Losing Our Religion

 
 

Five years on and the revelations of the Ferns Report are still frighteningly relevant, writes Kate Rothwell

Five years ago, in October 2005, a report was released that would shock and appal the Irish nation in a way that was previously unimaginable. The Ferns Report detailed the findings of the Ferns Inquiry, a team established by the Minster for Health and Children in 2003 in order to investigate, as stated in the report, “allegations or complaints of child sexual abuse which were made against clergy operating under the aegis of the Diocese of Ferns”. The report identified more than 100 allegations of child sexual abuse made against 21 priests between the years 1962 and 2002.

Some local papers in the County Wexford area took on the task of being the bearers of the worst possible news, and published the report in full. Forty years of silence had finally been broken. There was no denying, no avoidance of the fact that heinous and irreparable wrongs had been done to those who had suffered at the hands of paedophiles masquerading under the then-trusted title of priest. The publication of the report itself was however, just the tip of the iceberg.

Victims of clerical sex abuse finally knew that they were not alone and that they could speak of the horror they had experienced. Be it ten, twenty, thirty years ago, or within the last number of weeks, their story could be heard and acknowledged. Two days after the publication of the report, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre already had an increase of 30 per cent in calls to its counselling helpline. The following day, charity One in Four reported an increase of 70 per cent in calls to its office.

Those who had been abused could now let their story be heard. But a just punishment of those who ruined their childhoods can never be calculated, let alone administered, not least because six of the priests named in the report had died before any allegations were made against them.

It was, if possible, even more shocking to discover that the perpetrators were not the only ones at fault. People in positions of power, such as the Gardaí and the health authorities, were unsuccessful in doing their duty of paying heed to complaints and protecting vulnerable members of society.

The failure of ‘the powers that be’ in the Catholic Church to stop known abusers from being free to repeat their offences, and the revelations in last year’s Murphy report of abuse being covered up by the Dublin Catholic archdiocese and other church and state authorities, stunned the nation once again. Earlier that year, the Ryan report brought to light the abuse suffered by those in Irish Catholic church-run industrial schools and orphanages.

After so many deplorable scandals, it is no surprise that a great number of Catholics, be they already lapsed or not, have decided that they no longer want to be associated with the Catholic Church.

The organisation Count Me Out made the process of defecting from the Catholic Church simpler by providing access to the necessary documentation on www.countmeout.ie. Over 12,000 people have downloaded the required documentation, but the service has recently been suspended due to a change in the canon law governing defections, which, at the time of going to press, had yet to be clarified.

A number of defections have not yet been processed, and the Church’s unclear status as to what this change means for those wishing to defect, hardly implies a fear of a mass exodus of members from the church. This battle that has already long been lost. Instead, it indicates a steep drop in the numbers that the Church can claim as making up its congregation, even if the last time some of them saw an altar was the day of their baptism.

“We are living in an increasingly secular society where religion is a choice rather than an assumed necessity, but at least there is safety in secularism”

That said, there are still many practicing Catholics who have retained their faith in the Catholic Church despite the actions of some of its clergy. Pope Benedict XVI was greeted by thousands of such believers on his recent visit to UK, a visit where his commentary on the child abuse scandal was yet again keenly anticipated.

The Pope has acknowledged the church’s failure in not being “sufficiently vigilant and not sufficiently quick and decisive to take the necessary measures” when dealing with reports of clerical sex abuse and extended sympathy to the victims, but as ever, an out-and-out apology was not to be found. Yet how can anyone expect an apology from a man who is elected to his position on the assumption that his teachings are without fault? Apologising doesn’t really fit the job description.

Catholicism has been a defining part of the Irish psyche, society and culture for hundreds of years, but in the twenty-first century, the Catholic Church has come to be defined by its gross and unforgivable failings, rather than by the faith of its members. Not everyone is pleased by the fact that we are living in an increasingly secular society where religion is a choice rather than an assumed necessity, but at least there is safety in secularism.

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