Ireland Begins Investigating Diocese

By Shawn Pogatchnik
Newsday [Ireland]
March 28, 2003

DUBLIN, Ireland -- An Irish commission on Friday launched its first investigation into the Roman Catholic Church's apparent cover-up of decades of sexual abuse by priests, targeting a notorious southeast diocese.

A government-appointed panel of experts led by a retired Supreme Court judge, Frank Murphy, will focus on Ferns, a diocese where cases of alleged abuse and victims' anger have run particularly high.

Scandals there forced the diocese's popular bishop, Brendan Comiskey, to resign last year.

Health Minister Micheal Martin also left open the possibility that the panel's work could be extended to other dioceses, particularly Dublin, where more than 150 lawsuits by alleged abuse victims are pending against priests and their superiors.

The panel intends to publish a report within a year identifying the number of abuse cases in Ferns, chiefly those occurring in the 1970s and 1980s; what the church and state authorities did about them; and "explanations for that inadequate or inappropriate response."

Of all the countries where sexual-abuse revelations have scandalized the Roman Catholic Church, Ireland has been among the hardest hit.

In the past decade, this predominantly Roman Catholic nation of 3.8 million people -- which has exported priests worldwide from its now largely closed network of seminaries -- has seen more than 100 priests convicted for molesting children and church-state relations torn apart.

Bishops have admitted they frequently knew of abuse claims but transferred pedophile priests to new parishes rather than notify police, as they now concede should have happened. One of the earliest public cases triggered a government collapse in 1994.

Much public outrage in recent years has focused on Ferns, where victims banded together to identify their abusers, chiefly four priests -- one of whom, Rev. Sean Fortune, committed suicide rather than face prison.

The victims' lead spokesman, Colm O'Gorman, welcomed the government inquest.

O'Gorman, who repeatedly was sodomized when he was one of Fortune's altar boys in the early 1980s, predicted that the Murphy inquiry would be "an essential first step in uncovering how the Catholic Church responded to abuse of children by its priests -- not just in Ferns, but across all the dioceses of Ireland."

The church's senior figure in Ferns, Bishop Eamonn Walsh, promised to cooperate fully with Murphy's investigators, who will have access to diocesan records on abuse cases.

"We want to get to the truth," said Walsh, who replaced Comiskey last year in Ferns, covering County Wexford and part of County Wicklow, south of Dublin.

Both the state and church face potentially mammoth legal costs they are struggling to control.

A commission handling compensation payments to people abused in church-run schools, work houses and orphanages since the 1950s estimates it may offer awards of at least $50,000 each to more than 3,000 claimants.

The government agreed to set up the compensation commission last year after cutting a controversial deal with the church's religious orders, which agreed to contribute $130 million to the eventual payout. Most of those contributions involved donations of property to the government, not cash.

Estimates of the total liability range up to $500 million. Opposition politicians complain that the Roman Catholic orders, not the taxpayer, should bear the bulk of that cost.


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