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Ireland's president: Abuse revelations prompt 'national debate'

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Staff / May 26, 2009
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Ireland's president, Mary McAleese, said yesterday that the controversy generated by a report last week detailing the widespread abuse of children entrusted to the care of Roman Catholic religious orders in her country is the beginning of “a painful, necessary national debate.”

McAleese, five years into her second seven-year term as Ireland’s head of state and making what will most likely be her last official visit to Boston, said she was convinced the debate will be healthy and cathartic.

The release of the so-called Ryan Report, with harrowing tales of children being subjected to sexual, physical, and emotional abuse in what amounted to workhouses throughout much of the 20th century, has dominated Ireland’s news for the last week.

Much of the debate has centered on whether the government’s controversial plan to indemnify the Catholic Church for more than $1 billion in compensation to victims -- while the Catholic orders themselves have contributed only $175 million -- should be reopened.

In Ireland, Prime Minister Brian Cowen said in a statement yesterday that his government would summon Catholic orders and demand they contribute more funds to provide counseling and education services for the victims and their families, the Associated Press reported.

But McAleese, beginning a three-day visit to Boston, said yesterday she believes the debate needs to focus not on money but on what was done to the victims.

“Some people were under the mistaken impression that this report was meant to bring closure,” McAleese said in an interview at her hotel in Boston. “It was the closing of doors to these matters that was so harmful. It was the closing of doors that prevented victims from telling their stories. Those doors have been opened up to vindication, the stories, and it will prompt a massive, public debate. I think we need to have a huge debate, about how this was allowed to happen, on why these stories weren’t heard before.”

McAleese, a devout Catholic, said she knows that some people in Ireland worry the renewed focus on abuse of children by clergy will damage the good works of the Catholic Church, which while diminished in influence remains one of Ireland’s major societal institutions.

“This is not the time for saying that. It is time to focus on the true victims here. I feel very sorry for members of religious orders who have dedicated their lives to helping others. But this is not the time to focus on that. This was an atrocious betrayal of love.

“We are no longer paralyzed by false deference. We’re wiser. We need to focus on the people whose lives are so damaged.”

The debate over clergy abuse in Ireland will only get bigger, as a major report on abuse by diocesan priests is also in the works.

Many Irish are furious that the Ryan Report did not identify abusive nuns, priests and religious by name. But McAleese, a lawyer and former law professor, said identifying abusers by name would, under Irish law, close off any avenues for possible prosecutions, which she suggested were inevitable. She believes abusers will eventually be named.

McAleese said she was devasted by the news she received Monday morning that a Catholic man was murdered by a Protestant mob in Northern Ireland, where she grew up. Just as the debate on clergy sexual abuse continues to reverberate in Ireland, she said, the sectarianism that was a major element of Northern Ireland’s Troubles has not gone away. McAleese has spent much of her presidency reaching out to loyalists, working-class Protestants who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom.

“This is a wake-up call,” McAleese said, of the killing in Coleraine of the Catholic man, Kevin McDaid, and the beating of his Protestant wife, by those supporting the victory of a Scottish soccer team supported by Protestants in Northern Ireland. “As far as we’ve come, this shows how much farther we need to travel.”

McAleese, Ireland’s first president from Northern Ireland, spent two days in western Massachusetts, where she learned that the greater Springfield area “is like going to Kerry.” She met many natives of the Dingle area and the Blasket Islands, including many native Irish speakers.

“I met an old man in Springfield who had the most perfect, the most impeccable, the most beautiful Irish,” she said. “I could listen to him all day.”

She received a warm welcome yesterday at the Irish Cultural Center in Canton, home to teams that play Ireland’s national games of Gaelic football and hurling. Today, she will visit immigrants and those from the Irish Pastoral Centre who help them, then receive the Solas Award from the Irish Immigration Centre for her work on behalf of immigrants.