Irish church braces for new abuse report

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LISA MULLINS: The Catholic Church in Ireland is bracing for bad news. A new report is due out soon on the sexual abuse of children by priests in the Dublin archdiocese. And as The World's Laura Lynch reports from Dublin, this is an especially difficult time for the Irish Church.

LAURA LYNCH: Ireland, once so fundamentally and fiercely Catholic, simply isn't anymore. Evidence of that comes straight from the top, from the mouth of one of the country's most senior clergyman. During a mass last month, Archbishop Diarmund Martin of Dublin laid it out. His words are spoken here by an actor.

Archbishop Diarmund Martin: We have no time to waste. There is a dramatic and growing rift between our church and younger generations, and the blame doesn't lie principally with young people.

LYNCH: The rift is due in part to secularization and modernization. But the sexual abuse of children by priests and the church's role in covering it up has crippled its ability to command reverence and respect. Now, it's the Church readying for another blow. Archbishop Martin warned worshippers at that same mass about the imminent release of a year-long inquiry into what happened.

MARTIN: The report of the Commission on child sexual abuse will shock us all. It is likely that thousands of children or young people across Ireland were abused by priests in the period under investigation, and the horror of that abuse was not recognized for what it is. The report will make each of us and the entire Church in Dublin a humbler church.

LYNCH: Marie Collins was only 13 in 1960 when a priest came to see her in a hospital as she recovered from surgery. He told the on duty nurse to take a break. Then he took obscene photos of the frightened girl.

MARIE COLLINS: He would say to me, �I'm a priest. I can't do anything wrong.� And sort of as a child of the �50s, �60s � �50s, anyway -- I sort of believed that, you know, he's a priest. It has to be something wrong with me. But he used that, �I'm a priest. I can't do anything wrong so what I'm doing as to be right.�

LYNCH: It took years for Collins to find the courage to complain. It took many more for her to persuade the Church and the police to take action � years when she was accused of trying to ruin the priest's life. Eventually, he was jailed for abusing her and another child. Unlike the United States, the Irish government instigated and funded inquiries. The investigation into the Dublin archdiocese has taken years to complete. Marie Collins says American Catholics may have felt they turned a page quickly. But here, she says, the powerful Irish Church held sway much longer.

COLLINS: It's old news in other areas, but it was impossible here until we got a change in the Church leadership. And then some of us, as victims, we went public and I think it wasn't until the people began to speak up and vote with their feet, because the churches began to empty.

LYNCH: On a recent Sunday at Dublin's main cathedral, a choir of boys and men sing out over pews which are far from full. Wrapped around a nearby marble column is a poster. �Dublin needs priests,� it says. It's a far cry from the glory days when Ireland was overflowing with priests � so many it exported them. Today, with an average age of 61, most priests in Ireland are close to retiring. There are few seminarians to replace them. David Quinn is a journalist who has reported on the Catholic Church for years. He blames part of the problem on the hierarchy's unwillingness to sell potential recruits on life as a priest.

DAVID QUINN: I think it's partly because the bishops themselves are affected by the morale crisis within the church, which of course has been partly brought on by themselves because of the disastrous handling of the scandals.

LYNCH: And so full circle back to the scandals. The report into the Dublin archdiocese is expected to examine not only the abuse, but how and why the church covered up so many cases. Just a few months ago, another archbishop of another archdiocese in southeastern Ireland stepped aside when fresh allegations of abuse and cover-up surfaced there. It's enough to remind Marie Collins why the investigations into the past are still so important today.

COLLINS: I think what this report will do, it will make it impossible for those bishops and members of the hierarchy who want to pretend this is a small problem or something that will pass, it will make it impossible for them to continue to say that.

LYNCH: Collins has fought hard for new child protection guidelines � guidelines that some say are among the toughest and best in the world. But ever wary, she knows that in the end, the rules are only as good as the church officials who are charged with enforcing them. Some believe the church's future in Ireland will depend on how they do that job in the months and years to come. For The World, I'm Laura Lynch, Dublin.