Adrift from the church they loved so well

By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / April 10, 2011

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WESTPORT, Ireland — Matt Malloy’s pub is lively with chatter and fiddle music as Maurice White holds out his palms. The striations are 45 years old, scars he says came from leather belts and canes wielded by his Christian Brothers teachers.

White never goes to church anymore. He started drifting away at 23, when a priest balked at marrying him and his wife-to-be because they were living together. Years later, someone asked him whether, as a child, he had known anyone who was abused. Answering the question dug up long-buried memories.

“When we were growing up . . . you believed in the church, more so than you believed in God,’’ he said, declining to discuss who asked or what he remembered. “Now the whole thing is transformed. You believe in God, but you don’t believe in the church, and what the church has done.’’

White is just one of many people in this quintessentially Catholic nation whose connection to the church has been frayed by the clergy sexual abuse crisis, a catastrophe of historic proportions that has exacerbated a growing rift between the church and contemporary Irish society.

Weekly Mass attendance has dropped from above 90 percent to around 45 percent since the mid-1970s, according to some surveys. Although that’s still twice as high as the current figure for US Catholics, it is a dramatic change for a country whose history and culture is so deeply entwined with the church, and whose emigrants and missionaries helped spread Catholicism around the globe.

Many Catholics here moved away from the church gradually, for reasons having as much to do with socioeconomic trends as the abuse scandal. In little more than 40 years, Ireland has evolved from an isolated outpost without free high school education or much modern industry to a cosmopolitan European society.

Critical thinking and individualism have supplanted dogma and conformity as social values, and even some priests have become critical of the church’s traditional clerical culture. There are signs, too, that many Irish want a richer spiritual experience than the Catholic church they grew up with.

“The sexual abuse crisis has been the catalyst for a much deeper question that was emerging anyway — it’s the whole question of faith, of what it means to be a Christian. Do we believe all of what we profess?’’ said Mary Connolly, a liturgist for the Archdiocese of Tuam, which includes Westport, and a parishioner at St. Mary’s Church. “It’s kind of an awakening of a post-modern society. . . . We all have a choice now.’’

Westport is a picturesque town of about 5,000 on Ireland’s west coast, surrounded by rolling hills, beaches, and dramatic ocean vistas. A planned community designed by the well-known 18th-century architect James Wyatt, it is the proud repeat winner of Ireland’s Tidiest Town competition. Streets lined with brightly painted storefronts slope down to the Carrowbeg River, bordered by a tree-lined mall and crossed by stone bridges.

The town’s natural beauty has made it a haven for tourists and artists, but it is also home to several large employers, including Allergan Pharmaceuticals Ireland, a subsidiary of the US company that makes Botox. The diverse combination of industries has helped it weather the country’s devastating economic recession relatively well. It has also made Westport less homogenous; natives rub elbows with visitors and recent transplants — “blow-ins,’’’ as they are called — at the pubs and shops.

The town has a special connection to Catholic history. In the fifth century, St. Patrick is said to have fasted for 40 days and nights on the summit of Croagh Patrick, a low mountain outside town that Catholics still climb in a prayerful pilgrimage the last Sunday of July. The town is also part of the parish to which Boston’s Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley traces his ancestry; the church’s troubles here illustrate the challenges he is confronting in his Vatican-assigned role helping the Irish church through the abuse crisis.

At St. Mary’s, elderly parishioners like Joe McNally, 86, well remember the days when the stone church at the center of town was the focal point of community life. Daily Mass was packed, virtually everyone went to confession and Sunday Mass, and families prayed the Rosary together. Priests were all-powerful figures who warned against socializing with Protestants.

“It was every mother’s dream to have a son a priest,’’ McNally said one morning after Mass.

Today, St. Mary’s still draws a healthy crowd each week; close to 300 people attend daily Mass, and 10 times that number go on Sundays. But the pews are not as full as they once were, and young singles and families are scarce.

The number of priests is dwindling too. Only two men have been ordained in the entire archdiocese since 2000. Four men are preparing for ordination, but two dozen priests have died since 2005, and the average age of priests is 63, according to the archdiocese.

“It’s very weak,’’ McNally said of the state of the church today, shaking his head. “They can’t afford the exposures of these pedophiles and everything else.’’

The clergy sexual abuse crisis has been part of the national dialogue since the mid-1990s, when the mishandling of the extradition of the notorious pedophile priest Brendan Smyth to face trial in Northern Ireland brought down a government.

