The Department of Justice has launched an investigation of child sex abuse within Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic Church, sending subpoenas to dioceses across the state seeking private files and records to explore the possibility that priests and bishops violated federal law in cases that go back decades, NPR has learned.
In what is thought to be the first-ever such inquiry into the church’s clergy sex-abuse scandal, authorities have issued subpoenas to look into possible violations of the federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute, also known as RICO, according to a person close to the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The source did not elaborate on what other potential federal crimes could be part of the inquiry, which could take years and is now only in its early stages.
RICO has historically been used to dismantle organized-crime syndicates.
Officials at six of Pennsylvania’s eight dioceses — Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown, Erie, Scranton and Harrisburg — have confirmed to NPR that they have recently received and are currently complying with federal subpoenas for information. The two remaining dioceses did not return requests for comment.
Supporters of those who have been victimized by church leaders applauded federal prosecutors for initiating a criminal investigation into one of the state’s most powerful institutions.
“There is a consensus rising, which is this just has to stop. And it won’t stop if prosecutors just sit on their hands,” said Marci Hamilton, University of Pennsylvania professor who also runs Child USA, a group that advocates for victims of child sex abuse. “The federal government has been silent on these issues to date, and it’s high time they got to work.”
The federal investigation follows a sweeping grand jury report released in August by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office that found that more than 1,000 minors were abused by some 300 priests across Pennsylvania over a 70-year period.
A dozen other states have also opened investigations into clergy sex abuse.
Numerous other church officials, the report found, participated in a systemic cover-up of the abuse that included shuffling priests around to other parishes and, in some cases, obstructing police investigations. However, because some of the allegations are decades old, many of the accused are now deceased.
Because of Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations, just two of the priests named in the report were charged as a result of the state-led investigation.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, says that the federal statute of limitations could allow more time to prosecute individuals who are now out of reach under state laws.
“This could bring the full force of the federal government to bear. It’s potentially enormous,” he said.
The subpoenas were first reported by The Associated Press, which said investigators sought to examine organizational charts, insurance coverage, clergy assignments and confidential documents stored in what has become known as the church’s “Secret Archives.”
U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania William McSwain authorized the subpoenas. A spokeswoman for McSwain declined to comment.
A Justice Department representative in Washington, D.C., would neither confirm nor deny the existence of the investigation.
Legal experts said accruing enough evidence to build a RICO case against the Roman Catholic Church — basically treating the influential institution as a crime syndicate — will be a burdensome task.
Child USA’s Hamilton, for one, said she thinks using federal RICO as a weapon against the church would be a stretch, since the 1970 law is not designed to deal with problems such as sex abuse and other personal injury cases. Instead, she said, most RICO cases involve financial crimes. “I hope that they can find a way to make it fit, but it will be challenging,” she said.
However, Hamilton said a federal statute called the Mann Act, which prohibits moving people across state lines for the purpose of illegal sex acts, could be a more promising legal avenue.
“As we know, there have been plenty of priests who took children across state lines,” she said.
Tobias, the law professor who specializes in federal courts, said whatever comes of the investigation, the issuing of the subpoenas has likely sent a jolt across the country. If the inquiry of the Pennsylvania church results in criminal charges, it could be used as a road map for federal prosecutors hoping to pursue abusers in other states.
“Pennsylvania might be the first state where the federal government does this,” Tobias said. “But then they build on the lessons they’ve learned there, as DOJ often does when they have a national issue, and go to the other states and use that template again.”
Last week Pope Francis acknowledged that the way the Church’s leadership has handled child sex abuse was driving away those who are the future of the Church: young people. He stated, “we ourselves need to be converted…we need to change the many situations that, in the end, put you off.”
The speech came not long after a Pennsylvania grand jury report revealed that over 300 priests had sexually abused at least 1000 children over a period of 70 years, and a study in Germany found a similar pattern of abuse and the Church’s failure to address it. The pope himself has been accused of protecting the now ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who is alleged to have sexually assaulted seminarians and a child. People have rightly wondered why, for so long, the pope and his bishops, who are supposed to be shepherds over their flock, have left the wolves to the sheep.
