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

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.

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.

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