An Irish … American … Catholic … tragedy

It seemed fitting that the latest scandals buffeting the Catholic Church arrived during Pope Francis’ visit to Ireland. The stormy conditions surrounding the church are far worse than the rain that tamped down the expected number of Mass-goers at Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

Turnout for Francis was never going to match Pope John Paul II in 1979, much less the enthusiasm of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, which firmly established Ireland as the most-Catholic of nations. Now, Ireland has angrily turned its back on the church due to clergy and other institutional abuses, and the rise of secularism. We all know the litany: child rape, Magdalene laundries, and Tuam graves; plus popular referendums approving divorce, same-sex marriage and abortion.

But it’s the explosion of negative headlines from the church in America–a report on decades of abuse by priests in Pennsylvania, and similar behavior by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick–that have amplified the Holy See’s troubles in Ireland and around the world.

Irish and American Catholicism are deeply intertwined. Waves of Irish Catholic immigrants arrived in the United States from the mid-19th century famine into the 21st century. Until recent decades, Ireland provided hundreds (probably thousands) of priests to U.S. parishes. As members of their flock climbed the social-economic ladder, some of these immigrant, or first-generation Irish-American, clerics also became powerful bishops and cardinals. No U.S. or Irish prelate has become pope.

In 1990, the American-born McCarrick was selected as a representative of Irish immigrant families at Ellis Island. In 2006, he was succeeded as archbishop of Washington, D.C., by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who arrived from the dioceses of Pittsburgh. Within weeks of this summer’s revelations about McCarrick, Wuerl was accused in the Pennsylvania report of failing to protect children from abusive priests, many of whom … hate to say it … have Irish surnames.

Writing in National Review, Dublin-based Ciaran Burke has this slant on the U.S. and Irish churches:

To an Irish person who grew up amid the fallout of Catholic abuse scandals, the only surprising element of the Pittsburgh [sic.] (He means Pennsylvania.) grand-jury report is that it could happen in the United States. In Ireland, so great was the esteem in which the Church was held that it’s easy — though no less painful — to understand how clerical abuse could run unchecked by state authorities.

This description has never been true of the United States, though, where the Constitution and individual rights are supreme. … (The) abuses detailed in the Pittsburgh [sic.] report make a mockery of a society built on God-given rights. That any citizen could suffer such abuse in silence should outrage every American.

In the wake of the Pennsylvania report, Wuerl cancelled his scheduled appearance with Pope Francis in Ireland. He asked for his name to be removed from a Catholic high school in Pittsburgh, his native city. Now, as calls grow for his resignation, the Cardinal Donald Wuerl Division 9 of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Pittsburgh must decide whether it too will drop his name.

Later this fall, the group plans to dedicate a new outdoor statue of Ireland’s patron saint at Old St. Patrick’s Church, the oldest parish in Pittsburgh, which once ranked with New York and Boston as a hub of Irish immigrants. The ceremony is now likely to be more subdued, even secular, than it would have been just a few years ago.

I will make a donation for the new statue once the date is set. I dearly love Old St. Pat’s in my native city, and have dedicated a section of this website to other similarly named churches, which are symbols of the once unabashed, if romanticized, Irish-American-Catholic identity. Like other Catholics in America, Ireland, and around the world, I am deeply angered and hurt by the church’s sins and crimes. But not as deeply as those who personally suffered the abuse.

Statue of Ireland’s patron saint outside Old St. Patrick’s Church in Pittsburgh, 2013.