The pope, rather than asking for forgiveness, or having the Church’s leadership undergo an unspecified “conversion,” should focus on some basic institutional reforms. The first among those is revising the Code of Canon Law—the legal rules by which the Church operates. Bishops are sworn to follow canonical procedures as well as various instructions later issued by popes to clarify the application of canon law. As Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said in a deposition, “A bishop must obey the rules of the Church. We’re all in a society of law in the Church too.” Bishops also are only responsible to the pope—they do not answer to fellow bishops or parishioners.
It’s clear that if Francis wants to start solving the problem of how the Church has mishandled child sex abuse cases, he needs to undertake a revision to the Code of Canon Law to make the first response to abuse punitive, restore to diocesan bishops the capacity to defrock priests, raise the statute of limitations, reduce the stress on secrecy about alleged cases, require reporting to local civil authorities, and implement rules for handling errant bishops.
Canon law sees abuse through the lens of a priest violating his vow of celibacy, not from the perspective of harming a child. This has led bishops to interpret child sex abuse as a priest “really struggling with his sexuality” or as a “morals incident,” not as a case of criminal behavior.
It requires that the bishop’s first response be “pastoral”, not punitive, to the priest. Punishment, which can include removing the priest’s right to present himself as a priest in public and to perform the sacraments publicly, is only to be used as a last resort, when all other remedies have failed. That has led to the church failing to deal sternly and swiftly with suspected and confirmed cases of child sex abuse. Canon law encourages the bishop to wait and see if the priest will be a repeat offender.
Bishops are also prevented from defrocking their own priests under canon law. Between 1983 and 2001, priests had to be found guilty at a canonical trial, and the Vatican—officially, the pope—had to agree to dismiss them afterwards. Canonical trials are complicated, and require the participation of the victim, who may be understandably reluctant to be grilled by clerical judges or may have been advised by a lawyer not to cooperate pending a civil lawsuit. Verdicts are easily overturned on technicalities. Even when bishops recognized they had a sexual predator who should not be around diocesan children, their hands were tied. As one Los Angeles diocesan official wrote of a priest in 1988, “Given his past, I don’t think we can assign him to parish ministry, and there are no clear alternative options at the moment.”
After deciding it needed to control cases directly, since 2001 the Vatican has required that bishops send all credible cases of child sex abuse to the Vatican. It decides whether to order a canonical trial or use an administrative procedure to address the case. Even a finding that a priest has serially abused children does not automatically result in laicization (“defrocking”). Instead, the Vatican may decide, as it has in some cases, that the priest should live out his life in a state of “prayer and penance,” or that the events were so long ago that the priest doesn’t deserve punishment. Priests were dismissed in only 25 percent of 3420 cases sent to the Vatican between 2004 and 2013.
The statute of limitations in canon law needs to be extended or abolished. For decades it had been only five years. In 2001 it was raised to 10 years after the victim’s 18th birthday. With victims understandably reluctant or unable to come forward as youth, many cases eventually reported were beyond formal procedural limits. (They were usually beyond the civil jurisdiction’s statutes of limitations, too).
Canon law requires bishops maintain secrecy about suspected cases. Even though the Vatican has said bishops should obey local reporting laws, the secrecy requirement is in canon law, whereas the reporting to local authorities is not. Bishops, with a sworn moral obligation to obey the Church, opt for secrecy.
The Vatican also needs to develop formal procedures within canon law for punishing bishops who are negligent in their handling of abusive priests. There is no such procedure now. The pope needs to, at a minimum, establish a tribunal. The catch is, due to the strictures of canon law, what looks to outsiders as negligence by bishops is often behavior required by church procedures.
There are several aspects of Catholic theology that have been a hindrance to addressing clergy child sex abuse. One is the theology of forgiveness; the Church has a strong belief in the redemptive and curative power of confessing sin and being forgiven, and has applied this to priests. Pope Francis commented in 2013, “Many times I think of Saint Peter. He committed one of the worst sins, that is he denied Christ, and even with this sin they made him pope.” The Church needs to stress that one can be forgiven—but also face consequences for their actions.
Another is celibacy, not because, as is often assumed, abusing priests are substituting children for adult heterosexual partners, but because bishops, and the Vatican, bend over backwards to retain priests, due to the substantial decline in their numbers. Statistics from the Vatican show that the number of priests worldwide is lower than it was in 1970, even though the world’s Catholic population has doubled since then. The celibacy requirement is one clear barrier that discourages many men from entering the priesthood and encourages the Church to hang onto those inside, no matter their criminal behavior.
