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Remaining a Catholic after the Murphy Report

05 October, 2012

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eganThis book is addressed to Catholics and those who think the Church may have something to contribute to society. It explores three questions arising out of the clergy sex abuse: What happened? Why did it happen? Where do we go from here? The author exposes the clerical culture that put the protection of the institution before the protection of victims and stresses that the reform of that culture and addressing the crisis of credibility is the key to moving forward.

The book could be useful for parishes and groups who wish to discuss this crisis that has disturbed those – whether committed or lapsed – who accept that the Catholic church has been their spiritual home.

Kevin Egan is Head of the Department of Behavioural Sciences at All Hallows College, Dublin City University.  He has researched and taught on the topic of clergy sexual abuse since the mid-90s and has worked clinically with both victims and perpetrators.


Chapter One: Catholic in One Way or Another
Chapter Two: The Impact of the Sexual Abuse Scandal
Chapter Three: Documenting the Crisis
Chapter Four: Looking for an Explanation
Chapter Five: Will the Patient Accept the Diagnosis?
Chapter Six: A Profile of Priest Perpetrators
Chapter Seven: Spiritual Abuse: The Unhealed Wound
Chapter Eight: Where Do We Go From Here?
Chapter Nine: Forgiveness: The Last Step
Chapter Ten: Reforming the System
Appendix: Summary of Research into the Impact of the Crisis on a Group of Priests, Religious and Laity

168 pp. The Columba Press. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie


I can vividly recall the days following the publication of the Murphy Report. We had been given advance notice to prepare for some shocking revelations. As with other shock-provoking events, nothing prepares one for the event when it arrives. Like many Catholics I couldn’t claim to be a disinterested observer. This was my church they were talking about – not just the Catholic church worldwide, but the Irish Catholic church and the diocese in which I now reside. I had lived in Dublin for most of the 70s. Could all this have been going on under my eyes and I was blind to it? Of course the answer is yes. Child sexual abuse takes place behind closed doors, it is surrounded with secrecy and kept hidden from the public view. In those days people did not disclose incidents of abuse to the authorities, and when they did, it often failed to enter the public forum.

Following the publication of the report, I found myself having to come to terms with a number of disturbing truths: the extent and horrific nature of the abuse; the institutional cover-up on the part of church authorities; my assumption that church leaders could be relied upon to do the right thing, especially when it concerned vulnerable children. I listened to politicians, health care professionals, church leaders and media commentators give their responses to the report. Most especially I was interested in the reactions of ordinary people. This led me to pay more attention to the letters to the editor section of the newspapers than I normally would. In the week following the report I facilitated a conversation among students and staff at the place where I work, All Hallows College. As I listened to expressions of shock, betrayal and anger, it became clear to me that Catholics needed a space where they could converse about these matters that concerned them. While some might avail of opportunities provided by their parish, there were many for whom this would not be their environment of choice.

I discussed with colleagues ways in which an educational institution like All Hallows College might facilitate such a conversation. I decided to offer a short six-hour module called: Remaining a Catholic After the Murphy Report. It would be part of the Renewal for Ministry Programme and open to participants in the programme as well as those coming from outside. Over forty signed up. The group included clergy, religious and laity. All had connections to the church but at different levels. Some described themselves as ‘just hanging on by a thread.’ (A detailed breakdown of the composition of the group is provided in the appendix). As the weeks went by they expressed appreciation at having a place where their views and experiences were accepted. While the scandal impacted differently on group members I could see common ground emerging around the factors that contributed to the emergence of the scandal and the reforms that were necessary if the church was to regain some credibility.

As I listened to the views of the lay people in the group, I found myself moving towards the view that if one were to decide to remain in the church it could only be on condition that one would be allowed to function within it as an adult. Things could not go on as before and the subservience of the past could have no future. It was as if the experience of listening to survivors had woken up the laity to finding their own voice. They had seen survivors come forth with the courage to tell their story and demand that they be listened to and have injustices addressed. If one part of the church could begin to relate to leadership in a different way, then maybe the other parts of the church could do so as well.

As I did the research for the module, I thought of presenting the material to a wider audience. I first thought of writing an article for publication but soon realised that an article could not do justice to the topic. It would require a book. I explored the possibility of sharing the workload and co-authoring the book with someone else, but abandoned the idea when I realised that this would involve the same amount of work, if not more.

As I retrace my steps I can see that I did not set out with the intention of writing a book on this topic. Rather the book emerged from other ventures I had undertaken.

As I went about writing the book I became concerned about how the book would be perceived by the reader. Would the book be seen as an attack on the church or as defending the institutional church? As I gave some thought to this question I realised that the book, if it is to achieve balance, could equally be seen from either perspective. If all the readers of the book were to see it fulfilling just one function, then I would have failed to present the material in a balanced way. I further came to realise that in my own mind I had been equating a balanced stance with an objective stance, and they are not the same. I don’t claim to write from a purely objective stance. I write as someone brought up in the Catholic tradition and the subject matter of the book has personal relevance for me. On the other hand, as a health care professional and college lecturer, I bring both clinical and research training to the undertaking which allows me to write with a certain level of objectivity. Ultimately it is the prerogative of the reader to make the final judgement as to the balanced treatment of the subject matter.

