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Mistrust, deep divisions await O’Malley in Ireland

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley was asked by Pope Benedict XVI to investigate the church’s handling of sex abuse cases in Ireland. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley was asked by Pope Benedict XVI to investigate the church’s handling of sex abuse cases in Ireland. (Suzanne Kreiter/ Globe Staff)
By Michael Rezendes
Globe Staff / June 8, 2010

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When Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley arrives in Ireland to investigate the handling of sex abuse cases in the Dublin Archdiocese, he is likely to encounter a divided clergy, skeptical victims, and a sense of betrayal that runs far deeper than what he encountered when he arrived in Boston seven years ago.

“He’s going to find a very divided church,’’ said Colm O’Gorman, an Irish clergy sex abuse victim and the founder of the organization One in Four. “On the one side, he’ll find those who are still very resistant to change and unwilling to acknowledge the extent of a very clear and deliberate coverup, and on the other side he’ll find those who are significant reformers.’’

Engulfed by a crisis rolling across Europe, Pope Benedict XVI last week called on O’Malley and four other prelates to conduct an “apostolic visitation’’ to Ireland, a country where the church for centuries was held in especially high esteem, but where government reports on the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests have roiled the faithful.

“Every religion has a clergy in which the people invest their trust and confidence, but few have invested as heavily as the Irish,’’ said Thomas Groome, a native of Ireland who is now a professor of theology at Boston College. “Traditional ly, priests have enjoyed ultimate status in Irish community, so their fall from grace is all the more painful.’’

The situation in Dublin differs from that in many dioceses, in that O’Gorman and other victim advocates say the archbishop, Diarmuid Martin, stands out as a champion of change.

The victim advocates credit Martin with drawing attention to the role his fellow bishops played in covering up abuses committed by priests, and with presiding over the development of new church policies designed to protect children.

Martin has expressed deep skepticism about the willingness of his fellow bishops to face the crisis and follow the new policies.

Last month, for example, he delivered an address to a Catholic fraternal organization in which he said there were “strong forces’’ within the church that preferred to ignore the facts about clerical sex abuse, and he said he sees signs that his fellow bishops in Ireland were not following church policies.

“I have never, since becoming archbishop of Dublin, felt so disheartened and discouraged about the level of willingness to really begin what is going to be a painful path of renewal,’’ he said.

The speech drew praise from victims and their advocates. But there is also concern that Martin, who arrived in Dublin in 2003, has become isolated from other bishops and alienated from priests, many of whom believe he played a part in the recent resignations of five Irish bishops accused of covering up clergy sex abuse.

“Archbishop Martin has been at the forefront in the development of child protection policies,’’ said Maeve Lewis, executive director of One in Four. “But as a result he has become very isolated. I think this has been a very difficult year for him.’’

Some observers of the Catholic Church in Ireland believe that O’Malley, known for cleaning up clergy abuse scandals during his tenure as bishop in Fall River, Palm Beach, Fla., and Boston, may travel to Dublin in the fall with the purpose of shoring up Martin’s standing among his fellow bishops.

“If O’Malley says, ‘You look like you’re doing a good job; here are some minor suggestions,’ that could be very helpful to Martin,’’ said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. “His visit could be very supportive.’’

Kathleen O’Toole, the former Boston police commissioner who is now the chief inspector of Ireland’s police, also said she believes O’Malley’s visit holds much promise.

“I don’t think he’ll encounter any resistance,’’ she said. “In fact, I believe he’ll be warmly received.’’

But advocates for victims — in Boston and in Dublin — say they are skeptical about O’Malley’s visit because of what they call a lack of transparency in his handling of clergy sex abuse cases in Fall River and Boston.

Specifically, they point to a 2002 decision by Bristol District Attorney Paul Walsh Jr. to release the names of 20 priests accused of sexual abuse, citing frustration with the handling of the cases by church officials, including O’Malley, who was then the bishop of the Fall River Diocese.

In addition, the advocates have also cited O’Malley’s decision as Boston’s archbishop to reinstate three priests previously suspended after abuse allegations were leveled against them; O’Malley determined that the accusations were not credible.

“For an apostolic visitation to have any chance of success, the participating bishops cannot be guilty of the same offenses they are investigating,’’ said BishopAccountability.org, a Waltham-based group that tracks abuse allegations against priests.

In addition, Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer who has represented hundreds of clergy abuse victims, said he believes the purpose of O’Malley’s visit is public relations, an attempt to bolster the reputation of the Catholic Church.

“Cardinal O’Malley will say the correct things at the correct time in order to buy silence,’’ he said.

The abuse crisis in Ireland, which has been unfolding since the 1990s, intensified last year when the Irish government released two reports on sexual abuse by priests, one documenting the widespread abuse of children in the nation’s church-run schools; the other detailing a pattern of church officials and police working together to cover up allegations of clerical abuse.

The reports shocked Irish Catholics and appear to have accelerated a decades-long decline in allegiance to the church.

Irish clergy abuse victims say they find it difficult to believe the visits by O’Malley and other global prelates will add significantly to the government’s findings.

“The church should look to its existing records, which are extensive, and the results of the major state investigations carried out at the cost of millions of euros to Irish taxpayers,’’ said O’Gorman. “Most people are underwhelmed by the idea of an apostolic visitation by the Vatican.’’

Even those who believe Pope Benedict’s initiative is a welcome sign that the Vatican is finally moving to address clergy sexual abuse, such as Groome, question the decision to send a delegation to Ireland and not to other countries where scandals over the sexual abuse of minors have also erupted.

In Germany, for example, prosecutors have begun a preliminary investigation into the nation’s highest-ranking Catholic bishop for the role he allegedly played in allowing a priest accused of molesting a minor to be reassigned.

In addition, Benedict, who comes from Germany, has been criticized for his tenure as archbishop of the Munich Diocese, where an abusive priest who had been treated for sexual problems was reassigned to another parish, where he abused again.

“If Benedict is going to send apostolic visitors into Ireland, I think he should send them to Germany, as well,’’ Groome said.

Michael Rezendes can be reached at rezendes@globe.com.

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