Irish Catholicism's Two Abuse Crises

A Calamity for Both Church and Society

For an Irish Catholic Church desperate for good news, the bad keeps coming. Most recent are the revelations about a mother-and-child home run by the Bons Secours sisters in the town of Tuam, County Galway, which operated from 1925 to 1961. While some early, highly sensationalized media reports about hundreds of dead babies dumped into a septic tank have turned out to be false, details about the treatment of children—their living conditions, mortality rates, and burial after death—unleashed a fresh round of shock and outrage in a nation that has seen plenty of both during two decades of reports detailing a history of physical and sexual abuse in Catholic settings.

This string of revelations has obviously sparked blistering criticism of the church in Ireland. Much of it is deserved, but it is also important to understand the multiple dimensions of the calamity that Irish Catholicism finds itself in.

The abuse crisis in Ireland is really two crises. The first is the sexual abuse of minors by priests. This crisis has followed a now-familiar pattern. For decades, a small number of priests used their position to abuse vulnerable children. Some continued undetected for years; others were discovered at the time. When this happened, church leaders, especially bishops, consistently hushed up the crimes, transferring offenders to new and unsuspecting communities while pressuring victims and their families into silence. The need to “avoid scandal” produced scandalous behavior, allowing abuse to continue and the abused to suffer in shame and silence. 

This dimension of the crisis, then, is not unique to Irish Catholicism; we continue to see similar revelations from around the world. If given access to minors, a small percentage of men will sexually abuse them. While this percentage is not higher among Catholic priests than ministers in other denominations or those in secular positions such as coaches, teachers, or counselors, it is the historical response by Catholic leaders (as well as the church’s size, longevity, and practice of keeping detailed personnel records) that has produced an abuse crisis in country after country. From the United States to Germany to Australia to Ireland, it is the cover-up as much as the crime that has sparked outrage.

That being said, the wound likely runs deeper in Ireland. A striking feature of Irish history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is the fusion of national and Catholic identity. Catholicism deeply influenced nationalist resistance to British domination, the founding of the independent Irish state in 1922, and ordinary social and cultural life for generations. As late as the 1970s, weekly mass attendance was well over 90 percent across the nation, and even today, programing on Ireland’s national television and radio stations pauses daily to broadcast the tolling of the Angelus bells. So while in most countries a crisis of Catholicism is just that, in Ireland it has taken on the character of a national identity crisis as well.

Indeed, if any two elements best defined Ireland’s historically intense Catholic devotionalism, they were its clericalism—faith in the status, integrity, and benevolent power of priests and bishops—and its sexual puritanism—the special seriousness and shame reserved for sins involving sex. Of course, the sexual abuse of children by priests and its cover-up by bishops simultaneously betrayed both, something that helps explain the depth of pain, confusion, and anger in the country.    


THE SECOND ABUSE CRISIS is more uniquely Irish. After independence, the new Irish state entered into an exceptionally close relationship with the Catholic Church. Ireland’s constitution, adopted in 1937, was written with input from John Charles McQuaid, the soon-to-be the named Archbishop of Dublin; began by invoking “the Most Holy Trinity”; and endorsed the “special position” of the Catholic Church in Irish life. The church’s role included drawing on public funds to operate a vast network of hospitals, schools, and other social welfare institutions on behalf of the state. Even today, the majority of public primary schools in Ireland are essentially Catholic-run.

Among these institutions were homes and industrial schools, primarily run by religious orders, for orphans, destitute or delinquent children, and unwed mothers. There were also “Magdalene asylums” that housed women suspected of engaging in prostitution, sex outside of marriage, or immodest behavior of some kind. In some cases these institutions helped those in need, but many were run more like prisons, and revelations of harsh physical punishment, sexual abuse, malnourishment, disease, forced labor, and the seizing of children from their mothers has rocked the country over the last few decades. The news about the home in Tuam is only the latest.

The Irish public’s anger at the Catholic orders that ran these places is warranted, but the revelations indict more than just the church. In fact, some of the anger is a way to deflect more widespread guilt. It is not so easy to separate mid-twentieth century Irish society from Catholicism. Almost every extended Irish family had someone in a religious order connected to these institutions, just as they likely had a member somewhere on the family tree confined in one. The government sponsored and in many cases inspected these places. It was Irish society more generally that pushed its most troublesome and marginalized members out of sight behind these walls, dumping them on nuns and brothers often too overwhelmed to deal with them. And during the heyday of these institutions, Irish life outside their walls had its own share of poverty, illness, high infant mortality, harsh physical discipline, and sexual abuse and exploitation. The history of mistreatment in these institutions is a scandal for the Catholic Church, but the church was not so much a force imposed from outside the country as one woven into Irish society and made up of Irish people themselves.