One of the first questions a publisher asks when presented with a manuscript asks is: who are you writing this book for? When asked the question I have stated that I am writing this book for ‘critical’ Catholics. The word critical allows me to move away from the categories of practising and lapsed. It refers to people who, either in this present moment or at some time in the past, have made their spiritual home in the Catholic church; who have some affinity with its tradition and spirituality. When the credibility of that church has been undermined as a result of the clergy sexual abuse scandal, they have a natural desire to understand the nature of the crisis and what contributed to it. For some of these people the crisis will give rise to questions of belonging. Do I want to continue belonging in this church? If I do, what changes or reforms do I want to see? Questions such as these are hinted at in the title I have given to the book: Remaining a Catholic after the Murphy Report.

I am assuming that the reader of this book has questions he/she wants answered. These are many and varied. If I were to narrow them down to three, I would say they are: What in fact happened? Why did it happen? Where do we go from here? Chapters one to three address the first question, chapters four to seven explore the second question and chapters eight to ten take up the final question. A feature of the book is the series of questions for reflection and conversation which conclude each chapter. I have several reasons for including this feature. I hope that it will add a conversational tone to the book, in the sense that the conversations with the reader continues after the chapter has ended. My intention is that it will provide an opportunity for the reader to reflect on some of the material presented in the chapter. One of my hopes for this book is that it might be read and discussed by groups of people. These could be members of a book club or a spirituality group or parish group who might make use of the book to facilitate their own discussion of the topics presented. I expect that some of the questions will have more relevance than others, depending on the interests and concerns of the reader. I expect that the reader will choose for themselves whatever questions have relevance for them.

The term Catholic features in the title of the book and I have chosen to make this the topic of my first chapter. I have done this with some reservations: it might discourage some readers from buying the book or it might lead them to skip the first chapter. Reactions such as the ones I have described are sometimes due to the fact that many people are of the opinion that there is only one way of being Catholic. Charles Taylor, a Canadian scholar on religion, wisely observed that where ‘Vatican rule-makers and secular ideologies unite is in not being able to see that there are more ways of being a Catholic Christian than either have yet imagined’ (2007, 504). If the Vatican persists in defining Catholicism in narrow and confining terms, then more and more Catholics will no longer describe themselves in this way. The Catholics I am writing this book for are a broad parish of believers, ranging from those who are fully signed up members to those who would describe themselves as ‘critical Catholics’, and those who may have been brought up in the tradition but now see themselves as having no spiritual home while continuing to pursue a spiritual quest. They might be described as ‘spiritual Catholics’ since their spiritual roots are there. They include some who could be described as pre-Vatican II Catholics (born before 1941), others who might fit the description of Vatican II Catholics (born 1941-1960), and finally a much younger group who might be referred to under the broad title of post-Vatican II Catholics (born after 1961). (D’Antonio et al, 2007) This latter group would have less exposure to Catholic teaching than the other groups, less institutional commitment, and less involvement in the life of the church. It goes without saying that the reaction of each of these groups to the material presented in this book will be different.



The crisis in the Catholic church arising out of the clerical sexual abuse scandal has been making media headlines for the past fifteen years in Ireland. I followed the unfolding crisis, not from the stance of a disinterested observer, because it was my church they were talking about. As the story unfolded I found myself distancing from that church while at the same time remaining connected to it. I was exposed to new shocking truths about the church and how it functioned. I found myself moving from a childhood stance of idealisation to an adult stance of disillusionment. I find it helpful to think of this as a continuum consisting of two end points with various degrees in-between. This helps explain the title I have chosen for this chapter: Catholic in One Way or Another.

In this chapter I am going to invite you to think about two words: Catholic and Identity. I will first treat of them separately and later attempt to co-relate both terms. I will begin with the term identity since everyone functions out of some sort of identity. At the outset let me draw a distinction between personal and collective identities. Personal identity refers to characheristics that are unique to the individual, for example, someone may be considered friendly or distant. Collective identities include those that are socially ascribed: for example, race and gender. They also include membership of groups with whom we identify e.g. footballer, musician (Templeton & Eccles 2006, 252). All of us have multiple collective identities and personal identities out of which we function. In terms of these collective identities I could describe myself as a white, male, Catholic, psychotherapist. The terms Catholic and psychotherapist could function as either a collective identity referring to a group I identify with, or they could function as a personal identity describing who I am. My sense of who I am could be said to be made up of both my personal and collective identities. Spiritual identity could be considered as part of one’s personality identity, whereas religious identity refers to the religious group one belongs to and would be considered as part of one’s collective identity (Templeton & Eccles 2006, 253).

Identity is Multidimensional
Identity can also be said to be made up of the following three components: a cognitive component, for example beliefs; an affective component, for example values, and a behavioural component, for example attendance at a religious ritual. Combining all these together I could describe myself as a Catholic, who believes in Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, who values belonging to a community and who regularly attends Mass.

When one considers Catholic identity, the question can be asked as to whether this is an assigned collective identity or a chosen collective identity? A young person growing up in a practising Catholic family is likely to develop a Catholic identity by reason of the socialisation process operating within the family. Such an identity is closer to an assigned collective identity than a chosen collective identity. Later on in young adulthood, the same person may go through a crisis of belief upon the resolution of which he/she may make a conscious choice to embrace their assigned Catholic identity and so move closer to the chosen end of the continuum (Templeton & Eccles 2006, 253). The present clergy sexual abuse crisis might lead that same person to another crisis whereby he/ she decides to revisit that earlier decision.