So now we must consider, will these recent revelations finally be a turning point? We’ve been here before: cardinals and bishops passing priests around and covering up abuses, Catholics outraged, the general public appalled, and attorney generals launching investigations. What may be different is that now there is public awareness that the problem goes all the way to the top. The pope and the Vatican now need to take action to change the rules by which the Church handles abusing priests and bishops.
While the Catholic church has been affected by secular trends in declining religiosity, as have other mainstream religions, its obtuseness on how it has handled clergy child sex abuse may be further damaging adherence. It has certainly hit the Church financially. It isn’t clear that the Vatican will see this any differently. In speaking to the press on the plane home from Estonia, the Pope relativized the Church’s actions, comparing that to how child abuse in families has been handled over time. He said he has never approved an appeal from a priest after a canonical trial verdict, ignoring that he has reinstated priests who were laicized through administrative processes.
The Vatican has refused to investigate ex-Cardinal McCarrick. Francis needs to be honest that the Church does not have a zero tolerance policy on clergy child sex abuse. The hypocrisy has turned away many Catholics. The risk for the Church is that while the leadership is praying for their own conversion, the faithful will convert to something else.
When the cardinal’s residence was built in the 1920s atop a hill in the leafy, most western outpost of Boston, it was modeled after an Italian palazzo. The grand mansion, replete with ornate mahogany and marble appointments, has stood as a testament to the Boston Archdioceses’ stature in the very Catholic city of Boston. Political candidates — local and national — would come calling, and even the Pope came to visit.
When Cardinal Bernard Law took up residence in the Renaissance Revival mansion, Boston’s Roman Catholic movers and shakers would flock to the backyard for his garden party fundraisers.
Today, it’s a steady stream of students hauling backpacks, and members of the public traipsing across that same property. The mansion, now owned by Boston College, has been gutted and converted to an art museum and meeting rooms — a remarkable fall from grace that parallels that of the Boston Archdiocese itself.
A total of 65 acres of prime church property – possibly its most valuable in Massachusetts — was sold in a fire sale, after the clergy sexual abuse crisis, when the church was struggling to pay some $85 million dollars in settlements to victims. In the years since, the cost of settling claims surpassed $200 million, and the church’s declining fortunes have been more than just financial.
Cardinal Law’s death this week reawakened a flood of emotion and anger over the decades of sexual abuse that finally came to light in 2002, and at the archbishop’s role in allowing predator priests to move to new parishes, where they would prey on more unsuspecting victims. The revelations that began in Boston eventually engulfed the church worldwide, and the reverberations continue to be felt, nowhere more so than in the once all-powerful Boston Archdiocese.
“The church’s influence took a big hit in 2002, that’s undeniable,” says Domenico Bettinelli, who used to be director of new media for the Archdiocese, and now works as an anti-abortion rights activist. “There’s no doubt that since the great scandal broke … our public voice has been muted in many ways because our moral authority has rightly been questioned.”
It’s a far cry from the old days, when the church was almighty, and the cardinal was closer to king, according to Thomas P. O’Neill III, former Massachusetts state legislator and lieutenant governor. He’s also son of the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill.
“When my dad served in the state legislature and Cardinal [Richard James] Cushing said [to do] something, I can assure you, a Catholic majority in the state legislature paid attention to it, and did it,” says O’Neill.
Cardinal Law long hoped he could also command that kind of obedience, after he arrived in Boston in 1984. With his booming baritone, and penchant for the regal trappings of the office, he did engender a deference and reverence that was in no small part derived from his influence with the Vatican. As one of the most senior American prelates, he was as well-connected as he was well-regarded outside Boston. He had the ear of Pope John Paul II, and was talked about as the man who might become the first American Pope. He was in regular conversation with President George H. W. Bush, and was a player on the world stage, instrumental in arranging the Pope’s first visit to Cuba; He was described in a 1990 newspaper article as “the first Archbishop of Boston to have a foreign policy.”
“He had mulled over Third World debt with Mexican bankers in Washington, D.C., brainstormed anti-abortion strategy with U.S. bishops in New York City, and jolted a visiting Northern Ireland official with a pointed question about conditions in Catholic schools there. The following Sunday he would leave for Cuba and his second tete-a-tete with Fidel Castro.”
