The disgrace of the Holy Ghost Fathers

What follows is, per the Irish Times, a self-assessed accounting by the Spiritan Order in Ireland of the crimes against children committed by members of its order:

The Spiritan congregation, formerly the Holy Ghost Fathers, have disclosed that 233 men have made allegations of abuse against 77 Irish Spiritans in ministries throughout Ireland and overseas. Of that number, 57 men have alleged they were abused on the campus of Blackrock College in Dublin. The Spiritans also run three other colleges in Dublin, St Mary’s College in Rathmines, Templeogue College and St Michael’s, as well as Rockwell College in Co Tipperary.

Since 2004 the congregation has paid out over €5 million in settlements surrounding abuse claims and for support services, with 12 of those settlements made with 12 men in connection with abuse at Blackrock College.

It goes without saying that there are, and have always been, many decent and committed Priests. But it should also go without saying that abuse on this scale does not happen, and cannot take place, without some institutional awareness of it. One bad apple in the bunch? You might miss that. We’re talking in this instance about 77 allegedly bad apples. In one religious order, alone. The scale of it boggles the mind.

In the last week, this country has been convulsed to an absurd degree by the sermon of a Priest in Kerry on the issue of sexual morality and ethics. There was some bemusement – including, I admit, from me – that anyone would voluntarily go to mass and then walk out of mass at the first sign of Catholic Teaching on a controversial subject. Either you are a believer, or you are not.

But this story reminds us of another element to all of this: For some people in Ireland, Father Sean Sheehy’s message was offensive.

But for a great many more, the message is one thing, but it’s the messenger who is offensive.

That’s not a comment on Father Sheehy himself, who is by all accounts a faithful Priest. But who can blame an Irish person who reads stories like the one above, and feels that it’s a little bit rich for a Priest, of all people, to give lectures on, of all things, sexual morality?

The Church, I think, has yet to come to terms fully with the damage done to its moral authority by the sex abuse scandals. That might sound absurd – after all, the church is never only apologizing for those scandals. And, though this is rarely acknowledged by the media, the fact is that the Church is probably the institution in Ireland today with the least institutional tolerance for any kind of misbehavior.

The very least – and unsubstantiated – allegation against a Priest today is often enough to whip him off the Altar, even in cases where there is no criminal prosecution, or any prospect of one.

No, the damage done is more one of religious authority than moral authority, and those are not the same thing. The Church teaches – or used to teach, before the Bishop of Kerry’s sudden usurpation of Papal Authority last week – that sexual incontinence in general is a one-way ticket to hell. And yet, it is abundantly clear that a very great many Irish Priests and religious over the years either simply did not believe in hell, or had no fear of it. They were not just sexually incontinent – though a great many were – they were actively engaged in the sexual exploitation of children. It is not as simple as “they are sexual hypocrites”. It is that their actions undermine the very idea that those Priests – in huge, barely believable numbers – believed in God, or Hell, at all.

If you wanted to make an argument that there is no God and that the church is a racket, you couldn’t do much better than what almost every single Irish religious order managed to do. There seems to be a narrative amongst some Catholics in Ireland that Church attendance is falling because the Church has lost its way, or because sermons are dull, or because the mass has been traduced by modernism. As it happens, I think there’s something to that. But it’s not the whole story.

After all, it’s not as if the faithful have simply rejected the Church – they could have migrated, were that the case, to Anglican or Reformed or Evangelical Churches, which preach largely the same faith without, in most cases, the historical stains. No. It’s that the Church itself undermined faith in God – its core “product”, to use a marketing term.

Sometimes, when I write things like this, I get pushback from Catholic readers. I understand why – the Church, they reckon, has enemies enough without the likes of me piling on. If you want church-bashing in Ireland, you’re well served by the Irish Times, RTE, the Independent, and, well, everyone else. But acknowledging that there are those out there who revel in the Church’s shame is no reason to minimise that shame, or avoid talking of its consequences.

Talk to some Catholics about the failings of the Church over abuse, and you’ll get the usual well-intentioned and genuinely heartfelt recitals about how disgraceful it was. But some of those people mistake, I think, the damage to religious authority for something simpler – that it was merely damage to moral authority. As if it was only faith in the Church that was shaken by these scandals. When the truth is that it was faith in God that was shaken. Perhaps, for many people, irreparably.

And so that is how, I’d argue, you get things like Catholics walking out of a Catholic sermon at a Catholic mass in the face of Catholic teaching. Many people are still going to mass because they draw comfort from the readings and the sense of community and the remembrance of the dead, and so on. But a church that wants people to believe in hellfire and brimstone, and the concept of sin, and the way to live a moral life, might want to start, I’d suggest, by preaching that Priests that abused children are already down there, being prodded with firey forks. You know, alongside the single mothers and the harlots and the people who married Protestants. That was the Church of old, in the popular remembering. The Church of today seems to have rediscovered a forgiving God at a time that – and this is surely a coincidence, but an unfortunate one – is of great benefit to some of its own clergy.

Because the idea that God can forgive the Holy Ghost Fathers, but will hold a gay person to account for their sins, just isn’t going to fly. People won’t believe in that God. And they don’t.

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