A recent book edited by John Littleton and Eamon Maher, What Being A Catholic Means to Me (2009) tells the story of several Catholics who decided to do just that. One of the contributors, Conor Brady describes himself as a ‘Cradle Catholic’. For him Catholicism would seem to be both an assigned and a chosen identity: ‘I have been given my Catholic faith as my gift. I embrace it as such – I know I am fortunate’ (2009, 89). Another contributor, Cohn O’Gorman makes a different choice. Colm has written about being sexually abused as a child by Fr Sean Fortune. As a result of this traumatic experience he finds himself in a position where he ‘could not possibly belong to this church which at an institutional level so betrayed me and the values it professed’ (2009, 160). While he did not formally leave the church he just came to realise that he was no longer part of it. Being Catholic could no longer be part of his collective chosen identity.

Before going any further, I feel I need to give some consideration to the term Catholic. It comes from combining two Greek terms, kata and holos. The literal translation of the words would be ‘including everyone to work together’. This implies bonding together as a community in which all are welcome (Groome 2002, 244). The term was first used by St Ignatius of Antioch (circa 107) in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans (McBrien 1994, 3). Later the term was incorporated into the Nicene Creed at the Council of Constantinople in 381 along with the other marks of the church: one, holy and apostolic. The American theologian Richard P. McBrien makes the point that as an adjective, the term Catholic is a qualification of Christian, just as Christian is a qualification of religious, and religious is a qualification of human. In other words, to be Catholic ‘is to be a kind of human being, a kind of religious person and a kind of Christian’ (1996, 4). He emphasises that Catholicism is first of all a way of being human. However important Catholicism might be to one’s identity, it is important to acknowledge that it is not a primary identity category.

What Kind of Catholic Am I?
I expect the initial reactions of most readers to this question would be to think of themselves in terms of being a ‘good’ Catholic or a ‘bad’ Catholic. Those who think of themselves as ‘bad Catholics’ are usually those who consider themselves as ‘bad’ since they don’t live up to the moral teachings of their church. In the words of James Carroll: ‘Bad Catholics were in bad marriages, or they were openly gay, or they had abortions, or they practised artificial birth control’ (James Carroll 2009, 288). Since there was an identifiable group of bad Catholics this permitted the other group of good Catholics to feel morally superior since they considered themselves to be in good heterosexual marriages, were opposed to abortion and either abstained from sex or practised natural family planning methods. In the light of the clerical sexual abuse scandal one could ask the question: who are the bad Catholics now? (James Carroll 2009, 290). Whatever validity lay behind such a distinction has now been shattered to pieces. In fact, there was never any validity to the distinction since all Catholics are sinners and for that reason every Eucharist begins with a ritual of repentance.

Having discounted the moral undertones of this question, I will now explore it from a more objective stance by looking at the different ways of being Catholic. Sociologists of religion distinguish between different ways of being Catholic. Dean R. Hoge proposes the term ‘Parish Catholic’ to describe those for whom Catholic identity is important and central. As the term indicates they are involved in parish life, frequent the sacraments and accept the institutional authority of the church. He distinguishes between these and a group he calls ‘Spiritual Catholics’. For these their Catholic identity is important but they do not take an active part in parish life. They would describe themselves as committed to some of the Catholic teachings, spirituality and traditions, but not to the institutional church (Hoge et al 2001, 181). Finally, he uses the term ‘Contingent Catholics’ to refer to a group of people for whom their Catholic identity is ‘contingent’ on other identities such as the family or ethnic group they belong to. They are neither church-going Catholics nor spiritual Catholics, yet they see themselves as Catholic and expect to remain so (Hoge et al 2001, 181). The existence of this group serves to illustrate how Catholicism, like all other forms of religion, is not just a system of beliefs but a cultural phenomenon. It is contextual. It exists at a particular time and in a particular place. For this reason we can speak of Irish Catholicism as a distinct entity. It is different from English or French Catholicism. An Irish Catholic integrates two collective identities, being Irish and being Catholic. This illustrates how identity is multidimensional. Religious identity, ethnic identity and family identity are all interrelated.

The collective identities I speak about here are not static. They are dynamic. This is true both on a personal and a collective level. As I go through the life cycle, my religious identity changes. It is open to both internal and external influences. For example, following the Second Vatican Council, for many Catholics, Catholic identity took on new dimensions (Dillon 1999, 25). When I was growing up as a child in Leitrim my Catholic identity had an anti-Protestant quality to it. The theology of Vatican II, along with personal and professional contacts with a wide spectrum of Christians from other denominations, challenged my childhood assumptions and helped change my understanding of what it meant to be a Catholic Christian.

Spiritual or Religious
One of the emerging trends today is that more and more people readily make a distinction between being religious and being spiritual. Having a collective religious identity is one possible pathway to a spiritual identity (Templeton & Eccles 2006, 254). Many of those people referred to in the category ‘Spiritual Catholics’ would describe themselves as spiritual but not religious, or they might describe themselves as both. In research conducted by Zinnbauer et al (1997) almost 40% of those interviewed agreed with the view that spirituality is a broader concept than religiousness. They were also of the opinion that while being religious and spiritual overlap, they are not the same concept. The Canadian spiritual writer Ronald Rolheiser, in his best selling book The Holy  Longing, gives a graphic illustration of the relationship between the two concepts. He contends that we are all spiritual whether we see ourselves as religious or not. For him spirituality ‘is more about whether or not we can sleep at night than about whether or not we go to church’ (1997, 7). just as we are human before we are Catholic, we are spiritual before we are religious. Being spiritual is at the core of what it means to be human. As Rolheiser would say, spirituality helps us deal with the existential issues of life, such as fear and anxiety – the things that keep us awake at night. Spirituality is not incompatible with religion. For a great majority of people it was their collective religious identity that gave rise to their spiritual identity.

