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The Dublin/Murphy Report: A watershed …?

29 March, 2010

As it did with the Ryan Report, the Columba Press has recently produced an excellent collection of responses to the Dublin/Murphy Report. It contains points of view from survivors, social commentators, historians, journalists, theologians and a Church of Ireland bishop who is also a parent. It points to what the Church in Ireland needs to do to find fresh courage and hope.

For further information, press copies or interviews, contact Cecilia West 01-2942556 ext 208. Email: [email protected] .

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


Introduction by John Littleton and Eamon Maher

  1. Timothy Radcliffe OP, Come to Me all You Who Labour
  2. Andrew Madden, A Church Disgraced
  3. Colum Kenny, Sacred Heart, Sacred Mind: The Challenge of Conviction in the Catholic Church
  4. Richard Clarke, Parent AND Bishop
  5. Marie Collins, Journey to Loss: Living the Murphy Report
  6. Patrick McCafferty, Jesus The Risen Victim: A Response to the Murphy Report
  7. Sean O’Conaill, The Disgracing of Catholic Monarchism
  8. Breda O’Brien, Communicating the Good News and the Bad
  9. Eugene O’Brien, ‘The boat had moved’: The Catholic Church, Conflations and the Need for Critique 
  10. Sean Ruth, Responding to Abuse: Culture, Leadership and Change
  11. Enda McDonagh, The Murphy and Ryan Reports: Between Evangelising and Priesthood
  12. Eamonn Conway, Broken Hearts and not Just Torn Garments — Beginning the Discussion about Forgiveness and Healing 
  13. Eddie Shaw, A Personal View, of a Communications Failure in a Time of Crisis
  14. Donald Cozzens, Culture that Corrodes
  15. Garry O’Sullivan, Quo Vadis? The Road to Rome
  16. Louise Fuller, Disturbing the Faithful: Aspects of Catholic Culture under Review

Editors and Contributors


The past couple of decades have been momentous in terms of the diminished standing of the Catholic Church in Ireland. To gauge how far we have travelled down the road of skepticism, one has only to think back to the Papal visit in 1979, which saw massive crowds assemble at venues such as the Phoenix Park, Drogheda, Galway and Limerick. While allegedly providing a concrete sign of the good health of Irish Catholicism, in essence this visit marked the end of an era. The Church was in something of a free fall at the end of the 1970s. For some time vocations had been in decline and the deference displayed to men and women of the cloth was beginning to dissipate. A better educated laity was no longer afraid to question some of the Church’s teachings on issues such as contraception, abortion and homosexuality, three areas of contention that have continued to alienate an increasing number of the laity. The Church leaders realised that trouble was brewing, which prompted an invitation to the charismatic John Paul II to come and reignite the religious fervour of the Irish people.

Fast forward to 1992 and the revelation that one of the most charismatic figures in the Irish Church, Bishop Eamonn Casey, had fathered a child with an American divorcee, Annie Murphy. He and another well-known figure, Fr Michael Cleary, had been chosen to warm up the crowd at the Papal Mass for young people in Galway in 1979. In 1993, it was also revealed that Cleary had been having a sexual relationship with his housekeeper, Phyllis Hamilton, for many years from which a son, Ross, was born. These two men had enjoyed a high media profile during the previous decade and both had been very orthodox in their pronouncements on moral issues. When the gap emerged between their public pronouncements and their personal behaviour, many commentators justifiably accused them of hypocrisy. But, while dramatic at the time, the Casey and Cleary scandals were mere trifles compared to what was in store for the Church in the following years.