The Irish Catholic Church, then, stands at the center of Ireland’s abuse crises, but it does not stand alone. These crises extend beyond Ireland to global Catholicism on the one hand, and beyond the Catholic Church to the whole of Irish society on the other. Irish Catholicism’s abuse crises are more than just an Irish problem, and more than just a Catholic problem.

About the Author

David Carroll Cochran is Professor of Politics at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, where he also directs the Archbishop Kucera Center for Catholic Intellectual and Spiritual Life. His most recent books are Catholic Realism and the Abolition of War (Orbis) and The Catholic Church in Ireland Today (Rowman & Littlefield).



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I think that summarizes the situation quite well.  The problem, though, is twofold.  First, the Church should have ahd a higher standard than secular society.  It did not. It accepted the standards of the larger culture rather than setting its own.   Second, it is too easy to use this interwoven relationship of society, government and Church  to fall into the trap that says, well, we just did what everyone else was doing.  Based on the admittedly limited number of people I've spoken to, the Irish Church has probably lost a generation, perhaps more.

The Irish Times did massive damage to the Tuam babies story. First they remained quiet for a week and then when it could not be ignored, they set about discrediting Catherine Corless. The babies were in the sewage system. It am disgusted at the tactic of the Times and wonder who was responsible for this. It is insult to injury.

Tuam was not the worst. The mortality rate at Pelletstown was much higher and every county in Ireland has a home or industrial school or other church-run institution where horrors occurred. 

Still the nuns refuse to give access to people seeking their real mothers. Still the same church escapes prosecution. Still the babies in most places has no graves or names to mark where they are 'buried.' In Castlepollard in Co. Westmeath they put a nail in the wall for each baby.

in the same place some mothers were kept after their babies had been taken from them and old men brought in and the women paraded so they could choose a young wife.

We lived in Fascist Ireland, a horror set up by the pedophile, McQuaid. We still do not have human rights and young teachers in elementary schools must teach religion if they wNt a job. The church still rules because of their control of the most vulnerable: the young and the old. We are still oppressed and people still do not dare prosecute priests or nuns nor even speak ill or them as long as they control hospitals and schools. 

Th real criss is the immaturity of catholic clergy, their miserable training in moral and ethical decision making. They have reduced morality and etics to blind obedience to hierarchy, destroying any healthy conscience in those the church rewards with promotions.

I want to say some thiongs about Archbishop Mcuaid, but I leave his transgressions to the historians to sort out. He was not a worthy public represnetative of Chist. But of course he was "churchman," festishing the chirch over God and simple human decency.


My mother and father left Ireand for many reasons, one being the fear that the union of the church and state would corrupt both. This union was not everyone's idea of how the Rpublic should operate. As my unlce often siad, "We did not fight for centuries to disestablish one church only to establish another."


We all hear that absolute power corrupts aboslutely. Well, so does aboslute powerlessness, and that - powerlessness -  is what the pople of Ireland experienced when they acted so obsequiously to the Catholic clergy.

Was McQuaid a pedophiliac? It is well known - all the elite knew it all along - that he slept with his houseboy(s) but i don't think that was pedophilia. And the worst of it was his nasty sermons against homosexuals and the ridicluous deference given to him by those who knew his personal habits. DeValera, in his admiration for Franco, set Ireland on a horrible course, and the despicable McQuaid was just one result.

The church set a standard lower than western society as a whole and dragged Irish society down to its baseness.

Believe me, not every Irish family has a connection to those purgatorial places where poor women and thei children were shoved. Stop saying that.

Your comment that  "some early, highly sensationalized media reports about hundreds of dead babies dumped into a septic tank have turned out to be false" is  a masterpiece of understatement. Not a single body of  a dead baby was found in a septic tank. Decades ago two boys moved a slab of stone in a field and saw some skeletons which local Gardai (police) believed - and still believe - date back to the Great Famine of the 1840s. And these (probable) Famine burials were not contained in a tank of any description. (Americans have a reputation for being naive but did your journalists actually believe that you can dump hundreds of bodies into a working septic tank?)

Your article refers to the late Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and  links to an article that accuses him of being a paedophile. The Archbishop died in 1973 and this allegation was first made by journalist John Cooney in a "biography"  published in 1999 i.e. over a quarter of a century later. The claim was rejected as baseless by several Irish historians and by practically every other journalist - including those who otherwise praised the rest of the book for its hatchet job on the Archbishop.   It is notable that even our  anti-clerics found the paedophile claims an embarrasment. One reviewer REGRETTED that the obvious falsity of the allegations might create sympathy for the late Archbishop!

