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The Irish State and the Catholic Church: The Ferns Report

Joe Craig 

24th November 2005

The inquiry into allegations of child abuse by the Catholic Church in the diocese of Ferns has just reported. Set up in April 2003, after mounting allegations by victims of abuse and media revelations, it is the latest of what is now a long line of exposures of an institution that was for long viewed as a fundamental pillar not just of the Irish State but of Irish national identity.

It has been published just over 40 years after the first complaint examined in the report during a period in which it is estimated that almost 10 per cent of priests in the diocese had allegations of child abuse levelled against them. In contrast a study of the Catholic Church in the US, which was supposed to have encountered unique difficulties, found that 4 per cent of priests – 4,450 out of 110,000 – had been accused of abuse between 1950 and 2002.

Since most allegations of abuse relate to the latter half of the period examined this figure of 10 per cent is almost certainly an underestimate. It is greater again when we appreciate the incentives that exist not to report such a painful experience.

Its depth matches the scale of abuse. This ranged from persistent molestation involving humiliation and terror, up to violent rape leaving children crying, bleeding and in acute physical pain. It has been reported that this has led in at least four cases to suicide.

Particular poignancy is given to all this by the moral authority claimed by the Catholic Church during this period. Still today it maintains a self-appointed role as guardian of the people’s moral well-being and rectitude. The evil and wicked are still regularly identified and condemned by an organisation that claims unique authority in all things moral due to an unbroken lineage from the son of god. Its authority is thus not only that of an ancient and venerable institution but of the creator of humankind and everything around it, of morality itself.

The exposure of abuse by the Church has been accomplished not through the limited enquiries of the State but primarily through the remarkable courage of the victims themselves without whom, it appears sometimes to be forgotten, media exposures could not have existed.

This has been both a strength and also a weakness. For while it has brought to the issue a determination not to be fobbed off with worthless expressions of regret it has also left both the State and Church open only to limited criticism. The wider power of the Church has not seriously been threatened despite prophecies from those within it that it faced ‘meltdown.’ Too often the issue has been posed as assignment of individual guilt and application of appropriate punishment through action by the State. This is partly explained by the utter failure on so many occasions of Church and State to allow either, but the wider institutional role of the Church, while it has been the subject of comment, has not been seriously threatened. The State itself has only recently come in for serious criticism.

Without appreciating the essential social role of the Catholic Church the solution boils down to Church and State adopting new policies and procedures to facilitate individuals being appropriately punished. These institutions are only in need of reform.

Ultimately the problem is then capable of recapture by the Catholic Church as one of individual evil, of the original fall of man and original sin. Catholic dogma can be confirmed again.

Socialists must demand that the political lessons that flow from the Ferns Report, and all the other exposures of Catholic Church abuse, are learnt and fought for. We will find that when we go beyond the argument that what is required is proper treatment of individual abusers both the Church and State will prove as united and aggressive as ever in defence of their long established alliance.


The problem for the Catholic Church (and State) is that the scale and nature of the abuse not only calls into question the notion that what is involved are individual failings but the more damning exposure of the response of the Church has left it open to credible charges that what is involved is an institutional problem.

The Ferns report makes clear that protests by the Catholic Church that it was unaware of abuse by priests until the last decade are false. The policy of shifting abusing priests around, or of promoting them once their abuse became a matter of local controversy, has been correctly described as one that could hardly be more calculated both to protect the abuser and promote further abuse.

In Ferns local bishops according to the report ‘placed the interests of individual priests ahead of those of the community.’ In 1966 when the abuse of young boys by Fr Donal Collins was made known to the then Bishop, Donal Herlihy, Collins was sent to England to do ‘penance’ only to return and eventually be promoted and placed in charge of St Peter’s School. Once in charge allegations began to be made of him forcing pupils into mutual masturbation and oral sex. Moreover Collins was not the only priest to have engaged in abuse and then been placed in a position of authority within a school.

Such actions, even rape, were viewed by the Church as examples of individual moral failing. Canon law, which governs the Church, states that priests guilty of paedophilia ‘may not be liable, by reason of at least diminished imputability, to any canonical penalty, or perhaps to only a mild penalty.’ ‘Only in exceptional circumstances’ should a priest, when first discovered abusing, perhaps be subject to this ‘mild penalty.’

