The Irish Catholic Church and the sexual abuse scandal – the public’s disillusion with a religious institution

Term Paper, 2011

16 Pages, Grade: 1,7


1. Introduction:

In the introduction to his book ”Moral Monopoly - The Catholic Church in Modern Irish Society“ , Tom Inglis writes:

„Ireland is an island tot he extreme north-west of Europe. One of the first impressions of the country that marks it out as different from other Western societies is that the Catholic Church is a strong and active force in everyday life. Visitors are impressed by the pious devotion of the people. They see the crowded churches on Sundays, with sometimes six or more masses being said to accommodate the numbers who attend. They see people stopping whatever they are doing when they hear the Angelus. They see thousands of people making annual pilgrimages to various shrines, mountains and wells. [….]. It is as if the Irish have always been a holy and religious people who are devoted to the Roman Catholic Church.“1

Inglis first published his work in 1987. Looking at the situation of the Catholic Church today - 24 years later - one can still say that it still has a great influence on Irish society, especially compared to other European countries were the process of secularisation started much earlier and had a greater impact. However, the power of the Catholic Church and especially the moral monopoly it held in Ireland for centuries is now in rapid decline. As it is always the case with developments like these, there are numerous reasons for this decline. In this essay, my focus will be on one particular aspect which resulted in many believers losing their obedience to the Church‟s teaching: The Catholic sexual abuse scandal which started in the 1990s, while many of the abuse cases revealed then date much further back. Let us take a brief look into the history of the church/state relations in Ireland in order to better understand the background of the scandal: After the Irish famine, the Catholic Church emerged as a powerful force in Ireland and it has continued to exert tremendous influence in Irish politics and society. In the early years of the Irish Free State, governments treied very hard to prove their loyalty and commitment to the Catholic hierarchy. In 1930 the Irish government established diplomatic relations with the Vatican, and in elections President W.T.

Cosgrave made much of his government‟s close relationship with the church. Following a change in governments in 1932, Eamon de Valera, the head of the new Fianna Fail government, publicly declared his intention to govern “in accordance with the principles enunciated in the encyclicals of Pope Pius XI on the Social Order.” Later in the decade, he shared drafts of the 1937 Constitution with the Catholic hierarchy, ensuring that the finished document fully embraced Catholic social teaching. The constitution recognised the “special position” of the Catholic Church in Irish Society, stopping just short of declaring Catholicism a „National‟ religion. Unlike the separation of powers in the United States and other countries, Church and State were inextricably linked in Ireland throughout the twentieth century.2

Given this strong link, the impact of the abuse scandal on both Church and State was enormous. How did the public learn about the scandal? Who was involved? What exactly were the clerics involved accused of? And, most importantly, what long term effect did the scandal have on the Irish Catholic Church?

2. The abuse scandal - an overview

The Catholic sexual abuse scandal in Ireland is a major chapter in the worldwide Catholic sexual abuse scandal. Unlike in the United States, in Ireland it included cases of well-known clerics who were found to be involved in illicit heterosexual relations as well as widespread physical abuse of children in church-run childcare institutions.

Starting in the 1990s, a series of criminal cases and Irish government enquiries established that hundreds of priests had abused thousands of children in previous decades. In many cases, the abusing priests were moved to other parishes to avoid embarrassment or a scandal, assisted by senior clergy. By 2010 a number of in- depth judicial reports had been published, but with relatively few prosecutions.

In March 2010, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a pastoral letter of apology to address all victims of the abuse that was carried out by Catholic clergy. The BBC reported:

“Pope Benedict XVI has apologised to victims of child sex abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland.

In a pastoral letter to Irish Catholics, he acknowledged the sense of betrayal in the Church felt by victims and their families. The Pope said there had been "serious mistakes" among bishops in responding to allegations of paedophilia. The pastoral letter is the first statement of its kind by the Vatican on the sexual abuse of children. It follows revelations of paedophilia within the Irish Catholic Church, which have rocked the institution.“3

So what exactly were the revelations of peadophila, which, in the words of the BBC report “rocked the institution”? Before we take a closer look at some cases, one should remember that until the 1980s the accepted norm in the Irish Church was that its priesthood was celibate and chaste, and homosexuality was a sin as well as a crime. The Church forbade its members to use artificial contraception, campaigned strongly against laws allowing abortion and divorce, and publicly disapproved of unmarried cohabiting couples and illegitimacy. It is for this reason that it came as a relatively big surprise when the Irish media started to reveal allegations of lapses in these areas in the priesthood itself.

3. Examples of lapses and abuse cases Niall Molloy

In July 1985 the corpse of Father Molloy was found in the bedroom of the wealthy Flynn family at Clara, County Offaly. This led to many speculative and unanswered questions about the nature of his relationship with the family. Mr. Flynn was prosecuted for manslaughter and was acquitted on the judge's direction. An inquest jury then found that Molloy “died as a result of acute brain hemorrhage consistent with having suffered a serious injury to the head". The police refused to reopen the case. Both hearings led to considerable press coverage, but the Church made no comment.

In December 2001, the Irish Independent reported on ongoing attempts to reveal what happened on the night in question and on the death of one of the central figures for the examinations:

“Ian Maher would raise his arm to show a gold Favre-Leuba watch with a gold bracelet, stopped permanently at 10.40pm. The watch belonged to his uncle, Fr Niall Molloy, and the time, Ian Maher believed, told the moment that the priest was killed in the bedroom of businessman Richard Flynn and his wife Therese.The death of Fr Molloy in Kilcoursey House, Clara, Co Offaly, only hours after the society wedding of one of the Flynn daughters, and the unanswered questions that remained is still one of the great enigmas of modern Ireland.

Last Sunday Ian Maher, a nephew of Fr Molloy, died at his home in Bray, Co Wicklow. As a representative of the Molloy family, he played a central role in the inquests that followed, the abortive manslaughter trial of Richard Flynn, which collapsed on the direction of Judge T.F. Roe, and the ongoing campaign find out what happened that night.“4

Michael Cleary

In 1993, it was revealed that Father Michael Cleary had fathered two children with his long-time housekeeper. It emerged that Cleary lived with his common-law wife and son while pretending that he was merely giving employment and assistance to her. Phyllis Hamilton was a patient of Dr. Browne in St. Loman's hospital. Later, she conceived two children with Fr. Micheal Cleary while she was living as his housekeeper. More than many other priests, Cleary had stressed that the Catholic teaching - especially with regard to sexual conduct - had to be obayed under all circumstandes. An article in the Independent takes a closer look at Cleary‟s double standards:


1 Tom Inglis, Moral Monopoly - The Catholic Church in Modern Irish Society, Dublin 1987, p.1

2 See paper by Robert J. Savage_ James M. Smith : Sexual Abuse and the Irish Church: Crisis and Responses.

3 “Pope Benedict apologises for Irish priests' sex abuse", BBC News. 20 March 2010. Retrieved 21 March 2010.

4 Irish Independent article, 30 Dec 2001

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The Irish Catholic Church and the sexual abuse scandal – the public’s disillusion with a religious institution
University of Koblenz-Landau
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Jeanine Seifert (Author), 2011, The Irish Catholic Church and the sexual abuse scandal – the public’s disillusion with a religious institution, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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