But at home, the Catholic Church’s influence was on a slow decline that had begun under Law’s immediate predecessor, Cardinal Humberto Sousa Medeiros, who largely refrained from politics. By the time Law came to town, shifting demographics and changing social mores had significantly changed the landscape, further diminishing the church’s authority. And much as he wanted to reclaim the clout wielded by Cardinal Cushing, Cardinal Law never quite could.
“Law wanted to play that role and recreate that world, in a sense, but that world was already gone,” says James O’Toole, a history professor at Boston College, and former archivist for the Archdiocese of Boston. “There was a kind of polish to him as someone who knew what position he was in, and he was going to run with that, but he wasn’t able to do it.”
“By the time I got [into politics], you weighed everything that was being said by the church hierarchy, and you did it respectfully,” says O’Neill. “But did you follow blindly? No. Those days were all gone by the time I got there. [Lawmakers] paid attention to [Cardinal Law] … but they did not always comply.”
The election of 1986, O’Toole says, already revealed how the cardinal’s rigid Roman orthodoxy, and rightward leaning wasn’t flying with his Massachusetts flock. Cardinal Law lobbied for two referendum questions: one to ban state funding for abortion, and the other to permit some state support of parochial schools.
“Cardinal Law campaigned very strongly on both of those issues and he lost both of them decisively,” O’Toole says.
By the time another decade passed, the gap had so swollen between Boston’s Catholic Church and Boston Catholics on social issues, leaving Cardinal Law venting that both Massachusetts senators and the governor were wrong on the abortion issue.
“Only I am right,” he said.
A few years later, the church would also falter in its efforts to block gay marriage, as lawmakers were paying more heed to the voice of their constituents, than the cardinal’s’s.
“There used to be an assumption that [the archdiocese] was speaking for the majority of people in the church,” says State Rep. Byron Rushing. “But the average Roman Catholic state representative or state senator knew that there were many Roman Catholics in their district that are in favor of it. They weren’t all on the same page … [like] in the old days.”
Still, the institutional power of the Catholic Church in heavily Catholic Boston, would continue to earn Law a ranking by Boston Magazine as one of the three most powerful figures in Boston, even through the late 90s.
Protecting its own
Indeed, former Attorney General Martha Coakley says that sway was what enabled the Archdiocese to keep the lid on the clergy abuse and on what higher-ups were doing that allowed the abuse to continue.
“The church as an institution was incredibly powerful in Boston, in protecting its records and using its authority to cover up what was in retrospect, an awful conspiracy to hide [the abuse] and protect the church’s reputation,” she says.
But when the 2002 sexual abuse crisis threw the church into turmoil, and prompted a furious backlash, it was all over. With the church under siege, the balance of power shifted abruptly.
Law became the “poster boy” for the church’s cover up. The cardinal’s mansion was surrounded every day by swarms of protesters calling for his resignation. From his mightiest perch, he was reduced to being grilled by victims’ lawyers, under oath, about what he knew and when he knew it. One attorney recalls that when pressed during a deposition, Law turned to his attorney, protesting and asking if he really had to answer. The answer came back that yes, he did.
“The church lost all its influence,” Rushing says. On Beacon Hill, the church’s longtime lobbyist, who’d been a fixture at the statehouse, didn’t even dare show up.
“I would joke with him,” Rushing recalls. “You know like, ‘You can always come into my office, because I know you don’t want to go anywhere else in the building.'”
The cardinal, never shy to testify himself on legislation or use his bully pulpit, was rendered effectively mute. He was side-lined on issues he would have been spearheading, like a Boston Hotel workers strike that involved poor and immigrant workers.
Legislation moved through the State House, including requiring health insurance to cover contraception, and hospitals to offer the morning-after pill. On the other hand, Rushing says the church’s retreat was a big blow to other progressive/liberal efforts he would have liked the church’s help on, like increased assistance to the poor people and immigrants.
“We lost that lobby,” Rushing says. “They just stopped doing it.”
Shortly after the crisis, some Catholic priests in Massachusetts were even flouting the church by speaking out against a ban on gay marriages in Massachusetts, prompting a stern rebuke from above.
At the same time, the church’s financial clout took a nosedive as well. Angry, disillusioned parishioners were leaving in droves, and donations — from collection plates and large institutions— were drying up. After the crisis, the annual Boston Catholic Appeal plummeted to half of what it was.
“Everything went right over the cliff,” said one church official, not authorized to speak on the record. “We were basically in a freefall.”
