How men of God did the work of the Devil himself
The clerical sex abuse report reveals a church that functioned as a state within the state. Its legacy must be that we never again trust unquestioned power, argues Malachi O'Doherty
We are now familiar with the full horror of child-abuse within the Catholic Church in Ireland. We at least know the nature of it - if we have, perhaps, not all fully comprehended the appalling scale.
The information leaked out to us over many years, but was presented in a shocking collation of detail in the Ryan report just a year ago.
The country was sickened to learn that many respected religious orders had run institutions for the care of children much like adult prisons, even in camps for the indulgence of sexual cruelty.
The Ryan report concentrated on the orders, rather than the diocesan clergy. That is an important distinction in the minds of most Catholics.
A Christian Brother is not a priest. The priest is sanctified at a higher level and was always traditionally held in greater esteem.
But the reports we have received in recent years of the behaviour of priests and the cover-ups by the church hierarchy allow no distinction between lesser and greater categories of religious purity and discipline.
In 2005, an Irish government report into how allegations of abuse were managed in the diocese of Ferns in Co Wexford, showed that successive bishops preferred to defend the reputation of the church than to allow investigation of child abuse.
It showed that people who were unfit to be given responsibility for the care of children were ordained as priests and that successive bishops failed to establish proper childcare procedures and to pass on complaints of abuse to the Garda Siochana.
It also found that, before 1990, the police themselves had failed to properly investigate complaints which had come their way.
The image that emerged was of a state within a state and a virtual Catholic jurisdiction which was indulged by those who should have been enforcing the law.
If a priest had been groping little girls at the altar rails, that was a church matter to be settled internally; that appears to have been the thinking that prevailed. We now have the report into how the Archdiocese of Dublin handled complaints made against priests.
It is not a complete report.
It focuses on sample cases and effectively invites us to read these as representative of a colossal sprawl of abuse, cover-up and collusion whose limits and parameters we may never fully grasp. It is difficult to comprehend the thinking of the bishops who thought that men who sexually abused children should be protected from investigation and disclosure.
The Ferns report found that some bishops simply regarded the behaviour of these priests as a moral problem. Men who had molested children would, therefore, be simply transferred for a time, presumably encouraged to reflect on their sins and seek God's forgiveness, before being returned to the parishes within which they had offended.
Yesterday's report into cover-ups in the Archdiocese of Dublin finds that the institutional structures of the church facilitated the concealment of abuse and the protection of offenders.
In the early stages, it said, 'the welfare of children, which should have been the first priority, was not even a factor to be considered'.
The church protected its priests as cynically as any criminal outfit would have done. And this was for quasi-moral reasons, like the avoidance of scandal, but also for the protection of the material assets of an organisation which was presumed to put spiritual welfare and salvation first.
What is shocking still is that the behaviour of the church was so much at odds with the message which it was then impressing on the Irish Catholic people, that of sexual restraint and the willingness to confess sins.
At the least, we can now grasp that, when the church was lecturing us on the evils of sex, it had far closer acquaintance with sexual deviance than most of those it lectured to would have believed.
A church which was berating its people on the need to avoid sexual temptation knew well how strong temptation could be and it is perhaps not surprising, after all, that seeing so much sexual crime among its own priests, it recoiled in horror from the implications and blamed it all on the Devil.
The report published yesterday goes back to the time of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid - one of the chief architects of Catholic Ireland in the mid-20th century.
This was a man with a ruthlessly legalistic mind who was consulted on the framing of the constitution by Eamon de Valera himself.
Yet the report finds that he did not apply the canon law, of which he was such an ardent advocate in other fields.
This was a man for whom people erected bunting over the streets he would pass through on pastoral visits, yet he is now judged by history to have 'showed no concern for the welfare of children'.
Four archbishops successively failed to address the problem other than as an institutional difficulty to be managed by internal procedures.
Even a man who had been convicted in the courts had been allowed to continue as a priest.
The report is appalling and unnerving because it depicts an uncaring church, a predatory church, a smug and self-sufficient church.
But it should not be surprising that it routinely regarded itself as a higher authority in the land than the state. It was, after all, by its own estimation, doing God's work on earth.
It leaves Ireland north and south, however, uniquely equipped by experience now to recognise humbug and hypocrisy and the dangers of unquestioned power, here at home or anywhere else, for that matter.