Archbishop of Tuam describes clerical child abuse as ‘darkest place in our Catholic story’

Bishop of Derry warns against dumbing down church teaching to adapt to changing cultural priorities

Abuse of children by priests was addressed “clearly, directly and very movingly” in the synthesis report sent to Rome last week by the Irish Catholic Church, people attending the novena at Knock were told on Monday.

“The darkest place in our Catholic story is clerical and institutional abuse,” said Archbishop of Tuam Francis Duffy in a homily during Mass in the Basilica. In the synthesis report “it is referred to as an ‘open wound’ that was concealed by the church for so long. Those who participated in the synodal preparations identified a sense of loss, anger, betrayal, estrangement, in addition to the deeply personal and living sense of hurt. There is also a clear desire for healing,” he said.

The Archbishop noted how “significantly” the synthesis report “links abuse to other aspects of life where healing is needed, ‘our understanding of sexuality and of power; the absence of women in decision-making roles; transparency and accountability in governance; clericalism’. The synthesis invites the church to examine how its own structures and way of operating contributed to this situation.”

He continued that “healing that is so necessary extends to those who suffered abuse – clerical and institutional. It also extends to others who felt and continue to feel marginalised, stigmatised and judged by society and by church because of sexual orientation, perceived position in society and being judged and found wanting. The Lord’s call is to bring healing to those who suffer.”


It was the case that the “absence of so many people from our churches and the dramatic and continuing fall in the number of clergy and religious is leading to significant change in contemporary Irish Catholicism.” But, he said, “there is no point in looking only to the past, only to past structures, practices and timetables, instead we learn from the past, look at the present and we plan for the future. Past practices or the way things ‘always’ were, cannot hold us back or curtail us.”

He said “the holy spirit will guide us along the synodal pathway which the holy father has identified as the way forward for the church in the 21st century. Let us remember and never forget that we are at the beginning of a new and exciting journey together,” he said.

Meanwhile, Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown has warned that “any attempt to dumb down the Gospel is an exercise in human arrogance in that we think we know better. That is the challenge for the synodal process in our country and around the world. It is easy to feel drawn to a comfortable, non-controversial version of Jesus and expect that we ought to adopt the cultural norms of our society. After all, these norms are the products of our infallible human reasoning! Nothing could be further from the truth of Jesus.”

Speaking at Mass in Derry’s St Eugene’s Cathedral, he acknowledged that “there are many things that need to be reformed in how we are a church. But these changes have to be driven by new and prayerful insights into the message of Jesus. When a church believes it ought merely to adapt to changing cultural priorities and cease to be a stone in society’s shoes, then we have stopped listening for the voice of the Lord.”

He warned that “the world will not be changed by a church whose standards are merely human. The world will be transformed by grace when people of faith seek the narrow gate and God’s priorities. When we are driven merely by human answers to sectional interests, then we merely undergird earthly priorities rather than proposing and living radical Gospel priorities. The great reforming saints stood out because they pointed to a divine vision and not to self-congratulatory sectional interests. Jesus wants the world to be resurrected, not merely trapped in the tomb of its own making.”

The liberal Catholic We Are Church Ireland group has enthusiastically welcomed the synthesis report sent to Rome last week. Spokesman Colm Holmes said they were “delighted and relieved” to read it as it included “many of the reforms we have all been campaigning for the past 25 years: women in all ministries; welcome for LGBTQ+; married priests and optional celibacy; and shared decision-making”.

He described the synthesis report as marking “a watershed moment for the Catholic Church in Ireland” which “will be a reference document for years to come”.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times