It may come as a surprise to you to know that many atheists consider themselves to be spiritual (Andre Comte-Sponville 2007). Because they don’t consider themselves to be religious doesn’t mean they don’t see themselves as spiritual. According to them, the human spirit is universal. People readily confuse religion with spirituality and therefore dismiss spirituality. It is this same ‘categorical error’ that leads them to conclude that athiests can’t be spiritual. Religion could be described as the institutional side of spirituality. It consists in the system of beliefs, rituals and teachings that characterise a group of religious people. Spirituality, on the other hand, is more inner directed, less visible and more subjective. It is more existential than creedal (Tacey 2004, 8). Spiritual writers identify three components of spirituality: connection, compassion and service. When we feel connected to something larger than ourselves we are usually moved to make a contribution to others and to the world (O’Hanlon 2006, 71).

When it comes to finding out whether people consider themselves spiritual or religious, researchers ask them to choose one of the following statements:

  • I am spiritual and religious
  • I am spiritual but not religious
  • I am religious but not spiritual
  • I am neither religious nor spiritual

How would you choose to describe yourself? In research conducted among American Protestants by Marley & Hadaway the majority of respondents saw themselves as both religious and spiritual (64%). However, when they reviewed the findings comparing successive age cohorts they found that the younger cohort were less likely to see themselves as religious and spiritual, slightly more likely to see themselves as spiritual only, and much more likely to see themselves as neither (2002, 298).

I believe that the personal impact of the clerical sexual abuse crisis is determined by a number of variables. For Catholics one of these is their level of identification with the church; whether they are Parish Catholics, Spiritual Catholics or Contingent Catholics. Likewise, those who consider themselves to be religious, religious and spiritual, or just spiritual will have different levels of attachment to the church institution and are likely to experience the impact of the crisis differently. It is readily acknowledged by all commentators that the present crisis is causing distress to all Catholics, especially those closest to the church. While the proportion of Catholics in Ireland who could be described as ‘Parish Catholics’ is estimated to be lower than 60% (Dowling 2000, 51) there remains a large proportion of people who fit the description of Spiritual or Contingent Catholics.

I hope to explore in the following chapter how the crisis is experienced by this wide and varied group of people. Teresa Dowling, a sociologist at UCD, has remarked that in a society in which it is almost natural to be Catholic, it is virtually impossible to escape the influence of Catholicism (2000, 55). Since this is so, it is virtually impossible for people living in Ireland not to have been impacted by this crisis in one way or another.

A Catholic Crisis
We normally associate the term crisis with an event of limited duration. The tsunami crisis in East Asia in 2003 is one such example. The first public acknowledgment of the clerical sexual abuse crisis by Pope John Paul II was in June 1993 in a letter written to the American Bishops (Doyle 2007, 154). This crisis has not been of short term duration. It has gathered momentum since then and is still very much with us. Fr James Martin SJ has called it the ‘greatest and gravest crisis in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States.’ (2007, 139). Fr Hans Küng has described it as the ‘worst credibility crisis since the Reformation.’ (The Tablet, 24/04/2010). At this early stage in the book I am not going to make a judgement as to the nature and severity of the crisis. However, it is appropriate that I should say something about the nature of the crisis. If I were to put it in the form of a question, I could ask what was at the core of this crisis? Was it the abuse of minors by individual bishops, priests and religious or was it the manner in which these allegations and those making them were treated by church leadership? To opt for the latter does not imply that one is discounting the former but it does convey that the roots of the crisis go much deeper than the instances of sexual abuse in themselves. Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of the Diocese of Albany, New York, showed an appreciation of this when he described the scandal as ‘two-fold’. ‘There is the two-fold scandal of the breach of sacred trust by individual priests and the way bishops like myself have mishandled such misconduct, because of ignorance, fear or the misguided attempt to protect the church from scandal.’ (2003, 60). This is one of the most open acknowledgments of the nature of the crisis / scandal by a church leader that I have come across.

The full realisation of the extent and depth of the crisis has been slow to dawn. It is only now, after a period of seventeen years since the UTV Suffer Little Children programme about Fr Brendan Smyth was first broadcast in 1994 that we are in a position to realise the full extent of this crisis. It was in 2002 that the BBC broadcast the Panorama programme Suing the Pope and we had the RTE Prime Time special Cardinal Secrets, both of which highlighted the manner in which church authorities dealt with allegations of child sexual abuse by clergy. Arising out of these programmes we had the Ferns Report published in 2005 and the recent Murphy Report in 2009. Sections of the Report which were withheld from publication then were published in December 2010. The Murphy Commission of Investigation into the Diocese of Cloyne has submitted its report to the Minister for Justice and we are awaiting publication.

For Reflection and Conversation:

  • What kind of Catholic are you: parish, spiritual or contingent?
  • Do you consider yourself to be spiritual or religious or both?
  • What is your view that there are different ways of being Catholic?
  • Can you identify the moment when you became aware of the full extent of the clerical sexual abuse crisis?
  • Would you agree with Hans Küng’s assessment that the church is facing ‘the worst credibility crisis since the Reformation’? If so, why?





