Wash Those Feet



Catholic Church officials in Ireland went back to the book in their latest effort to deal with the ongoing clergy sex abuse saga there.  Before 1,000 people in Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral–including many who as children had been raped by priests–Diarmuid Martin, archbishop of Dublin, and Cardinal Sean O’Malley, of Boston, who is investigating the abuse on behalf of the pope, reenacted Jesus’ deed on the last night of his life, when he washed the feet of his disciples.  In this case, Martin and O’Malley washed the feet of several abuse victims.

Marie Collins, one of the victims who has been outspoken and articulate in voicing the anger of the abused, was among the eight who allowed their feet to be washed.  Afterward, she called this act “a clear and definite expression of repentance by Archbishop Martin.”

Church-watchers believe Martin has tried more than other church officials to bring meaningful change, but he has struggled against the pope’s hard line. He has been ostracised by his fellow Irish bishops, and was passed over by the pope for promotion to cardinal.  The feet-washing was not, however, his idea.  The mass, including the feet-washing, was thought out by a group of victims.  What is interesting is that the church officials went along with it, playing the part of Christ.  Around the world, Catholics angry at the abuse scandals have fallen into two groups: those who want no part of the Catholic Church anymore, and those who would still like to be part.  This is symbolism that may register with the latter group.  The Rev. James Martin, writing on the In All Things blog at America Magazine, says “these kinds of gestures can sometimes speak to something deep within the Catholic soul, and I’ve long thought that such public acts were necessities in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis.”

Does it signal a real turn on the part of the Vatican?  Will we see resignations of church officials who covered up abuse?  Will there be actual accountability, which the victims have called for?  Or was this, as The Freethinker puts it, “the Catholic Church’s latest cunning stunt”?

The feet-washing has stirred things up among the Irish abuse victims themselves.  Some have called it weird theater.  Marie Collins gave this response to them:

None of this has to mean a single thing to any survivor.
None of this has anything to do with the justice which so many are still seeking. Everyone is free to see all this as a charade or a stunt or anything else they wish. But for those survivors to whom it did mean something it is not fair that they should be vilified by fellow survivors.

More Catholic Church Abuse in Ireland



Maeve O’Rourke is the Global Human Rights fellow at the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School.  On the HRP blog, she outlined my recent article on the abuses of the Catholic church in Ireland, then pointed out an omission:

missing from his article- and most of the narratives about abuse by church officials- is another critical part of the Catholic Church’s abuse story: the incarceration and forced labor of as many as tens of thousands of women and girls in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries…. The government has yet to acknowledge its role in the suffering of these women, whom the Catholic Church deemed unfit for society and warehoused in residential institutions. Among them were women who had given birth outside marriage; had been sexually abused; were considered “promiscuous” or a burden on their families. Some were girls, as young as 11. Many grew up in the care of the State and the Catholic Church.

For their perceived sins, they were forced to perform unpaid labor for the commercial benefit of four Irish orders of nuns. The conditions in the Magdalene Laundries were brutal: enforced silence, constant surveillance, severe emotional and physical abuse, and deprivation of educational opportunity.

In November, at the urging of the Justice for Magdalenes advocacy group, the Irish Human Rights Commission recommended that the government formally investigate this variety of abuse perpetrated by Catholic orders.

Irish Catholics “over the edge”



Cardinal Sean O’Malley, one of a team of “visitators” sent by the pope to investigate Catholic Ireland in the wake of the clergy sex abuse scandal, will supposedly tell Benedict that the situation is dire.  Where the rest of Europe went secular, Ireland held onto its faith.  But the viciousness of the abuse scandal and the church coverups of clerical rapists has resulted in a situation where, the cardinal will apparently tell the pope, Ireland has “a decade, at most, to avoid falling over the edge and becoming like other European countries where religion is marginal to society.”  This according to Father Tony Flannery.  This assessment seems about right.  On the surface, Ireland seems as secular as anywhere else–so that one might think the Irish are already over the edge.  But regular mass attendance still stands at around 40%, far higher than elsewhere in Europe.

Catholic Prosecution



Perhaps the most important part of the clergy sex abuse saga in Ireland–the subject of my story that ran last Sunday–is how the country has paneled government investigations into the Catholic church. That, as canon lawyer turned victims’ advocate Thomas Doyle told me, was an unprecedented move, one that many other countries were studying. Formerly, even as the abuse scandals filled newspapers around the world, governments were too wary of the church’s earthly power or too deferential toward its status as a spiritual repository to take legal action. Now the Philadelphia district attorney has taken a step that, according to the AP, “no prosecutor in the U.S. had taken before: filing criminal charges against a high-ranking Roman Catholic official for allegedly failing to protect children.” Monsignor William Lynn is charged by a grand jury with knowingly placing “rapist priests” in positions where they raped other children. If convicted, he could get up to 14 years in prison.