O’Neill says the Catholic faithful began to distinguish between the mission of the church, and the institution of the church, and found ways to support the former but not the latter. He says that’s still happening, as he saw recently, when fundraising for a local Catholic school.
“In the old days the Catholic Church would support it almost in its entirety,” he says. “Today, you have private folks making contributions directly to [foundations that support that mission] as opposed to through the apparatus of the archdiocese.”
Climbing out out of crisis mode
By all accounts, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, has worked small miracles to restore confidence in the church. Soft-spoken, and low key (he’s way more comfortable in the traditional plain brown habit of his Franciscan order, than the regal garb that Cardinal law favored), O’Malley, has showed genuine compassion for the victims, and a deep commitment to their healing and to church reform. Church officials say attendance has finally stabilized, and donations have climbed back up to pre-crisis levels.
“If you told me before Sean O’Malley had become the cardinal of Boston, that anyone could have come and done the repair that Sean O’Malley has done, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have believed you,” says O’Neill. I think everybody — even Catholics not practicing today — have a very deep seated respect for Cardinal O’Malley.”
Politically, the Archdiocese is slowly recovering some of its voice, but seems to be strategically picking and choosing its fights, to stay more in sync with Boston Catholics. For example, O’Malley has been championing the cause of undocumented immigrants and speaking out on opioid addiction, violence prevention, and education.
“We’re out of crisis mode now, and Cardinal O’Malley is much more engaged politically,” the church official says.
The church recently managed to pull off a legislative win, helping to defeating a measure that would have allowed physician assisted suicide. But Bettinelli cautions even that vote doesn’t necessarily mean an upswing in the church’s influence.
“Lawmakers are voting “based on their faith,” he says. “But I don’t think it’s necessarily because they are being influenced by [O’Malley].”
Catholic participation remains low; just about 20 percent attend weekly mass, compared to 70 percent in the 1970’s, according to the church. Money remains tight, and despite the softer tone coming from both Pope Francis and Cardinal O’Malley, doctrine is not budging on issues like abortion, contraception, or gay marriage, and so the chasm between the church and many of its parishioners on social issues is only widening.
“The rigid school of catholic doctrine … doesn’t sell in the 21st century,” says says Lawrence DiCara who was Boston City Council president in the 1970s.
Close to 70 parishes have been eliminated since 2004, a trend almost surely accelerated by the scandal, but reflective of the broader shift of Catholic America from the old heartland of Boston, N.Y., Chicago and Philly, to the South and Southwest.
Today, as Cardinal O’Malley tries to reboot and boost the Catholic Church, in keeping with his more down-to-earth style, he lives in a modest rectory in the heart of Boston, far from the once majestic mansion that was home to his predecessors.
O’Neill was one of the “movers and shakers” who once reveled at the big parties at Cardinal Law’s residence. “Those were the happy days,” he sighs.
He was also there for the small, private meeting, when a handful of Law’s closest confidantes told His Eminence it was time to quit.
“That was the end of it,” O’Neill says.
Now, he says, “this church is a church in repair, and we have a long way to go.” Then, ever faithful, he adds, “But I think the [new] leadership is destined to do the right thing, and get us to that point.”
As O’Toole puts it, “it’s dangerous for a historian to talk about the future but … the revival will come at some point. You know maybe 100, or 200 years from now … But I don’t think [this decline] will be permanent.”
In a far-reaching report on child sex abuse in Australia, a government commission is recommending that the country’s Catholic Church lift its celibacy requirement for diocesan clergy and be required to report evidence of abuse revealed in confession.
Those are among the 400 recommendations contained in the 17-volume final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, which is wrapping up a five-year investigation – the longest in Australia’s history.
“We have concluded that there were catastrophic failures of leadership of Catholic Church authorities over many decades,” the report said.
The Australian reports: “More than 15,000 people contacted the commission to share their experiences of abuse, more than 8,000 of them spoke personally with the commissioner about the trauma it caused, and approximately 2,500 cases have now been referred to police.”
The commission said the church failed to properly address allegations and concerns of victims, calling the Church’s response to them “remarkably and disturbingly similar.”
The report also detailed abuse in churches of other denominations and at such institutions as schools and sports clubs. However, it concluded that the greatest number of alleged abuse perpetrators were found in Catholic institutions. The commission has concluded that 7 percent of priests who worked in Australia between 1950 and 2009 had been accused of child sex abuse.