In the previous chapter I made reference to the distinction between Parish Catholics, Spiritual Catholics and Contingent Catholics. It is important to keep this distinction in mind as we explore the impact of the clergy sexual abuse crisis on the faithful. The closer one is to the church the greater the impact of the scandal. This also applies to the manner in which one goes about interpreting the scandal. Non-practising Catholics will be less likely to distinguish between Catholicism itself and the bishops as its leaders, so they will readily condemn both together. Predictably the crisis has evoked a wide range of responses. On the one hand you have those who desire to see the elimination of all vestiges of Catholicism from Irish society. On the other, you have groups similar to the Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) in the United States calling for a radical reform of the church. Finally, there are others locked in denial who still claim that the crisis is largely the creation of the media. As an example of those who seek the elimination of all vestiges of Catholicism, I quote from an article by the Sunday Independent columnist Emer O’Kelly who said she would ‘welcome the destruction of all the Catholic Church in Ireland stood for, including the culture which used helpless children as labourers and objects of sexual fulfilment’ (Sunday Independent, 6/12/2009). Interestingly enough, those seeking reform in the church also desire the elimination of the culture which contributed to the abuse and its cover-up.

Emer O’Kelly raised the question of whether churches have a contribution to make to society. I am of the opinion that they do. There is a sizeable number of people, who might not describe themselves as card-carrying Catholics, yet they would like to see vibrant churches contributing to the wellbeing of society and to what we today call social capital. Fintan O’Toole, a columnist writing in The Irish Times, expressed sadness at the potential loss of Catholic church influence following the Murphy report: ‘The world into whose coffin the Murphy report has driven so many nails, the world in which Catholic beliefs and institutions play so central a part, is too imaginatively rich to be dispensed without deep regret’ (Irish Times, 5/12/2009). One can get a sense of what O’Toole is referring to by reading John McGahern’s essay The Church and Its Spire (1993). There he expresses a sense of gratitude for the’spiritual remnants’ of his Catholic upbringing. This is the ‘Catholic religious sensibility’ that sociologist Andrew Greeley speaks of (Greeley 2004, 102). For McGahern it includes ‘an awareness of mystery and wonderment, grace and sacrament, and the absolute equality of all women and men underneath the sun of heaven’. He is prepared to acknowledge that these ‘remnants’ remain even though he no longer believes: ‘That is all that now remains. Belief, as such, has long gone.’
(‘The Church and Its Spire’ in Love of the World: Essays by John McGahern 2009, 133).

Do I Stay or Do I Leave?
For many adult Catholics the question of leaving or staying in the church never arises. Yet, following the publication of the Ferns, Ryan and Murphy reports* this question has become a live issue. There is a website aptly named Count Me Out which provides a facility for those who wish to formally leave the church. As of February 2010 more than
7,000 people had used this website to formally leave the church. The journalist David Quinn expressed surprise that the figure was not higher given the current mood and the publicity the site has received (The Tablet, 27/02/2010). The Archdiocese of Dublin has recently issued a statement from the Vatican saying that the sacrament of baptism precludes ‘opting out’ officially because theologically the sacrament can’t be revoked. The archdiocese has plans to provide a facility for those who wish to formally register their intention to leave (The Irish Times, 16/10/2010). The news agency Reuters reported that a quarter of German Catholics were considering leaving the church in the wake of revelations of clergy sexual abuse there. The situation in Germany is somewhat different than in Ireland. There, citizens are to register as a member of a church so that a percentage of their taxes may be passed on to that church. The decision to leave the church may simply be a protest move to withdraw from this scheme.

Just as there are those who are drawn to the church by inner promptings and by what they observe externally, there are those who are drawn to leave by the same inner promptings and what they observe externally. There are those who for deep personal reasons feel that they can no longer remain inside the church and they either privately or publicly leave. On 23 February 2010, Bernice Donoghue, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, wrote an open letter in The Irish Times to Archbishop Martin stating her wish to be ‘excommunicated’ from the church. I would describe her writing this letter as an act of self differentiation. ‘I do not want to be a member of a church that aided and abetted a paedophile so that he could rape and sexually abuse me for four years of my childhood.’ (Irish Times, 23/02/2010). She was abused by the Norbertine priest Brendan Smyth. In the letter she outlined six reasons why she does not want to be a member of the institutional church. I expect that many Catholics like me on reading the letter wondered whether they too wanted to be a member of such an institution. For those of us who decide to stay we do so conscious of the fact that we are members of a flawed and dysfunctional institution. We do so with a sense of shame for what has happened in our name. The Augustinian priest/poet Padraig J. Daly found the words to describe this shame:

We huddle in our upper room,
The doors bolted,
For shame at our betrayal
Of all that is tender
(In the Light of ‘Ryan’, Afterlife, 2010, 62).

One could not but be impressed by the clear and dignified manner in which Bernice Donoghue expressed her desire to no longer belong to the church. The need to separate oneself from the institution which gave credibility and protection to the abuser is one felt by many survivors of clergy sexual abuse. The Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson tells how in his pastoral care of survivors he has on occasion found himself helping a victim who grew up Catholic to find a path in life outside the church (Robinson 2007, 219). In his view, respect for the dignity of the victim and their journey towards wholeness may demand such a pastoral response.

