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Catholic Ireland Struggles with Response to Child Sex Abuse Scandals

May 11, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Special correspondent Saul Gonzalez reports from Ireland, where the Catholic Church continues to reel from the allegations and resignations surrounding the child sex abuse scandal.

JIM LEHRER: Next: the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

Today, Pope Benedict made his strongest public comment so far. He spoke en route to Portugal, and he blamed the church’s own sins for what has happened.

POPE BENEDICT XVI, leader of Catholic Church (through translator): Attacks against the pope and the church not only come from outside, but that suffering of the church should come from internally, from the sins that exist in the church, I see this as truly terrifying.

The greatest persecution of the church doesn’t come from enemies on the outside, but is born from the sins within the church. The church needs to profoundly relearn penitence, accept purification, and learn forgiveness, but also justice.

JIM LEHRER: The pope’s remarks followed a surge in reports of abuse by priests in Europe, of course.

Special correspondent Saul Gonzalez reports on that fallout from those scandals in Ireland.

SAUL GONZALEZ: At a pub in North Dublin, far from the city’s tourist haunts, regulars gather to drinks pints of Guinness and talk about everything from rugby to politics. As in the rest of Ireland, there’s also a lot of discussion about the country’s clerical sex abuse scandals and what should be done with pedophile priests.

MAN: They should be all hung.

SAUL GONZALEZ: They should all be hung?

MAN: Yes.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Many here have their own stories of clergy abusing children while they were growing up.

Patrick Harris’ involves two childhood friends on his soccer team molested by a neighborhood priest.

PATRICK HARRIS, Ireland: He took the money and brought two boys down to (INAUDIBLE) for a weekend. And we — the rest of the football team was supposed to be going away.

SAUL GONZALEZ: He took two kids away…

PATRICK HARRIS: Two youngsters away down to (INAUDIBLE)…

SAUL GONZALEZ: To another place.

PATRICK HARRIS: To another place to abuse them.

SAUL GONZALEZ: And abused them.

PATRICK HARRIS: Yes, abuse them.

MAN: We are called to partnership with Jesus Christ.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Ireland, which is 87 percent Catholic, has been grappling with the issue of clerical sex abuse for more than a decade. However, in recent months and weeks, there have been new shocks and developments.

Reports sponsored by the government have detailed sexual and physical abuse of thousands of Irish children by Catholic institutions and in the Dublin Archdiocese, the resignation of three Irish bishops accused of mishandling abuse cases and a letter from Pope Benedict distributed at all Catholic parishes in Ireland personally apologizing to abuse victims.

MARIE COLLINS, sex abuse victims advocate: The people are very angry. The people have had their eyes opened. The lid is off the can of worms.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Marie Collins, herself a victim of childhood rape by a priest, is an advocate for clerical sex abuse victims in Ireland.

MARIE COLLINS: Whereas, in the past, people didn’t want to believe that the church was behaving as they were, I think now we’re at the point where the people do believe it. They’re angry with the church. They’re angry with the bishops. They have lost trust and respect for the Catholic Church.

ANDREW MADDEN, sex abuse victim: It’s a change of attitude that’s required. And, really, I think it’s a change of personnel. I don’t believe the people who are there are capable of — of changing.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Andrew Madden was the first victim of clerical sex abuse in Ireland to go public with his experiences in 1995.

ANDREW MADDEN: Well, I was an altar boy in our local church in the ’70s. I was sexually abused by the local — one of the local priests, Father Ivan Payne, for about two-and-a-half years. When I was 17, I reported him to a schoolteacher. And he was eventually moved from the parish.

SAUL GONZALEZ: He had access to other children?

ANDREW MADDEN: Of course he had. And then other people came forward. And he was eventually convicted of abusing 10 boys over a 20-year period.

SAUL GONZALEZ: As in other countries, such transferring of pedophile priests from parish to parish was common in Ireland. Church leaders now say they’re aware of the pain and anger they have helped cause and are engaged in institutional soul-searching.

What have the last few years been like for Catholic priests, rank-and-file Catholic priests in this country, in the wake of the scandals?

FATHER MICHAEL DRUMM, Catholic Schools Partnership: Of course, this has most a most difficult time. I mean, arguably, it’s the most difficult time in our history.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Father Michael Drumm is both a parish priest and the director of Catholic education in Ireland.