Among the report’s recommendations:
A national strategy to prevent child abuse, with a national office of child safety.
Making failure to protect a child from risk of abuse within an institution a criminal offense on the state and territory level.
Implementing preventative training for children in schools and early childhood center.
A requirement that candidates for religious ministry undergo external psychological testing.
Any person in a religious ministry subject to a substantiated child sex abuse complaint should be permanently removed from the ministry.
“We recommend that canon law be amended so that the ‘pontifical secret’ does not apply to any aspect of allegations or canonical disciplinary processes relating to child sexual abuse,” the report said.
It said that “Religious ministers, out-of-home care workers, childcare workers, registered psychologists and school [counselors] should be brought into line with police, doctors and nurses who are all obliged by law to report sexual abuse,” according to The Sydney Morning Herald reports.
“Without a legal obligation to tell police about abuses, many staff and volunteers failed to let anyone outside the institution know, the commission found,” the Herald reported.
The commission called for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to ask the Vatican to introduce voluntary celibacy for clergy. The commission found that clerical celibacy was not a direct cause of abuse, but that it increased the risk of abuse when celibate male clergy had privileged access to children.
In an official statement, Archbishop Denis Hart of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, apologized for past abuse, calling it a “shameful past” and said the commission’s report “will be taken very seriously.”
However, speaking to reporters later, Hart said the commission’s report “hasn’t damaged the credibility of the church” and called the recommendations on the confessional “a distraction.”
“The seal of the confessional, or the relationship with God that’s carried through the priest and with the person, is inviolable. It can’t be broken,” Hart told reporters.
“I think everyone understands that this Catholic and orthodox practice of confession is always confidential,” he said.
Hart also pushed back on the subject of celibacy: “We know very well that institutions who have celibate clergy and institutions that don’t have celibate clergy both face these problems. We know very well that this happens in families that are certainly not observing celibacy.”
The commission’s findings follow numerous allegations of sex abuse by Catholic priests in Australia in recent years. In June, Police in Victoria charged Cardinal George Pell, now a high-ranking Vatican official, with sex abuse dating to his time as a priest in Australia in the 1970s and 80s. Pell has denied the allegations.
The report concluded: “Tens of thousands of children have been sexually abused in many Australian institutions. We will never know the true number.” the report concluded.
“It is not a case of a few ‘rotten apples.’ Society’s major institutions have seriously failed,” it said.
When Ailbhe Smyth was 37, voters in Ireland approved a constitutional amendment that banned abortion in nearly all cases and committed the nation to the principle that a pregnant woman and her fetus have an “equal right to life.”
Next year, when Ms. Smyth, a former professor and chairwoman of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, will be 72, Irish voters are expected to remove or alter that amendment in a new referendum that could give Ireland’s Parliament the freedom to legislate on the issue and write more flexible abortion laws.
What are the driving forces behind this significant shift in voter attitudes toward abortion and other social issues?
Ireland was long a bastion of Catholic conservatism, a place where pedestrians might tip their hats and hop off the footpath when a priest walked past. But economic and technological changes helped propel a shift in attitudes that accelerated with the unfolding of far-reaching abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church in the 1990s.
Over a generation, Ireland transformed from a country where 67 percent of voters approved the constitutional abortion ban to one where, in 2015, 62 percent voted to legalize same-sex marriage.
‘A Disastrous Effect’
Priests once enjoyed great social and political power in Ireland, but the abuse scandal led to “the demise of the church,” the center-right prime minister, Leo Varadkar, who is 38, biracial and gay, said in an interview in September.
That would have been a politically unspeakable phrase for an Irish leader in the not-too-distant past.
“In the ’40s and ’50s, people replaced the colonialism of the Brits with a kind of colonialism of the church,” said Aodhan O Riordain, a senator from the Labor Party. That fostered an intermingling of Catholicism and Irish identity that was “a toxic mix,” he added.
For decades, legislation opposed by the church was doomed to fail. Eamon de Valera, an ardent Catholic who served as president or prime minister several times between 1921 and 1973, enjoyed a close relationship with the archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, who helped steer Ireland’s religious life for three decades and made assertive policy suggestions.
“The Catholic Church’s hold on the state, the ways in which it sought to influence the state, remained strong for a very long time,” said Ms. Smyth. “For much longer than you might have thought possible.”