Those Who Stay
Contrary to media reports, many baptised Catholics do not display a tendency to leave the institution, though their relationship with the church may change during the course of their life. In a study of spirituality among American baby boomers, Wade Clark Roof (1993) found that 81% of those who grew up Catholic still identified themselves as Catholics in adulthood. Mainline Protestants had a retention rate of 65% and conservative Protestants had a rate of 80% (Dillon 1999, 7). In an effort to explain why Catholics tend to stay in the church, Andrew Greeley points to what he calls ‘Catholic religious sensibility’. By this he means a collection of metaphors and stories which attempt to explain what human life is all about (Greeley 2004, 102). According to Greeley, approximately half of those who leave the church do so because of marriage to someone who is not Catholic. Greeley notes that a high percentage of American Catholics, while dissenting from Catholic teaching on a number of ethical questions, notably divorce and contraception, will continue to be active members of the church. What holds them there is ‘the intensity of their religious imagination, experience and imagery.’ (Greeley 2004, 76). This is another way of saying that they find a spiritual home in the church. It is important to keep this in mind as we explore why Catholics continue to stay in the church following the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

While the Murphy Report and others had a profound impact on Irish Catholics, one should not underestimate the holding power of the Catholic imagination and spirituality on those referred to by Breda O’Brien as ordinary decent Catholics (ODCs) (The Irish Times, 24/04/2010). Their reasons for remaining in the church are many and varied. In a recent Would You Believe programme on RTE, Mick Peelo asked one of the participants, who described herself as a survivor of clerical sexual abuse, if she would consider leaving the church. The starkness and simplicity of her reply still rings in my ears: ‘Where else would I go?’ I suspect that there are many like her who simply don’t wish to leave the church for the very reason that it is their spiritual home. However, the decision to remain in the church can still be problematic for Catholics. ‘By remaining,’ asks Oliver Maloney, ‘are we facilitating the survival of a model of church which regards itself as unaccountable?’  (2010, 8). This is a valid question. Since the publication of the Murphy Report life can not go on as before. One cannot go on being a Catholic in the old way.

Forms of Distancing
When there is conflict or anxiety in a marital relationship, family therapists draw attention to the emergence of forms of distancing that occur between the partners in the relationship (Gilbert 1993). In marriage, divorce is an extreme form of distancing. Likewise, for Catholics, leaving the church could be described as an extreme form of distancing. However, there are other less obvious forms of distancing which take place. I suspect that many of us have engaged in one or other of these following the publication of the Murphy Report. I believe that over the past few years Catholics have engaged in some of these behaviours either consciously or unconsciously:

  • Abandonment/ decrease in religious practice
  • Withholding financial support
  • Reluctance to engage in prayer
  • Keeping one’s distance from church leaders, e.g. local clergy
  • Increase in levels of criticism
  • Emotional withdrawal
  • Considering leaving the church

Just as in a relationship, such distancing behaviours are likely to precede a more extreme form of distancing such as leaving the church. When one notices these behaviour patterns one is then faced with a choice of either continuing with the distancing or re-engaging in some way.

How Do You View the Crisis?
We have been looking at the impact the clergy abuse scandal has on our sense of belonging in the church. It is possible to describe this crisis as existing on a variety of levels:

  • a crisis of faith
  • a crisis of credibility
  • a crisis of leadership
  • a crisis of belonging
  • a crisis of loss.

I asked this question of participants in a course I taught at All Hallows College in April/May 2010. (For a detailed account of the questionnaire responses see Appendix). The majority of respondents (53.7%) viewed it as a crisis of credibility, with 24.4% seeing it as a crisis of loss and 9.8%viewing it as a crisis of faith. This response confirms the assessment made by Vincent Travers OP: ‘It is not so much a crisis of faith as a crisis of credibility and without question a massive crisis of credibility for the young.’ (Religious Life Review, April 2010, 133). The journalist David Quinn describes it as one of confidence in the institution of the church and in the leadership. He thinks that the more general crisis of faith can be attributed to factors such as secularism while the crisis of credibility/ confidence can be attributed to the scandals (The Tablet, 27/02/2010, 9). Since I agree with this view, I will be exploring the crisis in terms of credibility and loss rather than in terms of faith and belief.

The terms crisis of credibility and crisis of leadership are interrelated since it was episcopal mismanagement and poor leadership that lead to the loss of credibility. The crisis of credibility has also contributed to the crisis of belonging. It diminished people’s trust in the church and its ministers. This in turn weakened their sense of belonging and their emotional connection with others in the church (Dokecki 2006, 210). In my view, a crisis of credibility is the most accurate way to describe the impact of the clergy abuse scandal. However, this does not deny that the scandal does have a profound impact on faith. This impact is not So pronounced when one considers faith in terms of belief. People still continue to believe in God and in Jesus Christ.

However when one looks at faith in terms of trust (the affective dimension of faith) then the crisis undoubtedly has had a profound impact on one’s faith.

The priest/psychologist Stephen Rossetti insightfully observes that the crisis poses a tension for the believer as he/she attempts to reconcile two conflicting realities: 0 some priests and religious have sexually abused children and the institutional church has not always responded appropriately and ii) priests and the institutional church are symbols of the divine. According to Rossetti, there are three possible ways in which one can try to resolve this tension. One can attempt to deny the reality of the sexual abuse allegations; one can decide to leave the church; or one can move to a higher or more sophisticated level of faith – one which can embrace contradiction and paradox. Using Fowler’s model of faith development, Rossetti talks about a transition to a post-conventional stage of faith development (Rossetti 1996, 98). This possibility of a resolution to one’s faith crisis is also alluded to by the former vice-chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, Denis Bradley. He views the crisis as challenging ‘all of us to embrace the deep spirituality and the mature faith that is a strong aspect of our inheritance’ (Doctrine & Life, Vol 60, No 6, July/August 2010, 3). He believes that as people of faith we have the resources to meet this challenge in our rich spiritual heritage. For such people the church means more than the people who run it.