The Bishop of Ferns, Brendan Comiskey, knew of credible allegations of molestation of 10 girls aged between 12 and 13 by Fr James Glennon yet he stood side by side with him at the altar at the confirmation of the children abused. He subsequently denied that two families had walked out of the church in protest.

Bishop Comiskey, who resigned before the inquiry began, is accused in the report of giving erroneous information about Collins to a Garda enquiry and failing to cooperate with an enquiry into the most notorious abuser, Fr Sean Fortune. When reminded of allegations against Msr. Ledwith, head of the College training priests, Comiskey said he had forgotten, after he had earlier stated he would swear he had heard of no such allegations. The inquiry found a similar conflict of evidence between the bishops and six seminarians who had furnished allegations to them. Even devout lay Catholics have protested at the treatment of Fr. McGinnity who was removed from his post after he reported allegations of abuse. A consistent pattern emerges of cover-up and lying by the hierarchy.

The prevalent but unsubstantiated view that such deceit lies in the past was undermined by the revelation that the inquiry nearly collapsed when it was discovered that documents relating to allegations against ten priests, which had only come to light after notification by a victim’s group, had not been made available. The allegations came too late for the Ferns inquiry to investigate because of an ‘error’ on the part of the diocese. The inquiry had been set up on a non-statutory basis because of promises by both the State and Church that there would be full cooperation and disclosure.

Far from the public revelations of abuse by priests being news to the Catholic hierarchy the report records that the Vatican was aware of the issue of child abuse from at least the 1960s and that the Dublin diocese had sought and was given legal advice on civil claims from 1987, seven years before exposure by the media. In fact the use of lawyers and hard-ball tactics by the church in cases brought against it has given the lie to its oft repeated intentions to openness and honesty and the priority of the victim over the abuser.

The view of the Vatican in 1962 was expressed in the document ‘Crimen Solicitanis’ issued to every bishop in the world instructing church officials, and even witnesses and complainants, to secrecy on pain of excommunication. American lawyers dealing with abuse in Boston uncovered a Vatican letter advising that a dismissed priest should be moved from where his condition was known but not if there wasn’t going to be any scandal. The current silence of the Vatican speaks volumes, even while it warns against the dangers of Harry Potter.

The actions of the Irish Church are similar to those in other countries. In the US priests were also sent to other countries to avoid prosecution while in Los Angeles Cardinal Mahoney has spent millions on lawyers trying to maintain the secrecy of church documents against the wishes of victims taking action against it. The attitude of the Vatican can be further illustrated by its actions in the case of Cardinal Bernard Law from Boston who protected abusing clergy but who, far from being punished, was given the position of archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, one of Rome’s most prominent churches, and elevated to the position of presiding over the second of nine daily masses following the death the Pope John Paul II. Only nine of 180 Cardinals were selected to do so.

When we consider all this along with the revelations – not only in Ireland – of systematic and brutal cruelty by Catholic orders in children’s and other homes run by the religious, we have an institution which from top to bottom, from one end of the world to another, has been widely and deeply involved in child and adult abuse and in desperate and dishonest attempts to hide the truth. The scale of the abuse and the reaction to it by all levels of the Church tear away any excuse that what has been involved are isolated or purely individual failings.


An immediate question asked has been how all this has been allowed to happen. Indeed almost as shocking as the actual abuse itself is the brazen manner in which it took place.

Fr James Doyle attacked a 12-year old boy in the bathroom of the boy’s own house while his father was downstairs. When the boy screamed the father ran up to see the priest pinning the boy into a corner with his hands on his private parts. Fr Sean Fortune attacked a boy in the front seat of his car while two elderly parishioners sat in the back! Fortune, having raped a boy, walked into the shop where the boy worked to announce out loud that he had had an AIDS test and the boy had nothing to worry about.