Other clearly false claims have been made against the Bon Secour nuns and the Church i.e. that the children of unmarried mothers were denied baptism. A spokesman for the diocese of Tuam has pointed out that the diocese has records of several hundred baptisms of children at the home.  I think that Associated Press have apologised for publishing THAT particular lie. The fact that a number of claims are clearly false does also shed light on others that cannot be either proved or disproved after a lapse of more than 50 years. (Suppose similar allegations had been made against a JEWISH orphanage and a long-dead Chief Rabbi of Ireland.; we would all understand what was behind them and what credibility we should give to other unprovable claims!)


Ireland was poor because it was an exploited colony whose absentee English landlords had been taking  their profits out of the country for two hundred years.  In many areas there was no electricty well into the twentieth century and people got their water from a well.  If there had not been strict teaching by families, schools and the church about the importance of not producing children unless there was a responsible  father to support them, the level of overpopulation and starvation would have been beyond what we have seen in Africa and India.


Is it  the policy of Commonweal to allow vicious and unproven accusations against dead Archbishops like McQuaid of Dublin to be published on this blog? I am no fan of McQuaid but really the slander of some of the comments published here on this blog are a disgrace .

Please remove them

The following comment  is somewhat more valid - although not in the way that you suppose:


The Irish public’s anger at the Catholic orders that ran these places is warranted, but the revelations indict more than just the church. In fact, some of the anger is a way to deflect more widespread guilt. It is not so easy to separate mid-twentieth century Irish society from Catholicism


Since the 1960s there has been an enormous change in Irish society - increasing prosperity combined with a fracturing of society and a vastly increased rate of crime. This was PARTLY linked to the 30 year IRA terror campaign in the North, but after all, our society had dealt with precious such campaigns (e.g. in the 1930s and 1950s) without spiralling out of control. Every index of crime and addiction has gone through the roof in the past half-century - in spite of the fact that the number of police and prison places have also increased exponentially. I recall that in 2006 the Sunday Tribune published an article that stated that the previous year had seen the highest number of homicides in the history of the State since the the Civil War of the 1920s. All other crimes of violence have increased in tandem and we have a major drugs problem that didn't even exist in the 1950s. 


The "anger" that you speak about is that of a left-wing/liberal intelligentsia who cannot even SUGGEST a  solution to our present malaise. They were content to blame all evil on poverty and repression and blamed both of those on the Catholic Church. They have no explanation for increasing crime, addiction and suicide in a society that is far more prosperous than the 1950s and where sexual repression is non-existent. So they just continue to blame the Catholic Church but now in increasingly hysterical and ludicrous ways. The "babies in the septic tank" story is the Irish equivalent of Satanic Ritual Abuse!

Pieces such as this one by Mr. Cochran always leave me cold. 


This article has the sense of secular apologetics applied with scholarly precision to an appalling situation.  It may in fact be true that (with respect to the Priest abuse crisis) as Mr. Cochran says,  “...this percentage is not higher among Catholic priests than ministers in other denominations or those in secular positions such as coaches, teachers, or counselors…”, but it is nonetheless a subtle evasion from a uniquely Catholic responsibility.  It is an agile mind that suggests “… the church’s size, longevity, and practice of keeping detailed personnel records” have set Catholics up for unique scrutiny. While pointing to the singular nature of the collaboration between the Catholic Church and the Irish government, Mr. Chocran almost seems at pains to say “... every extended Irish family had someone in a religious order connected to these institutions”. In a deft bit of phrasing he therefore extends the crisis from the Catholic church to all the people and ignores the distinctive failure of a taught Catholicism. 


In effect, it seems that Mr. Cochran would have us become a church that uses statistics and popular politics to evade the fact that living by our own teachings should have prevented the very crises he so accurately describes. 


We have been given a great gift in a divine teaching centered around a way, a truth and a full loving life. If a government duly elected by a population with "90% mass attendance" would allow these abuses to be created and then exist for over 40 years, what does it say about the Eucharist those 90% consumed each week at mass? What does it say about the teachers? 


What does it say about Catholicism that abuses were poured out by a church founded on the principal of love? What does it say about the greatest teaching ever offered that it seems not to have found root in an Irish population steeped in those principles in almost every facet of its daily life? 