Crisis of Credibility
A brother of mine, recently deceased, when he wanted to describe someone whom he respected would say: ‘I have great time for that person.’ He was referring to credibility. It is what makes a human relationship viable and it applies not just in the interpersonal realm but to the political, economic and religious areas of life. In this context it refers both to individuals and institutions. Credibility is a major issue for churches who seek to have influence over their members and in the wider society. For the people of Jesus’ day he was seen as a credible leader. They saw him as someone who taught them with authority’ (Mt 7:29). His credibility was not institutionally conferred, in the sense that he wasn’t an official teacher (rabbi) in the Jewish religion, though the people gave him that title (Mk 5: 35). His authority seemed to have come from a coherence between what he said and what he did. Whether it is a case of an individual or an institution, once a gap appears between what one proclaims and how one behaves then credibility is undermined. Marie Collins, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, describes her experience of this gap: ‘I could not reconcile the church I thought I knew all my life with the church I was now seeing up close’ (in Maher & Littleton eds, 2010, 60). Marie Collins is not alone. Survivors of abuse and Catholic faithful readily speak about this loss of credibility. This loss is more pronounced among the younger generation and among those whom I described in chapter one as ‘Contingent Catholics’. For some, the loss of credibility has led to understandable cynicism (Garry O’Sullivan, 2010, 149). It would add further to the crisis if church leaders were to underestimate the extent of this loss of credibility.

For many brought up in the Catholic tradition, the credibility of the church was something bestowed from on high. It goes back to Jesus’ words to Peter: ‘on this rock I will build my church’ (Mt 16: 18 ). It was passed on to Peter’s successor, who today is Pope Benedict XVI. This theological understanding of credibility needs to be complemented by a sociological understanding. Here credibility comes from the bottom up; it is a gift from the members of an organisation to the leadership. Applying this to a church context one can say that the’authority of any religious denomination or local church is a ‘gift’ from the lay believers to the faith community, not an inherent possession of leaders or something given to the community by them. It is grounded on a transaction of normative trust’ (Anson Shupe, 2007, 104). 1 will be basing my analysis of the clergy sexual abuse crisis on this understanding of credibility.

Internal versus External Credibility
In today’s world, church leaders need to take on board this understanding of credibility. They also need to come to terms with the broad population with which churches need to maintain credibility. It includes two groups of people: the ‘internal community’ made up of believers and supporters and equally important, the ‘external community’ of society at large. There is a perception that under the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI there is a tendency to give priority to the internal community; to speak to the faith remnant and to distance from the secular world. If this perception is accurate, this approach would represent a serious missed opportunity. ‘In the long run, an ‘authentic’ religious community must maintain some enduring balance with both’ (Shupe, 2007). If one is to acknowledge the impact of the crisis on church credibility one has to be aware of the impact on both groups, the internal and the external community. The credibility of a church leader doesn’t just depend on his standing with the internal community.

A Sunday Tribune survey which examined the credibility of institutions in Irish society underlines the extent of the loss of credibility. In 2001, 6% of the sample reported losing trust in the Catholic church, in 2010 the figure had risen to 32%. The corresponding figure for banks was 41% and for government 44% (21 /03/2010). It is clear that the church is not the only institution in Irish society with a credibility problem. Like any other social institution, it should be concerned about loss of credibility. The political philosopher, Onora O’Neill has observed that trust ‘is hard earned and easily dissipated. It is an invaluable social capital and not to be squandered’ (2002, 7). The Catholic church is a worldwide institution and its credibility will vary from country to country. In 2008 a survey conducted by CARA in the United States found that eight out of ten American Catholics described themselves as ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ satisfied with the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI and more than seven out of ten were at least’somewhat’ satisfied with the leadership of the American Bishops (John Allen 2009, 422). I will return to this issue of credibility when I look at the levels of satisfaction expressed by Catholics with the bishops and Pope following their response to the Murphy Report.

A Crisis of Loss
When it comes to exploring the impact of the crisis, one needs to distinguish between the impact on primary victims, i.e. those who were the victims of clergy sexual abuse, the secondary victims, i.e. members of parish congregations in which the abuse occurred, and tertiary victims, namely society at large. (Shupe, 2007, 122). This is especially true when it comes to exploring the crisis in terms of the losses experienced by those different groups. Loss is a powerful metaphor with which to view the crisis. I have drawn up a list of the different groups who in one way or another have undergone loss. These include:

  • the victims of abuse
  • their families, friends and acquaintances
  • the perpetrators and their families
  • the faithful
  • those in a leadership position in churches, bishops and religious superiors
  • priests and religious
  • society at large.