In 1994 the arrest of the paedophile, Fr Brendan Smyth, whose widespread abuse of children had been highlighted by the UTV Counterpoint programme, added more fuel to the fire. The Pandora’s box had been opened and there followed further revelations, most notably in relation to the Diocese of Ferns, where many young lives were ruined by the crimes of several paedophiles, the most notorious being Fr Seán Fortune. Colm O’Gorman made a report to the Gardaí on 9 February 1995 about the abuse he had suffered from Fortune. He did not receive much co-operation from the Church authorities in his attempts to bring Fortune to trial. Once more, it took a BBC television documentary, Suing the Pope, to highlight the reluctance of the institutional Church to accept the wrong perpetrated by some priests in the Diocese of Ferns. O’Gorman notes:

The problem wasn’t simply that no one told about the abuse, but that no one in the Church was prepared to act. No one in authority did anything even when they did know.

It’s not enough to speak out. Others have to be prepared to listen and to acknowledge what they have heard. They have to believe it, no matter how threatening or troubling the facts might be. And, most importantly, they have to be prepared to act (1).

The hierarchy’s failure to act has been a common feature in each of the three inquiries which have highlighted the abuse of children and the findings have been published in the Ferns (2005), Ryan (2009) and Murphy (2009) Reports. Another consistent pattern has been for Church authorities to close ranks in an attempt to limit the damage done to the institution. Denial of guilt, refusal to co-operate with the civil authorities, the victims and their families, abdication of responsibility, failure to recognise the seriousness of the problem, fear of the costs involved in any settlement, arrogant disregard for the truth through the use of ‘mental reservation’, are just a few of the hallmarks that characterise the Church’s management or mismanagement of the abuse scandals.

This book is an attempt to assess the implications of the most recent body-blow to the Catholic Church in Ireland, the Murphy Report, published in November 2009 (2). Once more, the Murphy Commission had its origins in a television documentary, this time the RTÉ Prime Time programme Cardinal Secrets, produced by Mary Raftery, with Mick Peelo as reporter. The programme investigated the response to clerical child sex abuse allegations in the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin. Michael McDowell, who was Minister for Justice at the time, set up a commission of inquiry in 2006. Its brief was to investigate how the Church and State authorities dealt with allegations of clerical child abuse in the period 1975-2004. Writing the day after the Report was published, Paul Cullen did not spare either the Church or the State:

Child sexual abuse was covered up by the Dublin archdiocese and other church authorities for almost 30 years, according to the report of the commission of investigation. State authorities facilitated this cover-up by not fulfilling their responsibilities to ensure that the law was applied equally to all, and by allowing church authorities to be beyond the law … (3).

Cullen quoted the following observation from the Report: ‘There was little or no concern for the welfare of the abused child or for the welfare of other children who might come into contact with the priest. Complainants were often met with denial, arrogance and cover-up and with incomprehension in some areas. Suspicions were rarely acted on’ [1.35]. Other revealing findings state how the Archdiocese had an ‘obsessive concern with secrecy and the avoidance of scandal’ and had ‘little or no concern for the welfare of the abused child’ [1.32]. Little wonder, then, that the public reaction was one of horror and anger. That the anger was more directed at the Church than at the State can be explained by the fact that people rightly or wrongly expect higher standards from priests and religious than they do from politicians or members of An Garda Siochána. John Waters, someone who could not be accused of pursuing a witch hunt against the Catholic Church, drew the seemingly unavoidable conclusion that Murphy represents a watershed:

The events outlined in the Murphy report have finally placed in doubt the Church’s claim that it was ever in the business of implementing the Word of Jesus Christ. If this entitlement is to be recovered, it must be earned in shame and grief. [ … ] The sins of the Church – against children and parents, against the State and its people – have been sins also against Christ (4).

This gets to the kernel of what is at issue here: the betrayal by priests and bishops of Christ’s example of love and selflessness in an attempt to cling on to power and prestige.