But two years ago, a pair of reports — one into sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Dublin, the other into abuse in the church-run industrial schools for poor, orphaned, and neglected children — seared horrific images into the public consciousness.

One included a 110-page account of abuse at the Letterfrack Industrial School, a now-defunct institution located about 30 miles southwest of Westport. It described in vivid detail how young boys were humiliated, kicked, slapped, molested, sprayed with cold water, and beaten bloody. One of the Christian Brothers who ran the school admitted forcing a child to eat his own excrement.

Ann Colbert, a 77-year-old parishioner of St. Mary’s, said she and her husband, Gerard, 83, were “absolutely stunned’’ when the reports were released.

“I was glad my mother was dead, because she would have been out of her mind,’’ she said.

Unlike the Archdiocese of Dublin, the Archdiocese of Tuam has not been the subject of a comprehensive government investigation into clergy sexual abuse, nor have there been any highly publicized clergy abuse cases here, townspeople said.

But there is talk — of suicides rumored to be related to clergy abuse, of a priest who worked here decades ago and was later accused of abuse elsewhere.

The scandal has clearly alienated some. Mike Keating, 34, who moved to the area recently with his wife, said he greatly admires certain aspects of his Catholic heritage. But he does not attend St. Mary’s.

“There are a lot of people my age in Ireland who would be very happy to get back into going to church,’’ he said. “We were all raised that way. But with the recent scandals and all, that’s tough. We’re all turned off.’’

And yet the dramatic changes that have occurred in Ireland over the last 30 years may have had an even greater effect. In the 1970s and ’80s, Ireland became more economically and culturally engaged with the rest of the world, and the country began to grow wealthier and better-educated.

Those who came of age then, many of whom resented the strict regimes they grew up with in Catholic schools, began to ask deeper questions about their faith that the church seemed unprepared to answer, according to interviews with academics, priests, and laypeople. Not long after they started families of their own, the abuse crisis hit.

Eoin O’Donnell, a 48-year-old musician, stopped going to Mass as a teenager. It seemed to him that the church had a stranglehold on families, that priests intruded too much into people’s private lives.

His wife, Anne Faulkner, a psychotherapist, attended a boarding school run by the Sisters of Mercy, where students were required to attend services at 6 each morning. She stopped going to Mass as a young adult, deciding she disliked “the guilt side of it, and the treatment of women in the church.’’ Today she says she will no longer enter a Catholic church, not even for a social occasion like a christening.

“Why would you give your energy to something you believe is so negative?’’ her husband said.

Many Catholics, on the other hand, have stuck with the church despite the searing disappointment they have felt in the last couple of years. The Colberts were in agony over the revelations of abuse. And yet, when they prayed together about what they should do, the answer was always clear. “This is what we have known since childhood,’’ Ann Colbert said.

“It would never enter my head to leave the church,’’ her husband agreed.

Yet the Colberts have something in common with younger people who feel alienated from Catholicism: The church does not fully meet their spiritual needs. Though they praise their priest for his kindness and industriousness, the Colberts said the Catholic Church has left them hungry for a more intimate discussion about faith. They depend on St. Mary’s for the sacraments, but they have looked elsewhere for more — to close friends who share their love of prayer, and, for some years, to an interdenominational Pentacostal-style breakfast group.

“What is the greatest commandment? ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God,’ ’’ Gerard Colbert said. “And they never tell you how you approach that, how you come to love the Lord.’’

A number of younger people interviewed in Westport said the church’s focus on ritual and abstract theology had left them cold. Hilary Kiely, 37, paused as she read a storybook to her 3-year-old son, Malachy, at the Westport library.

“We light candles every night, don’t we? And we talk to God,’’ she said. “We wouldn’t go to Mass or anything like that. But I’d be quite close to God, and he would too.’’

Whether the church can find a new crop of gifted priests and tap into this latent desire for spiritual connection remains to be seen. But there are signs in Westport that it is trying. A lay-led prayer service has replaced the 8 a.m. Mass twice a week. Efforts are being made to reach out to young people.

Connolly, the Archdiocese of Tuam liturgist, hopes the future church will be a healthier institution, a strong Catholic community built on religious conviction rather than social convention, and one where empowered and engaged laypeople reinvigorate parish life. “I feel that this reform that’s happening is so badly needed,’’ Connolly said. “But I’m hoping it’s not too late.’’

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at

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