In order to get a sense of how any of these groups experienced the crisis one just has to look at what each group lost as a result of the crisis. I begin with the victims of abuse. Their losses include:

  • Loss of innocence (intrapsychic)
  • Loss of control
  • Loss of self-esteem
  • Loss of dreams
  • Loss of ideals
  • Loss of bodily integrity
  • Loss of trust (interpersonal)
  • Spiritual loss
  • Loss of faith

Some of these losses are psychological, some biological and some spiritual. Since the spiritual losses are not often acknowledged in the literature, I would like to focus on them. Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, whom I quoted at the beginning of this chapter, describes these losses well. He refers to sexual abuse by clergy as a form of spiritual abuse. He points out that ‘in sexual abuse there is always spiritual harm, for abuse always harms the person’s sense of wholeness and connectedness and hence the person’s sense of meaning and identity’ (Robinson 2007, 231). In chapter one we saw that spirituality has to do with connection, meaning and identity. Marie Collins, whom many in Ireland have come to admire for her role in exposing the crime of child sexual abuse by clergy, describes her experience of spiritual loss: ‘I am sad to lose an important part of my life. My family and I had always been involved in our parish. My son had been an altar boy, my husband a member of the choir and I a member of parish groups. I ask myself can I ever find my way back’ (Collins, 2010, 60). Her words convey vividly how the abuse scandal, as well as being a crisis of loss, is also a crisis of belonging.

The secondary victims of clerical abuse have been the ordinary decent Catholics (ODCs) who placed their faith in an institution that betrayed their trust. For many, their sense of loss is linked to a sense of shame because they identified so closely with the institution. A few years back I attended a concert featuring among others Eleanor McEvoy. That night she sang a song called Ave Maria and introduced it by saying that she wrote it out of a feeling of empathy for her mother whose faith, which was a source of consolation, had been taken away from her. In the song she appeals to Mary not to let her mother down even if the institution she placed her faith in had. I quote a verse from the song which poignantly conveys her heartfelt prayer:

Ave Maria, don’t let her down
In your powder blue robe and your shiny gold crown
See, she put all her trust in you
Like she was brought up to do
So Ave Maria don’t let her down You cant let her down
(Ave Maria, Eleanor McEvoy from the album Early Hours)

The sense of spiritual loss experienced by faithful Catholics is something personal to each believer but it also has a corporate or group dimension. This was brought home to me as I read an article by a Catholic layperson, Ned Prendergast, in The Furrow). He referred to the picture we cherished of ourselves as ‘the caring church of warm hearted people – with a heroic history of service’. This picture has been shattered, and with this shattering ‘has disappeared part of our belief in ourselves’ (Ned Prendergast, The Furrow, April 2010, 199). He is referring to the sense of pride which many of us had in being Catholic and being Irish. That pride has been taken away. A cousin of mine recently told me a story of attending an Anglican church service in Swansea and introducing herself to the lady sitting next to her as an Irish Catholic. The lady curtly responded: ‘Well, that’s not something to be proud of, is it?’

The losses for priests and religious and those involved in church leadership (bishops) are many and varied. First, there is the loss of credibility I referred to earlier. The ministry of all these people depends on trust. When that trust is undermined so is the very core on which their ministry depends. Ministry is not easy at the best of times, it is all the more demanding when ‘the precious values of trust and regard on which their ministerial lives are founded have been eroded or lost’ (Johanna Merry 2010, 23).

A Church Community in Grief
I have been drawing on the metaphor of loss to explore the nature of the sexual abuse crisis. A church experiencing loss is also a grieving church. Eamonn Conway, writing in The Furrow in 2002, described how the Catholic church in Ireland was in a state of grief and he illustrated this by naming some of the typical grief responses, shock, denial, anger and guilt. From today’s perspective, it would seem that the element of shock and denial has diminished but the sense of anger and guilt continues. In order to get a sense of where we are today I find it helpful to draw on a model developed by William Worden. According to this model individuals and groups dealing with grief have to address the following four tasks:

  • Accept the Reality of the Loss
  • Process the Pain of Grief
  • Adjust to a World Without the Deceased
  • Find an Enduring Connection With the Deceased in the Midst of Embarking on a New Life (Worden 2009, 39-53)

Each of the groups I have identified, victims, leadership and faithful, are in their own way having to address these tasks. The term ‘deceased’ as used in the model could be taken to refer to life before the abuse took place or before it became public. Adjusting to a world without the deceased could mean letting go of one’s previous assumptive world, for example, an idealistic view of the church, of priests and bishops. For some who decide to leave the church it would mean finding another spiritual home outside the institutional church. For those who stay, finding an enduring connection with the ‘deceased’ might mean holding on to some sense of Catholic identity in the midst of this crisis. For the abused this could mean holding on to some sense of self and maintaining a spiritual connection. For church leaders, the tasks of grieving involve acknowledging the reality of abuse, listening to the pain of victims, and adjusting to a world in which the protection of vulnerable children becomes a priority.

In this chapter I have set out to explore the impact of the clergy sexual abuse crisis. The scandal has posed many questions to the Catholic church both on a leadership and a membership level. For some, the question has been do I leave or do I stay? Leaving, as we have seen, is an extreme form of distancing which does not preclude other forms of distancing by those who choose to stay. We have also explored different dimensions of the crisis highlighting faith, credibility and loss. This leads us to name some of the tasks facing the church at all levels as it comes to terms with grief.

Questions for reflection and conversation:

What forms of distancing have you engaged in following the publication of the Murphy Report?

  • Did you consider leaving the church because of the clergy sexual abuse scandal?
  • Do you know anyone who has left the church because of the scandal?
  • How do you view the present crisis?
  • Do you view it primarily as a crisis of credibility or a crisis of loss?
  • What losses have you experienced as a result of this crisis?


* In 2005 the Ferns Report was published. It investigated the handling of clerical child sexual abuse allegations in the diocese of Ferns. In 2009 the Commission of Investigation into Child Abuse (Ryan Commission) published its report into the abuse of children in residential institutions and industrial schools.

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I recommend the following websites were documentation referred to in this book can readily be accessed:



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