This book will examine the implications of this betrayal for the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland. What will emerge in the wake of the findings of the Murphy Report? Has the Church got any future in Ireland? Will it learn from previous mistakes? Will it return to the simple origins of its founder, Jesus of Nazareth? We have arrived at a crossroads and the future is uncertain. Ronan Fanning remarks that the Murphy Report ‘is a truly historic landmark in the squalid history of Church-State relations’ in Ireland. Looking back on the evolution of Catholicism in the early decades of the new State, Fanning notes how pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty forces were quite prepared to kill each other in the pursuit of what constituted the legitimate State, but that they made common cause in their unswerving allegiance to the Catholic Church.’ He adds:
The political reality was that the craven deference of Irish politicians to the Catholic Church accurately reflected the no less craven deference of Irish voters, a deference that found its most disgusting manifestation in the revelation that some child victims of sexual abuse were punished by piously disbelieving parents for daring to say such things about the clergy (5).

Throughout the Murphy Report, we read of the embarrassment felt by the parents of the abused when they were forced to speak about what had happened to a bishop or some other official in the archdiocese. Fintan O’Toole thinks this is an illustration of how the Church had ‘so successfully disabled a society’s capacity to think for itself about right and wrong’. In effect, there had been a process of brainwashing so perverse that parents could express concern for the priest abuser, even when his victims happened to be their own children. O’Toole comes to the following conclusion:

When all the numbing details of the report are absorbed, we have to reassemble the big picture of the institutional church’s relationship with Irish society. And we have to say that relationship itself has been an abusive one. The church leadership behaved towards society with the same callousness, the same deviousness, the same exploitative mentality, and the same blindly egotistical pursuit of its own desires that an abuser shows towards his victim (6).

The Church’s fall from grace has been stunning in its rapidity and intensity. While numbers attending Mass and celebrating the sacraments are still high in Ireland by European standards, congregations to a large extent consist of middle-aged and older people. We are fast reaching the stage where there will be a massive scarcity of priests, given the age profile of those currently in active ministry. Also, the quality of the liturgy often leaves a lot to be desired, as do the music and the preaching. One wonders what will happen to the children and adolescents who are, to a large extent, unaware of the basic tenets of their Catholic faith, the ‘unchurched’, as Archbishop Martin described them soon after taking office in Dublin. These are presumably the future of the Church. How many of them will be inclined to practise a religion about which they know very little and which does not form an integral part of their lives?

Then there are those key issues with which the Church has had difficulties since they came to prominence in the 1960s: premarital and extramarital sex, homosexual behaviour, divorce, women priests, celibacy. In a revealing article in The Irish Times, Maureen Gaffney stated that very few Catholics look to the Church for guidelines in relation to any of these questions any more, which should not surprise us:

After all, the church’s teaching on sexuality continues to insist that all intentionally sought pleasure outside marriage is gravely sinful, and that every act of sexual intercourse within marriage must remain open to the transmission of life. The last pope, and most probably the present, took the view that intercourse, even in marriage, is not only ‘incomplete’, but even ceases to be an act of love, if contraception is used (7).

An institution that continues to insist on teachings that are ignored by the vast majority of its own flock, risks losing all credibility. This lack of credibility is compounded when the Murphy Report has revealed how high-ranking officials in the Dublin Archdiocese moved known paedophiles from parish to parish, thus exposing more young people to abuse. Mervyn Rundle was abused by Fr Thomas Naughton, whose activities had been brought to the attention of the Church authorities years previously. Bishop Donal Murray failed to act on the complaints that were made against Naughton in 1983, which meant that Rundle and others were subjected to this priest’s abuse. In an interview with Patsy McGarry, Rundle observed: ‘My parents were shut out in the cold by the priests in the parish. They didn’t want to know my parents anymore; they cut them dead. They were just vicious’ (8). Where is the evidence of Christian charity here? Why would members of the clergy turn against a family for bringing the abuse of their son to the attention of the authorities? Mervyn Rundle’s family was not alone in encountering this attitude. Two of the contributors to this book, Marie Collins and Andrew Madden, were treated with contempt, disbelief and hostility when they revealed what had happened to them. A former seminarian, Ken Duggan, reported to the authorities that a priest was abusing an altar boy (Andrew Madden) in the parish and assumed that action would be taken. It never happened. Duggan says of the episode:

The whole experience of how they handled it was sickening. In a church which you studied for, you expect nothing but the highest of standards. You go naively, expecting your elders and the church to take action (9).

