Reland’s Catholic Crisis Transcript


August 11, 2008

Given the blanket media coverage of the so-called WYD in Sydney this week, it would seem the Catholic Church is thriving. But in Ireland - a country steeped in Catholic tradition – it is a very different story. With paedophilia scandals undermining faith in the faith, as it were, the country that once exported Catholic priests to the world is now being forced to import clergy just to keep the Church alive. Here's David Brill.

REPORTER: David Brill

At a cathedral in central Dublin an age-old ceremony is under way as a new priest is inducted into the Church.

PRIEST 1: I offer you these symbols of your office and authority.

PRIEST 2: In the name of Jesus Christ we meet to welcome a new dean of this cathedral church. It's a new ministry because Dermott brings particular gifts to our life and work together. We welcome him and Celia.

But in this land dominated by the Catholic faith, this is an Anglican ceremony. And the reverend being installed as the new dean used to be a Catholic priest.

DERMOT DUNNE, ANGLICAN PRIEST AND FORMER CATHOLIC PRIEST: It came to a point where I had a real problem with preaching one thing and believing another.

Dermot Dunne stunned the Catholic community when he quit the church because he felt the rule of celibacy was outdated.

DERMOT DUNNE: Celibacy should be a choice rather than an intrinsic part of ordination.

Dean Dunne's move marks a trend that is causing deep concern amongst the Catholic community here. The country once considered the Pope's epicentre of faith in Europe is running out of priests.

DAVID QUINN, RELIGIOUS COMMENTATOR: Compared to where the Catholic Church was 30 years ago, the state of the Catholic Church in Ireland is dreadful.

David Quinn is a religious commentator and a practicing Catholic.

He has been documenting the crisis in the Church and is extremely worried by what he's seeing.

DAVID QUINN: Ireland has the worst vocations crisis in the world.


DAVID QUINN: People simply don't live within a Catholic social universe anymore, where a very natural thing was to become a priest or a nun. 160 priests died or retired two years ago and only 9 were ordained so that puts the ratio and the numbers in perspective. So when people talk of a vocations crisis, that's an underestimate. It's not a crisis - it's a complete catastrophe and, as I say, there is nowhere worse than Ireland.

The number of vocations, or people studying to become priests, is so low that in the next 20 years some say the number of priests in Ireland will drop nearly 70%. That's having a major impact on places like the Maynooth Seminary, the only college still open in Ireland that is devoted specifically to study for the priesthood.

FATHER PATRICK RUSHE, NATIONAL DIRECTOR FOR VOCATIONS: Yeah, the numbers are down of course from the high of the '50s and '60s here in Ireland. We have less priests coming forward. Well, I suppose in the '50s and '60s this university - St Patrick's College - would have 500 students studying for the priesthood, not only here in Ireland but in other parts of the world. Over the years that has declined to now the point where we are just under 100 students here.

REPORTER: Now only nine priests were ordained last year. Father, what do you say?

FATHER PATRICK RUSHE: I wish there were more, and I think there will be more, because what's happening is, it takes 6, 7 years for a priest to study and train, so the priests who were ordained last year, began their studies at the height of the scandals here in Ireland.

The 'scandals', as Father Rushe so quaintly puts it, is a reference to the blight of paedophilia that has rocked Ireland's Catholic Church leading many in this pious land to abandon Catholicism for good.

DAVID QUINN: The scandal began to come to the public consciousness in a big way probably from the early '90s and probably for the whole decade of the '90s from '92, '93. Up until 2002 it was a rolling story in Ireland and a very dominant story in Ireland that frequently made the headlines. There was absolutely gigantic public anger about the thing, obviously a priest committing this offence is absolutely grotesque. Two of the worst examples - they're both dead now - a Father Brendan Smyth and Father Sean Fortune, and they were multiple abusers.

REPORTER: Of children?

DAVID QUINN: Well, of children and young teenagers and they were not properly controlled, if that's the word by the Church authorities. See, that's the second part of the scandal.

REPORTER: A cover-up?

DAVID QUINN: Well that's the word that frequently gets used and it's probably an appropriate word to use.

When Brendan Smyth was lead away the cover-up and the public-relations debacle that followed has left many wondering whether it will ever be possible for the Catholic Church to recover its former standing in Ireland.

DERMOT DUNNE: I can understand where people are coming from, turning away from the Church because of the instance of paedophilia. There were a lot of priests engaged in that in past years. I think one of the biggest problems is how the Church handles the whole issue. But if there is a cover-up - and if there's a cover-up after a cover-up - think people lose faith and I can quite identify and understand with people.

REPORTER: Obviously that probably would have affected the Church - young men wanting to become priests or people who wanted to go to church or go to Mass.

DERMOT DUNNE: Given the percentage of the population who are Roman Catholic in this country is about 95%. When you had a very defined church, who are giving a very defined faith, and preaching a very defined faith. This is my experience growing up as well and everything was given and it created a safety. People didn't need to think for themselves. They had a church who thought for them. But when the Church starts admitting its humanity, for want of a word, and that the people within the church are human then that safety net is gone.

FATHER PATRICK RUSHE: It wasn't a time to deal with vocations as such - we had to deal with the issue of the scandals and those difficulties and the hurt and the pain, and it wasn't right to be doing a recruitment campaign in that sense at that stage, when we're dealing with this very important other issue.

The ripple affect of an aging priest population and a lack of new priests is now being felt in parishes as far away as Limerick. Here, there are so few priests that those who are left are forced to split their time moving between parishes. They call it "parish clustering". I asked how they were dealing with the changes.

FATHER EAMONN BURKE, DUBLIN DIOCESE VOCATIONS DIRECTOR: Limerick Diocese is not the only diocese involved in this. There are a huge number of dioceses throughout the country who have realised the need to begin to group parishes together as probably the principle way of addressing the change that is required.

But even with a crisis now gripping the Catholic Church, priests like Noel Kirwan are choosing to see parish clustering as a positive. There may be fewer priests, he says, but that's simply helped to bring people together.

FATHER NOAL KIRWAN, ‘CLUSTER PARISH’ PRIEST: There was more of a sense of community, more a sense of the gathering, more a sense of the joy. It's not just about bringing numbers in, it's about being the kind of the church we're meant to be. It's not about doing things, it's about becoming who we're meant to be. That's at the heart of it.

Positive spin is one thing, but the reality is that Ireland's Catholic clergy is now so depleted that the church that once exported priests to the world is now having to import them simply to bolster its ranks. This mass is being led by a priest from Poland. He's part of a new league of foreign priests now filling a growing gap in Ireland as the country grapples with its vanishing local clergy.

FATHER PATRICK RUSHE: The Church is trying to obviously address the issue, trying to ensure that people know what's happening, that the community of faith knows that there is a challenge out there, a call to be met, particularly for the numbers of priests. Even though we will have less priests than we had 20 years ago or 30 years ago, we will still be able to give that fundamental service that the people want, and the community of faith want.

DAVID QUINN: Is it going to soldier on simply using Irish priests or it is going to say "Priests are plentiful in Africa, priests are plentiful in parts of Asia, plentiful in maybe parts of Eastern Europe"? So you would envisage a time where we will have to import priests.


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