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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Church Loses Its Hold Over Ireland

The fall of the Irish government in mid-November was no laughing matter -- not for the government, and certainly not for Ireland's powerful Roman Catholic Church. For, at the heart of the political crisis that forced the government's collapse, lay a Church scandal that has probably done more than any event in modern Irish history to stir the indignation, scorn and mockery of ordinary God-fearing Irish Catholics. The Catholic faith has been the backbone of Irish identity for centuries, but this scandal is forcing Irishmen to ask if they really want their Church to be such an influential force in the affairs of their republic.

In essence, the government of Prime Minister Albert Reynolds came to grief because it failed to arrange the extradition to British-ruled Northern Ireland of a Catholic priest accused of sexually molesting children over a period of 24 years. Eventually, the priest, Father Brendan Smyth, returned to Northern Ireland of his own will. He was tried, found guilty and jailed for four years. More charges against him are likely.

The government made matters worse by attempting to promote Harry Whelehan, the attorney general who failed to extradite the priest, to the post of president of Ireland's highest court. But for the Church, the real problem lies elsewhere. It lies in the fact that the Catholic authorities not only knew about the priest's deviant proclivities, but actively sought to prevent justice from taking its course. They moved the priest from parish to parish and allowed him to receive good job references so that he was never out of work. They treated the whole affair as if the Church was an institution too lofty to be concerned with simple things like the law.

This has not gone down well with Irish folk. They may have a soft spot for the priest who likes his whisky, but they do not want the man who absolves them of sin in the confessional to be a child-abuser protected by his superiors. Nor do they like the notion that the Church authorities can in some insidious way exercise influence over the government so that a priest who breaks the law is never brought to account.

For the Church, the news gets even worse. Just as the government fell, word emerged that a 68-year-old priest had died in a gay sauna club in Dublin. Amazingly, two other priests were in the club and were therefore able to administer the last rites to him. The secular Irish press seized the chance to remind readers of the tale of the former Bishop of Galway, who was discovered two years ago to have a teenage son by a mistress.

None of this means that the Catholic Church's grip on Irish life is going to disappear overnight. Almost everyone there is born in a Catholic hospital, baptized a Catholic, educated in Catholic schools, married in a Catholic ceremony and buried at a Catholic funeral. The Church owns large amounts of land, dominates the health and education systems, and has succeeded in keeping divorce illegal.

But as in Poland, another devoutly Catholic country, society is changing. Irishmen use contraceptives, poke fun at their bishops and, if they cannot divorce by law, they simply live "in sin" with their new partners. The latest scandals surrounding Ireland's clergymen are proving a rich source of mirth and anger, and will serve to be accelerate the process of secularization. That can only be a good thing. The Church may not like it, but Ireland is on the move.