Catholic Ireland



Reactions to my story in the New York Times Magazine about the Catholic church in Ireland run in two streams.  One follows the line that the church as an institution has wildly overstepped its bounds and needs to be restrained both from within and from without.  The other treats the church as synonymous with the Catholic faith, and thus takes umbrage.  A sampling:

Just read your NYTimes piece on The Irish Affliction. Congratulations.  I see this as a step on the way to reforming the Church in a way that’s been needed for seventeen centuries. …an amazing history of population control via superstition and magical thinking by any standard. I think the basic requirement for the transformation is a movement among Catholic peoples everywhere to bring back election of bishops as it was done in the 11th or 12th centuries. The Church leadership is corrupt and its self renewing methods insure corruption.  If bishops spoke for the people who elect them around the world both liberal and conservative voices would be heard and vast changes in leadership (read Curia) would ensue.


Dear NY Times,
The suggestion, in the NY Times Magazine, that the Catholic Church has a “grip” on Ireland that needs to be “broken” is deeply insulting.  While the abuse by certain priests was horrible, the pattern of anti-Catholic reporting at the Times continues with this article.
Sincerely yours,
Stephen R. Grimm


Dear Mr. Grimm,
Had I written that the Catholic faith had a “grip” on Ireland that the country was trying to break, a Catholic might well take insult.  But I was writing about the Catholic church as an institution.  The church at times functions like most large institutions: amassing power, defending its own, and so forth.  As an insitution, it commandeered great power in Ireland (and elsewhere).  In significant instances, it misused that power; then it tried to cover up, deny, or attack those who brought the misuses of power to light. As a journalist, I would be failing to do my job were I to treat the church only as a repository of faith and ignore its activities as a secular institution.
Russell Shorto


I read with great interest your NY Times article on the Catholic Church’s pedophile coverup scandal now occurring in Ireland. I’ve wonder to myself for some time, if this behavior, the sexual abuse of young people, has not occurred for centuries in the Church and is only now coming to “light” because of a weakening of organized faith brought about by reason, media, and modernity?  I ask this question because why else would the Catholic hierarchy have been so institutionally ready with the “means of protection” if it were a new problem of diminished values or secularism?


Thank you soooo much for your terrific article on the horrors of priestly abuse of children–and the church’s virtual condoning of these activities over decades.  It is of extreme importance to keep this issue before the public–and you have done a perfect job of it, sir! I was a convert to Catholicism when I was married a few decades ago.  After the assistant pastor at the church we attended was accused (and jailed!) for his sexual abuse of children, my wife and I quit the Catholic church forever.  I have nothing but utter contempt for it–and all who are members of its clergy or play significant roles in it. Once again, thank you for your extraordinary contribution!

A (very random) sampling of blogs and sites referencing the piece:

Butterflies & Wheels

Rico’s Rants

Veterans Today

Anne Rice

Ireland and the Catholic Church: A Case Study



My article on Catholic Ireland in the New York Times Magazine, a version of which is also running on the front page of the International Herald Tribune, is out this weekend.  The bottom line: Ireland–as revealed in the clergy sex abuse scandal, which just keeps unfolding there–is a testament to what can reasonably be called a systemic depravity within the institution of the Catholic Church.  The Irish have come a long way in the past twenty years toward extricating themselves from the Church’s grip, but the tentacles extended so far into the Irish psyche, for so very long, that the process will go on for at least a generation.  Ireland is a case study of what happens when governments allow the church to operate as a “religion” when it suits the church, and as a “state” when it otherwise suits the church.  The church got near total power within Irish society (even today 90% of publicly funded schools are church-run) and used that power to devastating ends.  Yet when called to account for its heinous crimes, the church pushed its status as a foreign government to shield men who were hardcore serial rapists from prosecution.  Most within the church in Ireland see the Vatican’s decision to send a team of high church officials from outside to investigate the sexual abuse in the Irish church as the height of hypocricy.  As one priest said to me, “It’s like sending the Gestapo to investigate antisemitism among the SS.”

One bright spot: Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who left the Vatican Embassy and now represents victims of clergy abuse, told me Ireland is the first country to bring the force of its federal government to bear against the church.  “There have been three commissions in Ireland, and all were government funded, all chaired by judges,” he said.  “In other places with a traditional Catholic presence and where there has been sexual abuse there is intense interest in what is going on in Ireland.”  Ireland, then, provides a model for legal action on a host of fronts in many countries around the world.

