has come now for our leaders to answer questions. No more obfuscation, no more evading responsibility.”
Littleton said many priests felt that their “faith and morale has been shattered. Most priests are horrified and embarrassed. Many priests feel they have no credibility or moral authority any longer. … There’s a growing perception out there that all priests are pedophiles, or least are abnormal, and that’s very damaging.”
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