FATHER MICHAEL DRUMM: Oh, you would feel totally dispirited on the one hand, ashamed on the other, and deeply perturbed about what happened. I suppose the biggest question of all is, how could a system that was intent on serving people go so astray? That is the fundamental question.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Marie Collins thinks it’s because of the insular culture of Catholic leadership.

MARIE COLLINS: It’s an all-male group of people who have exactly the same training, exactly the same beliefs, and they reinforce each other. And they live in this bubble. And I think they have completely lost touch with the ordinary man in the street.

SAUL GONZALEZ: The Irish Catholic Church says it’s now trying to ensure that few, if any, children are ever abused by clergy again.

IAN ELLIOTT, Office For Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church: Very simply, we have one single aim. And that is to safeguard children in the Catholic Church in Ireland.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Ian Elliott, an expert on child welfare issues and a Presbyterian, has been selected by Ireland’s Catholic Church to develop child abuse safeguards and reporting standards.

IAN ELLIOTT: Now, with this new system in place, if you go to the back of any church in Ireland, you will find contact details for the parish safeguarding representative for that parish, the telephone number for the national office.

SAUL GONZALEZ: And do you actively investigate, your office? Or do you turn it over to civil authorities?

IAN ELLIOTT: Civilian authorities. In the first instance, we communicate with the (INAUDIBLE) with Gardai and state-run child protection services.

SAUL GONZALEZ: The Gardai being the police.

IAN ELLIOTT: The Gardai being the police, exactly. We alert them in every situation. We also, from a church point of view, ensure that any church issues are dealt with. If the alleged person is a member of the clergy, then we speak to their bishop with regard to removing them from ministry on a precautionary suspension basis, until the investigation has been completed.

DAVID QUINN, director, Iona Institute: The scandals are not happening as they happened in the past.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Conservative Irish newspaper columnist David Quinn is also director of the Iona Institute, a Catholic think tank. He believes the Irish church doesn’t get enough credit for reforming itself.

DAVID QUINN: People still have the impression that the scandals are burning out of control and that abuse is as prevalent in the church as it would have been in the 1970s and ’80s. People generally don’t know yet that the church has had, you know, good, solid child protection standards in place for at least the last 15 years, and they’re being improved all the time.

SAUL GONZALEZ: However, the past remains an issue. There’s growing pressure for Ireland’s Catholic leader, Cardinal Sean Brady, to resign.

CARDINAL SEAN BRADY, Irish Catholic leader: I’m deeply grateful to the Holy Father for his profound kindness and concern.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Because, in 1975, he helped hide the identity of an abusive priest who went on to abuse dozens of other children. Some in Ireland want even more heads to roll.

SINEAD O’CONNOR, musician: I want the entire of the regime to go. The entire of the top echelons of the Vatican should be fired, every single one of them.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Singer Sinead O’Connor has protested clerical child abuse and the church’s response for years.

SINEAD O’CONNOR: There should be a criminal investigation of the Vatican, criminal investigation of the pope. He should stand down. The rest should be fired and face prosecution.

Anyone who was an accessory by silence to the crime of child abuse and to reckless endangerment of children should be prosecuted, simple as that. Why is it that they can live by their laws, and not the laws that the rest of us are expected to live by? It — it makes no sense.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Meanwhile, some of Ireland’s parishes are trying new things to raise the spirits of demoralized congregations and give the church a new image.

At Dublin’s Gardiner Street Church, that effort is championed by a choir that belts out pop tunes, not hymns, at Sunday mass. Congregants hope anger at Catholic leaders won’t completely overshadow the church’s good works.

JOANNA SMITH, Ireland: I can completely empathize with people who have had a bad experience, and that that would completely turn them off the church. What I suppose my — my message to people would be, don’t let — or try not to let, you know, the scandals sort of blacken the entire church, because there’s so much good going on.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Beyond testing their faith, Catholic sex scandals have also hit the pocketbooks of the Irish people. Because of its failure to investigate and punish mistreatment of children in Catholic institutions, the government has paid out over a billion taxpayer dollars to victims of clerical abuse.

GWEN IFILL: Saul’s segment was produced in collaboration with HDNet.