Catholic Primate speaks of ‘crying need for atonement’ over child abuse

Mary McAleese accuses Church of ‘systemic protection of perpetrators rather than child victims’

There is “a crying need for atonement, inner healing and hope in the aftermath of the abuse scandals”, Catholic Primate Eamon Martin has said.

He sometimes wondered, he said, “why it is that, when we were studying theology here [in Maynooth] in the 1980s, we didn’t anticipate what was about to happen in the Church – perhaps we should have; was it because, in our studying and reading of theology and philosophy, we didn’t engage enough in open discussion and dialogue, or really grapple with the big questions of the day for the Church and its mission?”

He was speaking at the weekend in St Patrick’s College Maynooth to the graduate class of 2022 in theology and philosophy in his role as Chancellor, in the wake of new allegations in recent days of child sexual abuse by priests at Blackrock College. These were prompted by a radio documentary that told in detail of two brothers who were sexually abused by priests at the school in the 1970s, without each other knowing.

At least 233 men have made allegations of abuse against 77 Irish priests from the Spiritans, some of whom were serial abusers allowed unchecked access to children in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.


Speaking earlier this month, before the latest disclosures about the Spiritans, former president Mary McAleese said that “violence against children can take many forms, none so egregious as those which involve abuse of trust and systemic protection of perpetrators rather than child victims by powerful institutions. The Catholic Church is one such institution.”

In an address at Switzerland’s University of Lucerne on November 2nd, she said that in recent decades the Church “has been confronted by a veritable tsunami of proven physical and sexual abuse of children within Catholic Church institutions, carried out by Church personnel and covered up by Church authorities. The damage to the children is unspeakable. The damage to the credibility of the Church is incalculable. It has potentially posed an existential threat to the Church, particularly in the West.”

At the beginning, she said, “the institutional Church response was hesitant and self-protective but now the Holy See appears to be seriously engaged in trying to rebuild not just the shattered trust of the faithful but also its self-ideation as a champion of children in the mould of Christ. Its focus, however, has almost exclusively been on the issue of clerical child sex abuse and episcopal mismanagement.”

However, it was “still largely missing in action when it comes to constructing, embracing and embedding a credible children’s rights ethos throughout the universal Church, in its law, its teachings, its practices and its polemic”.

It had “fallen far behind the curve of history as the developing story of children’s autonomous rights and protections evolves at international and national levels in ways which would have seemed unlikely just a generation ago”.

In St Patrick’s, Archbishop Martin said he “could never have imagined, leaving Maynooth 35 years ago, the seismic changes that were to take place – the significant decline in regular sacramental practice; the fall-off in vocations to the priesthood and religious life; the shocking revelations of abuse in the Church”.

Referring to the current synodal process in the Church, he noted “clear calls for greater transparency and participation in decision-making and for more accountability within our parish and diocesan church structures”.

There was “a longing to connect with the energy and gifts of our young people and a call to discover fresh models of responsibility and leadership in the Church which will facilitate the role of women, as well as men, and help reach out to those who in recent decades have left the Church, or who feel excluded, forgotten or ignored. There is a crying need for atonement, inner healing and hope in the aftermath of the abuse scandals.”

In 2029 “we will mark the bicentenary of Catholic emancipation”, he said. As that approaches, there was “a sense that we are in some ways drawing to a close a significant chapter in the life of the Church here, while at the same time seeking a new vision of living faith for the future”.

* This article was amended on 13/11/22 to clarify the timing of Mary McAleese’s comments

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times