The Report argues that the vow of celibacy has significantly contributed to the problem and without doubt this denial of human sexuality is part of any explanation. But the rules on celibacy are only part of the Church’s teachings and practices which deny and oppress human sexuality and are centred round a misogynistic theology which would cease to be recognisably Catholic if all these aspects were stripped away. If widespread sexual abuse is at least a probable consequence of celibacy, celibacy is a natural feature of a deeply reactionary institution. If what we have been witness to is an abuse of power it is at least as important to examine the source of the power.

In an article in The Irish Times the liberal Fintan O’Toole argues that ‘the strut of power gave them a sense they could do whatever they liked, whenever they liked.’ The Ferns Report shows ‘the culpability of the State and the wider public.’ ‘The ‘brazenness of the predatory priests came from more than the knowledge that your superiors would protect you. It came, too, from the deference of lay people.’

Such an analysis contains clear elements of truth but the true sources of power are in effect exonerated on the grounds of diminished responsibility because others, amongst whom come the victims, bear their own share of responsibility for what has happened. In effect it is argued that the Catholic population of Ireland colluded in its own abuse. It reminds one of James Joyce’s description of the Irish as ‘the gratefully oppressed.’

The trouble with this analysis is that the only justifiable reaction can be one of shame, a promise not to let it all happen again. Once again it leads straight back into the arms of the Catholic Church which avows both apology and regret with a declaration that the Church is its people – how then can one attack oneself? Shame becomes very uncomfortable so the most devout and submissive, traits instilled diligently by the Church, engage in denial.

Thus we have the fact that the most vile abusers do not turn the faithful against them but cause division. One of the victims of Fr Sean Fortune recalls that while everyone in Poulfur knew about the allegations against him, ‘half of the village was pro-Fortune and the other half anti-Fortune.’ One set of parents, whose son after spending a weekend with Fortune returned having been raped so brutally that he could barely walk and with blood all over his clothes, thought allegations against a priest were terrible and did not understand them.

But what is this but an expression of internalisation of oppression? In such conditions militant lay Catholics could get away with demonstrating against one paper that reported allegations, the Wexford People, by burning copies of the paper and persuading local businesses not to advertise in it. On the other hand it is only because of the demands of the vast majority of Ireland’s Catholics that the State has taken what limited action it has.

Two Approaches

Karl Marx described religion as the ‘opium of the people’ and this has often been quoted without an understanding of what Marx meant. Left as a truncated quote it could easily be more accurately applied to the liberal position of the likes of O’Toole. But Marx was not particularly interested in condemning religion but in condemning the sort of world that needed religion.

‘Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation.  It is the opium of the people.’ The strength of Catholicism in Ireland has been the result of Ireland’s history of distress and protest against it but the heart of a heartless world cannot be other than rotten. Religion is no answer even spiritually. The abuse scandals have opened a window on a nation’s spirit that has been suffocated by a force which has crushed to the point of suicide the spirit of some of its youngest citizens.

A nation defined primarily by religion is less of a nation by that very fact, less able to develop the positive aspects of nationalism that now belong to history. The power of the Catholic Church was born out of the graves and famine ships that marked the country’s greatest disaster. The height of its power coincided not with the flowering of anything that could be called an Irish spirit but with speculation that the Irish were a dying ‘race’, evidenced through mass emigration and the suffocation of culture that marked the 1950s.

For Marx the criticism of religion had to turn to the criticism of politics and so must the socialist response to the sex scandals enveloping the Catholic Church. Like all forms of oppression it is the State that provides the key to unlocking the mechanism and system of oppression.

Irish liberalism is incapable of dealing with the cause of this oppression because its roots are in a system with which they have no fundamental disagreement. Without being able to identify the social system defended by the Irish State as the source of oppression, the weaknesses of the oppressed themselves are targeted along with the individuals who have transgressed.

The roots of child abuse by the Catholic Church lie not only in the teachings of the Church, however lacking in humanity, nor does the power of the Church consist mainly in what force it can wield itself, however outwardly formidable. The power of the Church rests in its alliance with the Irish State in the South and its comfortable arrangements with the imperialist State in the North. Without these we could speak of individual guilt and punishment, or of a reformed theology. With them it is the political system, including the Church as a political institution, that must be found guilty.

We will turn to the nature of that guilt in our next article.


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