A churchgoer holds a cross and rosary beads in St. Patrick's Cathedral on March 20, 2010 in Armagh, Northern Ireland as the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, speaks. Brady voiced hope on March 20 that the pope's letter addressing sex abuse by priests could lead to "a great season of rebirth."
Credit: Peter Muhly

Ireland, once called “the most Catholic country in the world” by Pope Paul VI, isn’t as Catholic as it used to be. Surveys show dramatic drops in the number of Irish people who identify as religious or attend weekly masses. News of heinous sex abuse and coordinated cover-ups challenge the church’s crucial position in Irish life.

The extent of child sexual abuse by clergy in Ireland’s parishes and Catholic institutions was revealed in a series of government inquiries over the last decade. One report revealed how tens of thousands of children were abused in a network of church-run residential schools. Another showed how the church worked to cover up decades of child sexual abuse by priests in Dublin. In March 2010, it became widely known that Cardinal Sean Brady — the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland who has been asked by abuse victims not to take part in the conclave selecting a new pope — attended meetings in the 1970s where two teenage abuse victims signed vows of silence after testifying against a priest who was later exposed as the most infamous serial sex offender in Irish church history.

Responding to widespread outrage, Pope Benedict XVI penned an unprecedented apology letter to Ireland’s Catholics, expressing “shame and remorse” for clergy sexual abuse and criticizing Irish bishops for “failures of leadership.” But the pope did not declare any Vatican responsibility in the chronic scandal or call for any church leaders to be disciplined.

Michael D’Antonio is an author whose latest book is "Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime and the Era of Catholic Scandal," to be published April 9. GlobalPost spoke to him about the ongoing church sex abuse scandal, the role it will play in the papal conclave and why the answer to the church’s problems could be found in Ireland:

GP: Will the sex abuse scandal be a factor when the cardinals convene at the Vatican to pick a new pope?

MD: I think that it’s going to be on every cardinal’s mind. There’s no doubt that they’re aware of the decline of the church’s moral authority and the fact that it’s directly associated with this scandal. I think it is quite possible that Benedict wants to see someone come in who’s untarnished by this. It may even be that investigations are leading closer to Benedict himself, in terms of specific abuse cases and his involvement in them. Maybe after 30 years of this, they’re tired of it. It’s an incredible thing. It’s almost as if Watergate were happening over and over again in slow motion. And even in slow motion, they can’t catch up to it.

GP: Your book sheds light on the international dimension of this crisis, especially in Ireland. Why is Ireland so important to this story?

MD: The most important thing to consider when you look at Ireland is the depth of the faith that existed and how much Catholicism is intertwined with culture and government. Even in modern times, it’s been considered the most Catholic country in the world, with the highest attendance at mass and the highest regard for clergy. You have this culture that is overlaid with Catholicism and you have this brand of faith that can be — and historically was — pretty authoritarian and overbearing. The disillusionment that comes with the discovery of abuse and cover-up is equally powerful. It’s really quite startling to see how universal the criticism and how broad the anger is. Attendance at mass is way down. The way people talk about the church is different.

GP: Do they blame Pope Benedict XVI?

MD: A large majority of Irish Catholics feels that he failed to respond adequately to their concerns — and just doesn’t get it. The perception, I think, is that he’s yet to grasp the level of disillusionment — and I think he lost Ireland for the church.

GP: You say the new pope should come from Ireland. Why?

MD: In Ireland, alongside the authoritarian church, there’s always been a radical Irish Catholic identity. That’s my thinking when I suggest that maybe there is an Irish person who could actually lead the church from a position that’s highly identified with Catholicism but also capable of making a clear-eyed critique. You could find someone from that tradition who would be strong enough to hold the rudder and not let go of it until the ship is turned around. But, I don’t expect that to happen.

GP: Right. Ireland’s best papal prospect is Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, and bookmakers put his odds at 100-1. Still, why would he be a good choice?

MD: He’s gone not only around the church in Ireland but to churches and Catholic institutions in America to apologize and call for greater lay involvement in the church and its decision-making. He’s just had a far more human response to the crisis and recognized that it flows in large measure out of the clerical culture. He recognizes that the church is not the clerics, but the people. The problem does not belong to the people. It belongs to the priests, the bishops and the pope. He gets it — and I think people know that he does. But, for that reason, I think he would never be the choice.

Aaron Schrank is a freelance reporter in Los Angeles and a Master's Candidate at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. His writing and reporting has appeared in Foxnews.com, American Public Media's Marketplace, KCET.org and The Santa Monica Daily Press. 

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