One wonders if the survivors of abuse, as mentioned above, had not been so courageous, whether the general public would ever have learned about the extent of the problem in Dublin. Andrew Madden was the first person in Ireland to publicise his abuse by Fr Ivan Payne. What would have happened if he had chosen to remain silent? One thing we can say with certainty is that there would have been no rush on the part of the Church to deal with the problem adequately. Although people like Cardinal Desmond Connell claimed that the Church was largely ignorant of the nature of the illness of paedophilia, we now know that Church personnel were acutely aware of it for centuries, and also of the devious nature of those who were afflicted with the disease. They also knew enough about its prevalence among priests to insure the institution against the compensation claims by victims, which they realised would be inevitable as time went by. The Murphy Report has introduced a new Realpolitik with regard to the public’s perception of the Church. The reaction of the Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, demonstrated the seismic shift in Irish political life when he declared that ‘a collar will protect no criminal’ and added: ‘This is a republic – the people are sovereign – and no institution, no agency, no church can be immune from that fact’ (10). What a change is obvious here compared to the fate of Dr Noel Browne who, when faced with the bishops’ disapproval of his Mother and Child Scheme, felt that he had no option but to resign as Minister for Health in 1951. Ahern was pointing out unambiguously that Ireland is a republic that is responsible for implementing the will of the people and that it must not allow any interest group to exert undue influence on the affairs of State. The poet Theo Dorgan sensed how significant the reaction to Murphy has been:

It seems very likely that something has changed forever in our republic. The skeletal presence of the Catholic Church in our institution and in our mores has begun to wither away, smoke in a gale, dust in the wind; there is a danger that with it will go the foundational ideals of justice, charity, compassion and mercy. We can already see the damage done in our country’s short-lived flirtation with mammon. We have seen what happened when the post-Gorbachev USSR turned to gangster capitalism. We would do well to begin thinking clearly, and very soon, about what we will choose for the moral foundations of a post-Catholic Ireland (11).

Dorgan raises a fundamental issue here – the importance of finding a replacement for Catholicism’s essential role in impressing a moral code on Irish society. With its imminent demise as a powerful force in Irish society, what remains to replace it? Have the news media the capacity to take on such a function? One would have to say that it is doubtful. What of the politicians? Their image too has been seriously tainted in recent times. It is highly unlikely that the institutional Church, if it survives, will be able to supply the answers to the dilemmas facing Irish people at this important juncture. It may well be that individual priests and religious sisters might come to the fore, or committed lay people who realise that the times we are living through require a more proactive approach from them, or it may be individual politicians, writers, philanthropists, singers – people with vision and the courage of their convictions. In a hard-hitting editorial in the magazine Reality, Gerry Moloney pointed out that something seems wrong when Church leaders ‘appear more interested in changing the language of the liturgy than trying to figure out why so many children were harmed by clerics.’ He continues that there is something dysfunctional when the same Church seems more interested ‘in silk robes and the Latin Mass and East-facing altars than in examining why our church has not been a safe environment for its most vulnerable members.’ This is the kind of plain talking that is required in order to reach out to people. It is all the more impressive because it is rare to come across a priest who will write in such unambiguous terms about what is wrong in his Church. Writing in such a manner brings with it the risk of censure, the possibility of alienation among the clerical community as well as those Catholics who still remain unquestioningly faithful to a certain model of Church that has largely failed its followers. Moloney concludes:

What we need is not a rigid, defensive, secretive church but an open, transparent, inclusive one; one where power and decision-making are not the preserve of elderly celibate males but where all the baptised – men and women, single and married, in ministry and outside it – are included and have a voice (12).

