The Catholic diocese of Raphoe has been in turmoil lately as the faithful in the area await the publication of a report that will reveal that 20 priests in the diocese abused hundreds of children over the past 35 years, and only a few priests were held accountable for their crimes.
The report, which has been prepared by the church-run National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church, has been presented to Bishop Philip Boyce and he has promised to make all the details of the report public.
Although Bishop Boyce is attempting to present the report as an example of a new open way of dealing with abuse complaints, critics of the clergy in Donegal accuse the bishop of refusing to deal with a widespread cover-up by the diocese over the years of criminal behavior among the clergy, and of refusing to accept responsibility for the crimes that had been committed.
Derek Mulligan, a victim who went public with complaints against the clergy, said that there were many more priests involved than those named in the report. He said the priest who abused him will not be named, and that he knows scores of victims who have named dozens of other priests who have not been exposed.
“Some victims have killed themselves,” he said. “Someone has to pray a price for that. I will be on hand the day the report is published, and I will have plenty of questions about if I do not like what I read.”
Retired Garda detective Martin Ridge, who was involved in the successful prosecution of one of these priests, has issued a statement that calls for complete honesty from the bishop.
“It is time to stop playing games. The genie is out of the bottle. Hundreds of lives have been ruined.”
The bishop has not responded to this demand but there is little doubt that he is being backed into a corner, and that there would appear to be no way for him to make a graceful exit.
Central to this whole situation is that Bishop Boyce and his predecessors are being held solely responsible for this long-running scandal because they enabled the perverted priests to continue with their crimes by transferring them from parish to parish once abuse complaints began.
But the reality is that the bishops were not the only ones who failed to protect the children: the parish priests who went along with the bishops were equally to blame as are those gardai who were aware of the situation but who refused to act unless their superiors
ordered them to act.
Also culpable are the local politicians who ignored all stories circulating in the county when they should have focused on the problem. And finally, responsibility rests with members of the laity in the diocese who were unable to confront the issue, even when they knew children were committing suicide over the abuse.
All of these groups were, by their silence and inaction, enabling the perverts to continue to prey on the young and turn their lives into a horror of insanity, drug abuse, and death. And only a major change in the attitude of the Catholics towards the hierarchy
will insure that this horror will not continue, and will never happen again.
The unusual relationship between Catholics and the clergy in Donegal has its roots in the overthrow of the Gaelic chieftains in the 17th century and the destruction of the Gaelic way of life. During the era of the chieftains the Catholic clergy had an important role in society, but ordinary priests had never the absolute control over parishioners that the clergy had in the 20th Century. The chieftains and their aides were always in charge, and the priests had to toe the line like every other resident of the area.
When the chieftains were exterminated by the British, and all other natural leaders of the Gaels fled abroad, it was only the few remaining clergy who evolved as the natural leaders. Their power grew with the passage of time.
When I was growing up in northwest Donegal in the 1940s and 50s, the priests had replaced the chieftains as the monarchs of all they surveyed. No politician could get elected if they were on the outs with the priests. All teachers in the primary schools were appointed by the parish priest. No dances were allowed during Lent. Any boy who got a girl pregnant had to marry the girl. It was a mortal sin to attend a funeral service in the local Protestant church.
Certain books and movies were banned. It was believed that a priest had supernatural powers, and it was also believed, fervently, that if God gave a priest a cross to bear, like an addiction to alcohol, that this priest had the power to heal the sick and give lasting peace to the insane. It was also believed that anyone who attacked or abused a priest was on a fast track to eternal damnation.
Given this attitude, which existed until recently, it was not too difficult to understand why parishioners would not be too willing to confront a priest even if they knew he was guilty of an obscene crime. A fear of their power, and a superstitious belief that the priests might consign them to Hell overruled common sense and enabled the abusive priests to continue with their perversions.
If parishioners throughout the diocese of Raphoe really want to protect their children in the future, each congregation must delegate and empower a parish council that will monitor all activities of the priests. The members of this council must be selected by the congregation, not by the priests.
A bishop can appoint priests to the parish, but these priests must be approved by the parish council, and each priest must undergo a thorough background check to insure that a problem priest is not being switched around the diocese. Parish councils around the diocese should be in constant contact with one another and develop dossiers on all church staff who might come in contact with children.
Such a change in parish management will be resisted by the bishop who would want to have absolute control over the clergy and all the other assets of the church. But these changes should occur, since the basic problem in this scandal is the abuse of power by the bishop and the clergy, and therefore this power must be taken away from them, for the good of the children, and the good of the church.
The Catholic hierarchy would have you believe that the church is comprised of the pope, the cardinals, the bishops and all the exotic buildings the church owns all over the world, and that the ordinary parishioner is just a spectator who is allowed to be part of this esteemed assembly once a week, providing he or she drops money on the collection plate.
This may or may not be true. However, another interpretation of the church is that the heart of the church is the believers who attend Mass each Sunday in each parish throughout the world. The priests in each congregation are like the Irish seanachie (traditional story tellers) who repeat the ancient tales handed down from generation to generation, and it is this combination of congregation and storyteller that is the only aspect of the church that the average Catholic can relate to – that and the Bible.
So where does that leave the bishops, the archbishops, the cardinals and the pope?
Their role is not immediately evident. They have played no role in solving the problems in the Diocese of Raphoe, and if the Catholics of Raphoe want to solve the problems confronting them they should take back control of their parishes and tell the troublesome priests to find a cure for what ails them.
Patrick Campbell is a former Irish Echo columnist and a current contributor to the op-ed pages.