Ireland’s economy may be in shambles, but its psyche is in even worse shape, and, as victims of abuse as well as a great many priests and ordinary Irish Catholics tell it, the fault lies with the deliberate policies of Benedict and his predecessors.

Dinner with Robert Kaplan



is like watching a game of “Risk” being played by one (very good) player.  Some of his random observations, noted by me this evening at a slow food Italian restaurant in Amsterdam over tortelli and sea bream:

* The Obama administration is playing it just right on Egypt, for it has two self-contradictory goals.  It has to be “on the right side of history,” meaning on the side of the people and democracy, yet it has to signal to other Middle East autocrats that America has long supported that it won’t abandon them.

* China is making vast inroads, economically and culturally, in the Philippines and Vietnam.  Vietnam is resisting, and pushing for U.S. assistance in doing so.  The Philippines are caving in wholesale.  Vietnam wants a bigger U.S. military presence, but the U.S. has to be careful not to draw the ire of China.

* European populations don’t see an imminent military threat so are forcing their governments into continued drastic military cuts.  This in turn means Europe will be less of a player internationally, particularly in the Indian and Pacific oceans, where power will increasingly be related to the ability to police sea lanes with naval vessels.

* Democracy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Enlightened autocratic regimes–China, Oman, Jordan–represent a more viable model for much of Asia.

* We think of Japan as still clinging to its postwar anti-military posture, and somehow we think of Britain as still being a worldclass military power.  Yet Japan has 115 new warships, and Britain about a quarter that number.

* Despite the fact that China, India and other countries in the Indian/Pacific sphere are on the rise, and the U.S. is in decline, the future looks fairly bright for the U.S.  One reason is that it’s not a bipolar world.  China and India will increasingly have to play off one another, and other nations will have to play off both of them.  The U.S. can exploit the conflicts by backing various smaller players (Japan, Vietnam) and by using its navy.

* Armies are old-hat.  Navies matter.

* The West should stop thinking about Islam as ideology.  Think about it as a religion, defuse its fundamentalism.

* China today is non-ideological.  It is seeking to expand in the same way all vigorous nations expand.  It’s not interested in spreading an idea.  It’s trying to turn one-fifth of the world’s population from peasantry into a middle class.

What’s Wrong Everywhere…



If you want some radically wide perspective–linking financial crises, Tea Parties, and Egypt–who you gonna call?  Noam Chomsky:

…it is the old pattern…it goes back 50 years right there in Egypt and the region, and it’s the same elsewhere… We should remember there’s an analog here… the population in the United States is angry, frustrated, full of fear and irrational hatreds. And the folks…on Wall Street are just doing fine. They’re the ones who created the current crisis. They’re the ones who were called upon to deal with it. They’re coming out stronger and richer than ever. But everything’s fine, as long as the population is passive. If one-tenth of one percent of the population is gaining a preponderant amount of the wealth that’s produced, while for the rest there 30 years of stagnation, just fine, as long as everyone’s quiet. That’s the scenario that has been unfolding in the Middle East, as well…

What’s Wrong with the Crowd…



Where is the Cairo crowd heading?  Maybe nowhere

It’s easier to define a revolutionary than a revolution. Hard-wired into most human beings, but never accessed by most of them, is the capacity to be transfigured, to be seized by confidence that a new world is being born. Everyone around is suddenly a brother or a sister. Looters may be carting off the Ministry’s computers, but you are giving the Minister’s bodyguard a white rose and he will break down in tears and rally to The People.

What persuades people to become The People, to “go down into the street” and risk everything?… In Tunisia and Egypt, hundreds of thousands have acknowledged their contempt for their rulers, and realised that they are no longer frightened of them. Lenin thought that revolution required not only that the masses lose patience but that the ruling class loses confidence in its own system. Tunisians and Egyptians picked up that whiff of uncertainty, and they marched…

The question for Tahrir Square has been the same since the protests began 10 days ago. How does a “victorious crowd” move on to become a revolution? The Cairo mass, for all its guts and resilience, doesn’t seem capable of that move. The only recognisable structures to emerge are first-aid posts and food stalls. It has evolved no acknowledged leadership – there’s no Egyptian Lech Walesa, no Vaclav Havel or Ayatollah Khomeini…

There are reasons for these weaknesses. The main one is the crushing of Egyptian “civil society” by police terror during the 30 Mubarak years. A crowd needs more than coherent leadership. It requires institutional allies to achieve a revolution… But in Egypt such bodies, penetrated or castrated by the regime, have little independence. The great crowd, an astonishing mixture of angry plebs and young middle-class intellectuals, is on its own.