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Spotlight Report

Clerical abuse roils Ireland's church

Allegations against priests, cardinal mirror Boston case

By Charles M. Sennott, Globe Staff, 11/11/2002

BALLYFERMOT, Ireland - Shuffling out from a thinly attended Mass at Our Lady of the Assumption in this working-class suburb of Dublin, the aging parishioners shared their growing sense of bitterness and betrayal over the Catholic hierarchy's handling of priestly sexual abuse in Ireland.

The scandal has cut across Ireland, but it left a particularly deep wound at this parish.

Here, the Rev. Tony Walsh raped young boys in the 1970s and 1980s. Cardinal Desmond Connell of Dublin eventually stripped Walsh of his clerical title but did not notify police until years later -- an omission that victims and their advocates believe allowed the priest to seek more victims.

Asked about calls for Connell to resign, Michael Lee, a 48-year-old electrician, said: "Resign nothing! The cardinal should be jailed for what he did."

Patricia Sinclair, 62, who raised eight children here, was equally outraged.

"It's a terrible betrayal," she said. "For this to have happened, and for the cardinal to have known about it and not told police, is just shattering. Either he was living in cuckoo-land and didn't want to be bothered, or he knew and didn't have the courage to take it to the police. Either way, he should have to resign."

The crisis in Ireland's Catholic Church reached fever pitch last month after the airing of an investigative documentary by the national television network, RTE. The show touched off a state-led inquiry into the role of the church hierarchy and set the stage for a battle between the church's adherence to canon law and its obligations under state law.

The one-hour report, which aired on the news magazine "Prime Time," disclosed that six bishops in Dublin had reassigned at least eight priests from one parish to another even though the bishops knew the priests had been sexually abusive. In most cases, the bishops did this without alerting the new parishes, fellow priests, or police.

The report, titled "Cardinal Sin," focused on Connell. It detailed, for example, how Connell appointed a confessed child abuser, the Rev. Noel Reynolds, to the National Rehabilitation Hospital, thus violating the very guidelines Connell had established for dealing with priest sex offenders.

The documentary highlighted the frustrated attempt by the parents of victims to alert the church about Walsh. Ken Reilly, appearing on the program with his mother, Ena, said he was raped at age 12 after serving as an altar boy at Walsh's ordination Mass in 1979. Ena recounted how she alerted the priests in Ballyfermot as well as a bishop and a monsignor. She was assured Dermot J. Ryan, the Dublin archbishop at the time who died in 1985, was "taking care of it." But Walsh remained in charge of the altar boys and of a "children's Mass" in Ballyfermot.

In 1992, with allegations against Walsh increasing, Connell set up a tribunal to investigate him. The tribunal recommended that Connell be defrocked but kept its findings secret. Walsh appealed to Rome and continued to act as a priest. In the documentary, a mother wept as she told how Walsh, while awaiting his appeal, raped her 11-year-old son in 1995 at the funeral for the boy's grandfather. It was only then that Walsh was subsequently charged with indecent assault and finally defrocked. In 1998, he faced further criminal charges and was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. Now more cases against him are mounting.

Diocesan officials said the documentary unfairly focused on Connell since most of the cases dated back to the 1960s through the mid-1980s prior to Connell's appointment as Dublin archbishop in 1988. Connell, 76, was elevated to cardinal last year.

Diocesan officials say they are frustrated by the backlash against Connell since he was actually among the first leaders in Ireland's church to recognize the damage these cases were causing, and was the first prelate in Ireland to move to deal forcefully with the problem by establishing guidelines in 1995.

As in Boston, where the church scandal has engulfed Cardinal Bernard F. Law, Connell has found himself at the center of the storm. For many Irish viewers of the documentary, Connell has come to embody the hierarchy -- secretive, arrogant, and seemingly indifferent to the plight of victims.

Mary Curtin, a producer who went on leave from RTE to work as a press officer for the diocese, has found herself trying to defend an embattled Connell.

"Let's face it, he's not media friendly, to put it mildly," she said of Connell, who was a metaphysics lecturer before becoming archbishop and is favored by the Vatican for his conservative theology. "He's lectured to students his whole life but hasn't realized you can't lecture to the media."

While careful to point out that "the media has provided a very important public service in bringing these issues to light," Curtin said that the documentary painted with a broad brush.

"They took 50 years of cases and dropped them on Des Connell's doorstep," she said.

The documentary was not the first to reveal the depths of the problem of priest pedophiles. An investigative television report in 1999 on widespread sexual and physical abuse of children by clergy in state welfare institutions administered by the church created the first angry wave.

This time, the government is responding to a rising public demand for justice in a country where Catholicism and nationalism are intertwined. Michael McDowell, the minister for justice, announced last week that he would set up a state inquiry into the church's history of sex-abuse cases and the failure of senior clerics to report the cases to police over many decades.

"I will follow this where it goes, how high it goes, or how low it goes," McDowell told Parliament.

In April, the bishop in the southern Irish diocese of Ferns, Brendan Comiskey, was forced to resign after a BBC television documentary made clear he had long known of the activities of a pedophile priest. A church-backed probe into the Ferns scandal and a "national audit" of the wider scandals was set up in July, headed by former judge Gillian Hussey. It will report in 2004.

Connell angered many in Ireland recently when he implied that the Ferns investigation was sufficient and seemed to be dismissive of the state investigation. He infuriated his critics further when he said that "because of the stricture imposed on him by canon law," he would have to let his conscience be his guide in determining whether he would release church documents to the state inquiry.

Still, for victims and their advocates, the events of recent weeks have been a breakthrough.

"We've asked the government for 41/2 years for the inquiry we're now going to have," said Andrew Madden, the first victim to go public in Ireland in 1995. "It's taken a long time, but it seems, finally, that Ireland has been dragged to its feet and made to stand up to this."

In Ballyfermot, nearly every person out of about two dozen interviewed at Our Lady of the Assumption had a friend, a brother, or a cousin who had been abused by Walsh.

He was a popular priest, famous for his hip-grinding Elvis Presley imitations in a traveling priest talent show, before it was revealed that he was a pedophile and before he was convicted on 10 counts of rape.

"It's hurt all of us," said Sinclair, who said that one of her own sons at the age of 8 had narrowly escaped a sexual attack by Walsh. Only recently, she said, did her son tell her about the incident. She had always wondered why her son had drifted away from religion, and now she says she understands his cynicism, even contempt.

"It's a hurt that will be with us for a very long time," she said, leaving church and turning into the gray morning as a cold rain started to fall on Ballyfermot.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 11/11/2002.
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