If Priests, called by God, educated in seminaries, given over to lives of service and prayer for and on behalf of their communities abuse no differently than secular "coaches, teachers, or counselors", what are we to say about the calling? 


If Nuns, our sacred sisters, taught in the same lessons as the rest of us — "whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me”— can treat mothers and their babies in such a fashion, what are we to say about their communities?  


To say that "Irish Catholicism’s abuse crises are more than just an Irish problem, and more than just a Catholic problem” at once diminishes the singular role of the Catholic church in the crisis and suggests that the real problem is record keeping and statistics that can be applied anywhere. This is a clever application of the “everybody else was doing it” defense. We are all culpable, therefore the Catholic church is not uniquely so. 


The Catholic Church is indeed uniquely culpable precisely because of what we believe. Abuse simply should not have happened under our watch. Telling fellow Catholics that in effect we are “no different” creates an atmosphere in which the abuse could be perpetuated (certainly if it stays within statistical norms). This article undermines the meaning of the teaching and diminishes the Catholic responsibility to let our light shine before men in such a way that they may see our good works.


This is excellent. And yes, failure to protect the young is ultimately the failure to protect all of society. ProLife? Hardly. 

Reference to "sexual abuse" in the Magdalene homes is inaccurate -- see the McAleese report. The above account lacks comparative study of how unmarried mothers were treated elsewhere -- no society embraced them as some societies do today. The crackdown on prostitution in the streets of Dublin left a lot of young women without a livelihood and the State confided them to nuns who generously undertook the thankless service. As a chaplain to the Good Shepherd Convent, Drumcondra, in 1980 I met the Magdalenes, who were healthy, happy, and alive at a great age. As to the Tuam home, the mortality rate, always high in such homes because of epidemics of diphtheria etc., was actually lower than in USA homes of similar type (20% as opposed to 90% in some USA homes). The infants who died were given a respectful vault burial, with cheap coffins purchased for the purpose. 

It is interesting to note that Enda Kenny, Irish prime minister, lambasted the Vatican for its "narcissism" re child abuse, yet his own reaction to the judgment in the Louse O'Keeffe case is just as narcissistic:

An  Croi ait is a vicious slanderer, but also completely misapprehends the Catherine Corless story. It was she herself who denounced the distorted use the Daily Mail (aka the Daily Insult) made of her account of the Tuam graves.

@ Joseph S O'Leary

Indeed a comparison of the official death rates in specific children's homes run by non-Catholics in the UK and USA   would be highly instructive. Of course those two countries were more prosperous than Ireland but even so, it would not surprise me if the rates in Irish institutions were far lower.

Will the report of the new Commission headed by Judge Yvonne Murphy publish such statistics? Judge Murphy's 2009 Report on the Dublin Archdiocese  includes criticism of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid even though he died in in 1973 and that inquiry was supposed to investigate the actions of the Catholic Church in the period 1975 to 2004. ALSO the Report failed to comment on the widely-publicized allegations of pedophilia against the late Archbishop even though these were made in 1999 i.e. WITHIN the period that Judge Murphy was supposed to report on. Could the fact that the allegations were universally rejected as false, have anything to do with this curious omission? 

The Catholic Church should insist on the publication of the comparitive statistics on death rates in Mother and Baby homes in other countries.!

The ECHR found that the Irish State "had to have known" and is thus guilty of a massive cover-up.

In fact the State seems to have been far less concerned about child abuse of the pupils in its charge than were the religious orders pilloried in the Ryan Report.

I had a very interesting dialogue with Mannix Flynn at his exhibition "Forsaken" today.


The responsibility of not only the Irish Catholic Church but also the Irish State was established in the countless national reports which were issued. More recently, on 28th January 2014, the European Court of Human Rights found that Ireland was guilty of neglect and bore responsibility for the welfare of all Irish school-going children in the past. The far bigger scandal which has been going on in Ireland and worldwide has been the failure to address the impact of clerical child sexual abuse over the life-time of those children so abused. It was for the reason I raised the seriousness and gravity of the situation to His Holiness Pope Francis as one of the first survivors of clerical child sexual abuse who recently met with the pontiff in July.

Pope told abuse survivors should be helped to avoid self-harm, suicide - 

‘Monumental shift’ in Rome on clerical child sexual abuse issue - 


Pope told abuse survivors should be helped to avoid self-harm, suicide -

‘Monumental shift’ in Rome on clerical child sexual abuse issue -

"it is the historical response by Catholic leaders (as well as the church’s size, longevity, and practice of keeping detailed personnel records) that has produced an abuse crisis in country after country."