Even in its diminished state, the church continues to play a role. It controls almost all state-funded primary schools — nearly 97 percent — and the law allows them to consider religion as a factor in admissions. Many hospitals, too, are either owned by the church or located on church property.
But Diarmuid Martin, the current archbishop of Dublin, said the church “certainly” enjoyed less influence now than in the past. He blamed the one-two punch of broad social trends and the abuse scandal for the church’s declining fortunes.
“The scandals emerged at a moment which was either just the wrong time or the right time, depending on which side you are, for them to emerge,” the archbishop said. “The two things, the change in the attitude to the church and the abuse, came together and had a disastrous effect.”
‘My God, I Can’t Get an Abortion Here’
Those changing attitudes were driven by epochal economic and technological shifts felt in all countries, like the expansion of free trade and the birth of the internet. But in Ireland, the old order had largely managed to adapt.
“If you were a cardinal in Ireland in 1989, you would have felt pretty good,” said Fintan O’Toole, a columnist. “You would have said: ‘You know what? We weathered a lot of social and economic change and we’re still the power in the land.’ ”
Cracks had begun to emerge, though.
Economic liberalization, which began in 1960s, drew women into the work force, shrinking the size of Ireland’s traditionally large families and creating pressure for the legalization of contraception, which was anathema to the church.
It also began to stem the century-long tide of emigration. Some emigrants returned to Ireland, and newcomers from Eastern Europe and elsewhere arrived, making Polish the country’s second most widely spoken language.
“Young people go away, work, then come back a few years later and say, ‘My god, I can’t get an abortion here,’ ” said Rory O’Neill, who became a national figure as the drag queen and activist Panti Bliss.
“My parents’ generation, they went to London and never came back.”
In recent years, the internet has provided a platform for organizing that linked Irish people to liberal movements around the world.
“I suppose we are a little, quiet backwater, but young people are very well educated,” Ms. Smyth said. “It’s a very connected place, Ireland.”
‘Washing the Dirty Laundry’
Ireland’s break from the past has been so sharp that Garry O’Sullivan, a newspaper and book publisher whose company will soon release a book by a priest titled “Why the Irish Church Deserves to Die,” described it as akin to “intolerance toward views that represent anything of the old guard or traditional Ireland.”
That old guard was discredited by the yearslong drumbeat of child abuse allegations that began to emerge in the early 1990s as well as a cover-up by church officials who spent years denying the problem and moving abusive priests from parish to parish.
For decades, Irish priests zealously protected their communities from what they saw as the moral dangers posed by sexual promiscuity, unwed mothers and impoverished children, sometimes orphaned or neglected.
They used an unwritten, extralegal power — often at the urging of scandalized family or neighbors — to send such women and children to Dickensian facilities like industrial schools, Magdalene Laundries (workhouses run by Catholic orders) and homes for the pregnant and unwed.
While much of the abuse happened at the hands of parish priests, a great deal of it happened in these institutions. A 2009 report said tens of thousands of children were abused in industrial schools alone, a shocking figure in a country of 4.5 million.
A mix of shame, destitution and state complicity turned these facilities into prisons, and residents were put to work for the church. In the laundries, some of which did not close until the 1990s, so-called fallen women washed the dirty linens of clients that included the Irish military.
“The symbolism would be too crude if you put it into a novel, washing the dirty laundry,” Mr. O’Toole said.
‘The Last Hurrah’
Archbishop Martin, whose handling of the abuse crisis has won praise, said popular distrust of the church ran deep.
“It was a crisis of trust in the church, a crisis of betrayal by the church — and you can’t regain trust just by saying to them, ‘I’m sorry,’ ” he said.
The 2011 census identified 78 percent of the Irish population as Catholic, but the archbishop said he believed the figure for true believers was closer to 20 percent.
“I could spend all my time being concerned about the people who come to church, but they’re — you know I don’t want to be nasty — but they’re a dying breed,” he said. “The situation is changing, but Irish Catholicism hasn’t changed with it.”
Archbishop Martin praised the Eighth Amendment for protecting the rights of the unborn. He said that the coming abortion debate might provide an opportunity for the church to reconnect with people, even if the amendment were repealed.
“The one way the church could lose on the abortion debate is to compromise its position,” he said.
But not everyone is so sure.
“I think this referendum on abortion is the last stand for church versus state in Ireland,” Mr. O’Sullivan, the publisher, said. “The last hurrah for having influence.”