Russell Shorto

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Monthly Archives: February 2011

Wash Those Feet

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

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 … Continue reading


More Catholic Church Abuse in Ireland

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

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 … Continue reading


Irish Catholics “over the edge”

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

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

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

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

Monday, February 14, 2011

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 … Continue reading


Ireland and the Catholic Church: A Case Study

Thursday, February 10, 2011

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 … Continue reading


Dinner with Robert Kaplan

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

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. * … Continue reading


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 … Continue reading


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