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As Pope Visits Ireland, Scars of Sex Abuse ‘Worse Than the I.R.A.’

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GORTAHORK, Ireland — If any place illustrates the depth and depravity of child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church — and why the Irish are so angry about it — it is this unlikely corner of the country, where among rolling hills of wild heather, castles and bucolic fishing villages, predatory priests terrorized children with impunity for decades.

County Donegal, which overlooks the Atlantic in northwestern Ireland, has fewer than 160,000 residents, but it may have the worst record of clerical abuse in the country. According to a watchdog group that monitors the Catholic Church in Ireland, 14 priests have been accused in recent years, four of whom were convicted. They include the Rev. Eugene Greene, one of the nation’s most notorious pedophile priests, who served nine years in prison for raping and molesting 26 boys between 1965 and 1982, though the real figure may be far higher.

Yet this year, when Pope Francis needed someone to head a neighboring diocese, he chose Bishop Philip Boyce, who had been heavily criticized for refusing to defrock Father Greene when the priest was under his management in the late 1990s.

As Francis prepares for a visit to Ireland this weekend — the first by a pope since John Paul II in 1979 — the painful specter of such abuses hangs over his trip, as well as the church’s long history of protecting pedophile priests. It is cases like this one that many faithful say make it incumbent on Francis to give them not just words, but action.

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Bishop Philip Boyce was heavily criticized for refusing to defrock one of Ireland’s most notorious pedophile priests in the late 1990s. But Francis appointed him head of a neighboring diocese this year.CreditNiall Carson/Press Association, via Associated Press

That is true not only in Ireland, but also in the United States, where last week a grand jury in Pennsylvania released a sweeping report that the church had covered up the abuse of more than 1,000 minors by some 300 priests over 70 years. Francis himself acknowledged the global scale of the problem this week, when he issued a rare letter to Catholics worldwide condemning such “atrocities.”

But the pope offered no specific remedies. Many Irish say they are now waiting not only for recognition of their suffering, but also for Francis to announce concrete measures to combat and punish such abuses. His record on the issue so far has left them skeptical and angry, even in conservative, ardently Catholic Donegal — the only Irish county where a majority of voters rejected a measure in May to repeal an abortion ban.

Residents said Francis’ appointment of Bishop Boyce demonstrated that the church’s record of shuffling along abusers and those who protected them remained unbroken.

Bishop Boyce “was keen to protect the family of the convicted priest from further trauma by not initiating laicization,” the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church found in a 2011 review.

In his letter this week, Francis offered a forceful condemnation of the church’s handling of the abuse crisis, but his words nonetheless disappointed many Catholics, including those in Donegal.

“Nothing has changed, sadly,” said Colm O’Gorman, the executive director of Amnesty International Ireland, who is himself a survivor of clerical sexual abuse. “The reason why the church can’t get a grip on the problem is because its primary concern is not to protect vulnerable adults and children but to protect the authority and reputation and the wealth of the institution.”

The church’s grip in Donegal was so strong that abuse was uncovered almost by accident, when Father Greene told the police that a young man was trying to blackmail him. That man had been abused by a priest.

Even so, revelations of clerical sexual abuse would not have fully emerged without the work of two semiretired detectives, whose efforts to listen to complainants led to Father Greene’s arrest in 1998 and to investigations into other cases.

One of the detectives, Martin Ridge, had arrived in Donegal hoping to wind down after decades chasing Irish Republican Army militants, dealing with bombings and bank robberies.

“I opened up a can of worms,” he said in an interview. Fighting the I.R.A. was a “conflict you could see with your eyes,” he said. “This one, you couldn’t. It’s worse than the I.R.A., because it’s like putting a bomb into a child’s mind.”

His superiors were so reluctant to take on sexual abuse cases that Mr. Ridge turned a room in his home into an office and bought himself a computer. “They washed their hands of it,” he said. The victims, he added, “were dismissed as if they didn’t matter. The power of the clergy was so strong.”

Abuse victims distrustful of the police approached Mr. Ridge instead, recounting their experiences in deserted car parks and other isolated areas — often places where the abuse had occurred.

Abuse took place in a school, at a secluded beach, in a grove of trees and behind the altar of a church on Inishboffin, an island that according to the most recent census has only 11 residents.

“It looks like the most innocent, idyllic scene,” Mr. Ridge said as he drove his car down a winding road that cut through craggy hills splashed with purple heather. A soft mist started to descend as the evening closed in, slowly swallowing gray cottages and barns.

“It’s hard to fathom that all these crimes were committed and covered up,” he said. “The audacity!” As he drove by the shed where the 15-year-old had killed himself, Mr. Ridge gripped the steering wheel before making a sign of the cross.

Father Greene told his victims: “It’s our secret. Only God will know.”

Martin Gallagher was 12 when he was first raped and molested by Father Greene, and the abuse continued for more than a year. He left school at 14 and started drinking at 16. He got sober only six years ago, at the age of 46.

“There’s something there that’s never going to go away,” Mr. Gallagher said in an interview. “You try to forget, but you can’t. It’s a thing you just need to have to live with, work around.”

He was 33 when he told Mr. Ridge about the abuse, the first time he had confided in anyone. He later discovered that two cousins had also been abused by Father Greene.

“At my age you didn’t have the sense to go to the police,” Mr. Gallagher said. “And going to your parents — who are they going to tell? How are they going to help? They can’t. Everything was blocked.”

Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Ridge sat across from each other as they recalled their experiences, at times falling silent and fighting tears.

Mr. Gallagher said that the pope’s visit and letter “mean nothing to me.”

“They know what they have to change, but they haven’t changed,” he said, referring to the way the church moved around predatory priests instead of removing them completely from the institution.

“They spread like measles,” he said later, driving past a large white house with three chimneys.

It was Father Greene’s home, where he had been abused.

“Instead of clamping down, they moved them around, and the same thing happened,” Mr. Gallagher said. “They were like a virus.”


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