It's been a long, long time since I've read such a ridiculous claim about this crisis. The fact that thousands of Catholic officials concealed heinous crimes against kids had nothing to do with this scandal?

This is intellectual dishonesty at its worst.

David Clohessy, SNAP, Survivorrs Network of those Abused by Priests, 314 566 9790, [email protected] 

How relieved you must be by thinking that the religion held so dear to the Irish for 1500 years has now been rejected.  Prostitution, drug-use, rape etc. have skyrocketed to catch up to the rest of the civilised world.  But could you answer this question:  How long do you think the cult of the whining victim will last in Ireland?

What happened in Ireland is what happens when Church and State are not separate.

A lot of this American commentary on Irish history is predicated on total ignorance by Americans of their own history.


The United States was the first country to concertedly undertake compulsory sterilization programs for the purpose of eugenics. The principal targets of the American program were the intellectually disabled and the mentally ill, but also targeted under many state laws were the deaf, the blind, people with epilepsy, and the physically deformed. According to the activist Angela DavisNative Americans, as well as African-American women were sterilized against their will in many states, often without their knowledge while they were in a hospital for other reasons (e.g. childbirth). Other Native American activists such as Dr. Pinkerman concluded some 25,000 Native American women were forcibly sterilized against their will, although others have claimed these numbers were exaggerated.

In the end, over 65,000 individuals were sterilized in 33 states under state compulsory sterilization programs in the United States. Sterilization rates across the country were relatively low (California being the sole exception) until the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell which legitimized the forced sterilization of patients at a Virginia home for the intellectually disabled. The number of sterilizations performed per year increased until another Supreme Court case, Skinner v. Oklahoma, 1942, complicated the legal situation by ruling against sterilization of criminals if the equal protection clause of the constitution was violated. That is, if sterilization was to be performed, then it could not exempt white-collar criminals.

Most sterilization laws could be divided into three main categories of motivations: eugenic (concerned with heredity), therapeutic (based on the idea that sterilization could cure one of sexual traits such as masturbation or pedophilia), or punitive (as a punishment for criminals).

The Oregon Board of Eugenics, later renamed the Board of Social Protection, existed until 1983, with the last forcible sterilization occurring in 1981. The U.S. commonwealth Puerto Rico had a sterilization program as well. Some states continued to have sterilization laws on the books for much longer after that. The 27 states where sterilization laws remained on the books in 1956 were: ArizonaCaliforniaConnecticutDelawareGeorgiaIdahoIndianaIowaKansas,MaineMichiganMinnesotaMississippiMontanaNebraskaNew HampshireNorth CarolinaNorth DakotaOklahomaOregonSouth CarolinaSouth DakotaUtahVermontVirginiaWest VirginiaWisconsin. As of April 13, 2012, victims of forced sterilization in North Carolina have yet to be compensated. Governor Bev Perdue recommended providing each living victim with $50,000. Eventually, in 2013 North Carolina announced that it would spend $10 million beginning in June 2015 to compensate men and women who were sterilized in the state's eugenics program; North Carolina sterilized 7,600 people from 1929 to 1974 who were deemed socially or mentally unfit.

148 female prisoners in two California institutions were sterilized between 2006 and 2010 in a supposedly voluntary program, but voluntary consent can not be given while under duress.

Discussions have yet to begin regarding compensation for victims of forced sterilization in other states. Other countries have yet to compensate victims of forced sterilization.


Is it ever taken into account, with these articles about the sex abuse crisis in Ireland that the "Church" is not some foreign invader, but made up of Irish men and women? The articles imply some great divide, or clinical separation between Ireland and an alien "Church".  It's as though the abuser priests came ashore like Venus, born fully mature rather being Irishmen themselves, born and bred. 

I ask because there seems to some disconnect between what Ireland is and what journalists seem to beleive it to be. My dear grandmother, born in Ireland, had no warm memories of or desire to return to the place of her birth. We heard no wonderful tales of Ireland when we were kids. The horror stories in the news, now, are not hard to believe. They would be easier to understand if the Irish held a mirror up to themselves to see who perpetrated these crimes and from where they came.

Ireland need not look beyond her own shores to find them.

"My dear grandmother, born in Ireland, had no warm memories of or desire to return to the place of her birth. We heard no wonderful tales of Ireland when we were kids. The horror stories in the news, now, are not hard to believe. They would be easier to understand if the Irish held a mirror up to themselves to see who perpetrated these crimes and from where they came."

Certainly, but the horror stories are replicated in the USA as well. Even now children are in solitary confinement in US jails. 

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