Former Irish President Mary McAleese has spoken about the day the Irish State faced down the Catholic Church over the issue of child abuse.
Sex scandals rocked the Church in Ireland during the 1980s and 90s. Senior Catholic figures faced mounting criticism for the way the Church dealt with the issue, and were often accused of covering up the facts to protect the perpetrators rather than protect the victims.
McAleese has described the moment when the State finally confronted the Church hierarchy over the crisis. She was speaking at Sydney Town Hall to an audience of 1,000 people and Australian radio.
McAleese revealed that during the midst of the sex scandals, she warned a senior Catholic official that if the Church refused to open up its records of past sex abuse cases, then the State would force it to do so. The official laughed at her, saying the State would never cross that line.
She then went on to explain: “A week later, the State crossed that line.”
The incident was a landmark moment in the history of Ireland. A genuine shift of social power and influence took place. The reputation of the Catholic Church was severely tarnished.
McAleese explained that since then, the country has placed less importance on religion: “Everything you thought you had, everything you thought you were, becomes a lie.”
McAleese was the 8th President of Ireland, and served from 1997-2011. During that time she had more than one run-in with the Catholic Church and her outspoken views on its governance have drawn both praise and criticism.
In June 2014, she called Pope Francis’s plan “bonkers”, when he proposed 150 bishops meet to discuss the Catholic position on family life
McAleese said: “The very idea of 150 people who have decided they are not going to have any children, not going to have families, not going to be fathers and not going to be spouses – so they have no adult experience of family life as the rest of us know it – but they are going to advise the pope on family life; it is completely bonkers. There’s just something profoundly wrong and skewed about asking 150 male celibates to review the Catholic Church’s teaching on family life.”
McAleese is currently living in Rome and studying canon law. She argued for a stronger female presence in the Catholic Church, particularly in senior positions, saying: “The old boys’ club are going to have to go.”
She claimed it is almost impossible to get senior Catholic hierarchy to listen to her, a woman.
She joked to the Australian audience “I look at the curia and I don’t know too many of them who have gone through equal opportunity training”, before adding “the structure of church government needs to change”.
Pope Francis has said he would like to find new roles for women, but the prospect of female priests is still considered a long way away.