If one were to ask Marie Collins and Andrew Madden what their experience of the Church has been, it would be a very far cry indeed from this idealised version. Both were brought up to respect the Church and its clergy. Both paid a very high price for that loyalty. It is unlikely that either could envisage an ‘open’, ‘transparent’, ‘inclusive’ Church emerging from the debris any time soon. Unless this ideal becomes a reality, however, unless a listening Church comes into being, one which truly embraces the poor and the downtrodden, those in pain as a result of marriage breakdown or sexual preference, those who happen to be female and want to remain within the Church in spite of all the discrimination they have endured through the decisions made by celibate males, unless there is evidence of genuine change, there has to be a serious question mark surrounding the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

This book may upset some people; it may anger others. As editors we make no apology for that. There has to be a forum where people can express their feelings freely and honestly about where the Catholic Church is headed in the aftermath of the Murphy Report. For healing to occur, there must be catharsis; there must be a purgation of the passions. We are greatly indebted to our contributors for sharing their experiences in such an honest and forthright manner. They do not all view the topic in the same way. They may not always agree with the viewpoints of other contributors or those of the editors. That is what we intended. Whenever the opinions of people from diverse backgrounds and experience are assembled on a topic as sensitive as the Murphy Report, controversy and disagreement will almost certainly ensue. All we can ask as editors is that contributors be honest in their opinions and true to the reality as they perceive it. The various chapters you will read have the authentic sound of a real hammer on a real anvil. The following inspirational words from the prophetic priest-writer Jean Sulivan (1913-1980), in his spiritual journal, Morning Light (1976), are worthy of reflection. They have lost none of their resonance thirty years after his death:

The Church is something quite different than the guardian of a doctrine and a morality in the social sense of the word. It’s that portion of humanity, visible or invisible, in which God, to the degree that images of his mythic representation were effaced, has found more space to advance than elsewhere – the God of the burning bush, of Abraham. It’s the communion of all those, neither the best nor the worst, whose gaze is focused on the far distance, who seem to be pointing to a human territory where the night is a little less dark and who help us believe that dawn will break in that direction (13).

Such a model of Church is overdue in the Ireland of post-Murphy, especially in the context of the revelations about Fr (now Cardinal) Seán Brady’s involvement in the 1975 Church investigations into allegations of sexual abuse against Fr Brendan Smyth. What will emerge from this incident, and from the Murphy Report, is not something that anyone can predict with certainty at the moment.

John Littleton
Eamon Maher



  1. Colm O’Gorman, Beyond Belief (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2009), pp 224-5.
  2. It should be noted that the Dublin/Murphy Report has not to date (March 2010) been published in its entirety.
  3. Paul Cullen, ’30 Years of Church and State cover-up of child sex abuse’, in The Irish Times, 27 November 2009, p 9.
  4. John Waters, ‘The Church’s sins are also sins against Christ. They re-crucified Him’, in Irish Mail on Sunday, 29 November 2009, p 27.
  5. Ronan Fanning, ‘The Age of our Craven Deference is finally over’, in The Sunday Independent, 6 December 2009, p 21.
  6. Fintan O’Toole, ‘Church relationship with Irish society has itself been abusive’, in The Irish Times, 28 November 2009, p 15.
  7. Maureen Gaffney, ‘Church’s view of sex the root cause of its troubles’, in The Irish Times, 2 December 2009.
  8. Patsy McGarry, ‘Failure of Church to stop abuse led to suicides and settlements’, in The Irish Times, 17 December 2009.
  9. As quoted by Carl O’Brien ‘Every day is like it happened yesterday’, in The Irish Times, 27 November 2009, p 14.
  10. ‘”A collar will protect no criminal”, warns Minister for justice’, in The Irish Times, 27 November 2009, p 9.
  11. Theo Dorgan, ‘Scandals could undermine the church’s foundations’, in The Irish Times, 14 December 2009, p 14.
  12. Gerard Moloney, ‘What kind of church?’, in Reality, Volume 75, No 1, January 2010, p 5.
  13. Jean Sulivan, Morning Light: The Spiritual Journal of Jean Sulivan, trs Joseph Cunneen and Patrick Gormally (New York: Paulist Press, 1988), p 156.

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