Page last updated at 07:19 GMT, Thursday, 31 December 2009

Irish Church deference becoming relic of a past era

Papal Cross in Dublin's Phoenix Park
Attitudes to the Church have changed dramatically since the Pope's 1979 visit

It has been a difficult year for the Catholic Church in the Irish Republic with the Murphy and Ryan reports detailing its, and to a lesser extent, the state's failings in dealing with child sex abuse by priests and religious orders.

BBC NI Dublin correspondent Shane Harrison reports on changing attitudes to the hierarchy.

It's lunchtime at Maynooth College and the church's bells could easily be tolling for lost innocence.

Students, very few of them now doing theology, saunter past the imposing light-grey buildings that were once home to the biggest seminary in the world.

But today's scholars, in the wake of the Ryan and Murphy reports, have little time for the Catholic Church.

"I believe the church has a lot to answer for," one tells me.

Another says: "Everyone more or less knew this was going on and how corrupt the higher echelons of the Church were."

A third adds: "Trying to cover it up was the worst thing they could have done."

It was that cover-up of child sex abuse by four Dublin Archbishops that shocked many.

They were seen as putting the church's reputation ahead of the plight of innocent children. Church leaders were also perceived as being unable to distinguish between right and wrong.

It shocked many priests as well, including Fr Vincent Twomey, a moral theologian based in Maynooth who studied in Germany under Pope Benedict.

He says: "They didn't do anything bad, they say, that's their defence - I would say they did nothing full stop and that is bad.

"And secondly there is evidence of cover-up. There was also the whole debate over Cardinal Connell's rather silly comments about mental reservations - in other words, justifying lying.

Father Vincent Twomey
Effectively, they've been a self-perpetuating mediocracy over the years - in general it has been a matter of power and holding onto power
Fr Vincent Twomey
Moral theologian

"That was the last straw for me as well."

Andrew Madden's last straw was many years ago. He was sexually abused by a priest when he was just 12.

A campaigner for victims, he believes the Catholic Church has lost its moral authority - the only authority it should ever have had.

"They'll always have a certain rump of support in the country, but for many informed people, the lack of accountability and the arrogance that we've seen has led to their moral authority no longer existing.

"There will be wider implications. There's clearly a huge debate going on about the role the Catholic Church has in our publicly-funded services, like health and education."

The Irish constitution allows parents to choose their children's type of schooling.

Brian Hayes, the education spokesman for the main opposition party, Fine Gael, believes now is the time for discussion on the necessary changes that will result in reduced Catholic influence, while also respecting parents' choice.

"Ninety-three per cent of all our primary schools are effectively Catholic religious schools and I think the church itself would admit that's far too many, given the composition of Irish society," he said.

"So, what we do need is a public debate on this."

Much-changed Ireland

With talk of further inquiries into how dioceses across the island handled cases of clerical sex abuse and discussion of further resignations by bishops, Fr Vincent Twomey believes there should be root-and-branch reform inside the hierarchy.

"These bishops, 33 of them, far too many of them whose greatest distinction is their incompetence. There are very fine exceptions.

"Effectively, they've been a self-perpetuating mediocracy over the years - in general it has been a matter of power and holding onto power.

"What that has to do with the Gospel is quite secondary."

The last few months have been difficult for the Catholic Church, but with the issues of clerical child sex abuse still very much in the news the next few months are unlikely to be any easier.

The church is still coming to terms with a much-changed Ireland where age-old deference is increasingly a relic of a past era.

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