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Calls in Ireland for expulsion of papal ambassador over child abuse

A report on clerical sex abuse in the southern diocese of Cloyne found that senior clergy had between 1996 and 2009 covered up allegations of rape and sexual abuse against 18 priests

DUBLIN // Revelations that the Vatican told Irish bishops they could conceal allegations of clerical child abuse have led to calls for the expulsion of the papal ambassador to Ireland, traditionally one of Catholicism's most-devout strongholds.

A report on clerical sex abuse in the southern diocese of Cloyne, published this week, found that senior clergy, including the head of the diocese, Bishop John Magee, had between 1996 and 2009 covered up allegations of rape and sexual abuse against 18 priests, in some cases obstructing and lying to investigators. Only one of these priests was subsequently charged and convicted.

Moreover, Judge Yvonne Murphy said the diocese had done so with the covert encouragement of the Vatican.

In 1997, the Vatican's then representative in Ireland secretly wrote to Irish bishops advising them that they were not bound by their own official child protection guidelines, published the year before.

These guidelines required them to inform the police and civil authorities of any report they had of criminal behaviour by their own clergy. Instead, the Vatican secretly encouraged Irish bishops to deal with complaints internally, using the church's own canon law.

The Taoiseach (prime minister), Enda Kenny, denounced this secret interference as "absolutely disgraceful", while the chairman of Mr Kenny's Fine Gael party, Charles Flanagan, demanded the expulsion of Ireland's papal nuncio (the ambassador from the Vatican), accusing Rome of conspiring with Irish citizens to break the law.

On Thursday, the Irish foreign minister, Eamon Gilmore, summoned the current papal nuncio, Archbishop Guiseppe Leanza, to a meeting at which, he said, Dr Leanza expressed "remorse" over the affair. Mr Gilmore said he had asked the Vatican to explain why it had told Irish bishops not to report child abuse to the police.

The Cloyne investigation comes on the heels of three other Irish reports into clerical sex abuse, in the diocese of Ferns, the Archdiocese of Dublin, and in a network of religious schools, orphanages and institutions.

As with a string of similar scandals in the US, Canada, Austria, Germany, Australia, Britain, France, Africa, Argentina, Brazil, the Netherlands and Belgium, the reports have uncovered a litany of abuse that was largely covered up by church authorities, who instead attempted to reform repeat offenders by spiritual or psychological means, or merely by moving them on to other parishes.

One of the most damning cases centred on Father Brendan Smyth, who over 40 years sexually abused at least 100 children in Belfast, Dublin and the United States.

The head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Daly, refused to resign last year despite revelations that in 1975 he had sworn two children to secrecy after they reported attacks by Father Smyth, who went on to abuse scores more children over the next 18 years.

Critics of the church have attacked the Vatican's use of the concept of "mental reservation", whereby clergy believe they can mislead and lie if they feel it serves a higher purpose.

In Cloyne, Bishop Magee was found to have written and signed two widely different accounts of an interview with an abusive priest - one, for official diocesan records, in which the priest denied the allegations, and a second secret account for Rome, in which the priest admitted his crimes.

The report also revealed that Bishop Magee, who retired last year, was the subject of a complaint by a 17-year-old boy, who said that on one occasion the bishop hugged him, kissed him on the head and told him that he loved him and dreamt of him at night. This week the bishop released a statement apologising for his failure to protect children, but his whereabouts is not known.

A former Vatican insider, Bishop Magee served as private secretary to three popes, and falsely claimed to have been the first person to discover the body of Pope John Paul I in 1978.

The child abuse scandals have come as a series of hammer blows to a church whose former vice-like grip on Irish public and private life was already slipping.

In line with Catholic dogma, contraception was illegal in the Republic of Ireland until 1980. In the 1980s Catholic fundamentalists managed to push through constitutional amendments banning divorce and abortion, which were in any case illegal.

Since then, however, divorce and contraception have both been liberalised, and many of the church's remaining devotees, less than half of whom now attend compulsory mass on Sundays, feel free to ignore many aspects of the church's principles.

The Catholic Church's enduring stranglehold on the state-sponsored education system is also increasingly threatened, with the education minister, Ruairi Quinn, having said it should hand over large numbers of school buildings - the church still controls 90 per cent of the state's primary schools and more than half of all secondary schools - as part-payment towards compensation for abuse victims estimated at €1.3 billion (Dh6.8bn).

foreign.desk@thenational.ae