Words of pain, contrition in O’Malley’s Irish service

Cardinal, archbishop ask abuse victims for forgiveness

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin washed the feet of eight abuse victims at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin washed the feet of eight abuse victims at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin. (John Mcelroy for The Boston Globe)
By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / February 21, 2011

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DUBLIN — Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin lay prostrate before a bare altar as the packed cathedral watched in silence.

They listened as lectors read long sections of government reports detailing horrific abuse of children in Dublin parishes and church-run industrial schools.

Then O’Malley and Martin washed the feet of eight abuse victims. Several wept as Martin poured water from a large pitcher and O’Malley knelt and dried them with a white terry cloth towel.

“We want to be part of a church that puts survivors, the victims of abuse, first — ahead of self-interest, reputation, and institutional needs,’’ O’Malley said.

O’Malley, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, is in Ireland at the request of Pope Benedict XVI, who has charged him with conducting a review of the response to sexual abuse by the Archdiocese of Dublin.

At yesterday’s “Liturgy of Lament and Repentance,’’ held at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, he and Martin each asked God and abuse victims for forgiveness in unusually specific terms.

“On behalf of the Holy Father, I ask forgiveness, for the sexual abuse of children perpetrated by priests, and the past failures of the church’s hierarchy, here and in Rome — the failure to respond appropriately to the problem of sexual abuse,’’ said O’Malley, who wore the brown habit of his Capuchin order. “Publicly atoning for the church’s failures is an important element of asking the forgiveness of those who have been harmed by priests and bishops, whose actions — and inactions — gravely harmed the lives of children entrusted to their care.’’

Martin, dressed in a simple black cassock, thanked those who had the courage to speak about their abuse.

“The first step towards any form of healing is to allow the truth to come out,’’ said Martin, who became archbishop in 2004 and has been highly critical of his predecessors’ handling of abuse cases.

“The truth will set us free, but not in a simplistic way,’’ he said. “The truth hurts. The truth cleanses, not with designer soap, but with a fire that burns and hurts and lances.’’

Martin added that there is more reckoning to come, saying, “there is still a long path to journey in honesty before we can truly merit forgiveness.’’

Announced only days ago, the service was not heavily publicized. Nonetheless, the church was full, drawing about 400 people on a dark, drizzly afternoon.

Angela McParland, 57, said she heard about the service yesterday morning and decided, without quite knowing why, to come.

“I know it’s a terrible thing, and we need to try to understand it,’’ she said of the abuse crisis.

The service was written largely by victims of sexual abuse who participated in the liturgy.

Among them was the Rev. Paddy McCafferty, a priest originally from Belfast who said he was abused as a young seminarian; he said he was startled by the emotion that overcame him during the foot-washing ceremony.

“It was very powerful,’’ he said. “It’s the beginning. We’re only starting on the road to healing. And please God, today has been a significant event for people.’’

He said he hoped that the service had helped the worshipers and other victims.

“There’s still an awful lot of anger and hurt, which is understandable and we have to sit with that,’’ he said. “Bit by bit. Gently, gently does it.’’

The service included long stretches of soft, airy music, and readings from Scripture and prayer.

“Lord, we are so sorry for what some of us did to your children: treated them so cruelly, especially in their hour of need,’’ the congregation prayed after each reading from the government reports. “We have left them with a lifelong suffering.’’

A handful of protesters ridiculed the service as ecclesiastical theater. Among them was Paddy Doyle, one of the first abuse victims to go public with his story in his 1988 autobiography “The God Squad,’’ his account of suffering severe physical and sexual abuse at a church-run industrial school.

Doyle said he had been invited to have his feet washed, but he declined.

“It’s a stunt,’’ he said. “Another stunt by the Catholic Church to absolve itself of the rape and abuse of children all over the world.’’

The service was disrupted several times by victims who interrupted to speak.

The first such case occurred minutes after the service began, when a man strode down the center aisle and asked the musicians to stop playing for a moment.

The man, Robert Dempsey, spoke for five minutes about being sexually abused in a church-run mental institution as a child, waiting endlessly for his case to be heard in court, and being mistreated by police.

“What the hell did I do wrong as a child?’’ he said. “What the hell did any of us do?’’

When he said he had pictures proving his story to give to Martin, Martin came and stood by his side. And when he finished, the cathedral burst into applause.

A while later, an elderly man made his way to the microphone from the middle of the pews.

He gave a terse account of how, as a child in a church-run school, he was thrown into a cold bath and then brought into another room, “frozen, naked, and terrified.’’

He was forced to climb a ladder, and with each step, he was lashed with a whip.

“May God forgive them,’’ he said.

The congregation applauded again — and again a bit later, when a young man spoke in remembrance of those who had committed suicide as a result of abuse.

“I was delighted it was interrupted,’’ said a woman who would allow only her middle name, Bridget, to be used because her work would soon involve church-run organizations and she feared professional repercussions. “It brought the reality and the edge of pain to something that could be, despite Diarmuid Martin’s words and Cardinal O’Malley’s words at the end, just a smoothing-over experience.’’

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at