Come to the Stable

The Stephen Spalding Foundation

Book Review

7 July 2008


An Irish Tragedy: How Sex Abuse by Irish Priests

Helped Cripple the Catholic Church


Since the widespread abuse of young people by Roman Catholic priests became a national scandal in 2002, prompted by a series of articles in the Boston Globe, books and articles on the subject have proliferated.  Victims have told their stories; legal scholars have examined the tactics used by the church
to silence victims and bully critics.  And all the while, the bishops have wrung their hands and shed crocodile tears, leaving the situation much as it always was.


So far, coverage in the media has largely raised questions. 

What leads Roman Catholic priests, in disproportionate numbers, to become predators? How has the church managed to stay always a step ahead of the sheriff?


Now, with a wealth of anecdotal material and expert analysis at hand, investigative author Joe Rigert has posed a question with no obvious answer.  Why have Irish-born priests been so prominent in the American priest-abuse crisis?


The most notorious example is Anthony O’Connell, who viewed the halls of
St. Thomas Aquinas Preparatory Seminary in Hannibal, Missouri, as his hunting ground for boy flesh.  Promoted to bishop of Knoxville Tennessee, and then Palm Beach, Florida, he continued his prowls, which had begun with voyeurism, then worked up to hands-on molestation.


Then, the veil dropped.  One of his former boy toys, Christopher Dixon of the diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, broke his silence, and quickly, O’C., as his still-loving flock of admirers called him,
was before the cameras, slithering away from his Florida diocese
in disgrace to lodge with Cistercian monks at Mepkin Abbey
just north of Charleston.


O’Connell is an archetype, but not the only cleric who brought
a taste for sodomy from the Auld Sod.  Ireland, which has
called the most priest-ridden country in Europe, is
revealed in this text as an exporter
of its worst and nastiest
to the New World.


Rigert sets himself a formidable task, adding a ‘why’ to the standard journalistic questions of who, what, when, and where.  His search, which began in the United States, quickly moved to Ireland, where many closely in touch with the crisis proved remarkably willing to talk.


Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in response to English rule, Ireland became ‘more Catholic than the Pope.’ Priests were revered as little gods, who could use their magic hands to bring the divine down to dwell in the sacrament of the altar.  Celibacy, a late-born aberration in the church, was treasured there beyond all reason.  And during the hard days of the potato famine in the mid-nineteenth century, abstinence from marriage spread from the clerical plantation into mainstream society, with many laymen becoming unsworn celibates.


Ireland, bursting at the seams with clergy, began to see the United States as
a convenient place to send priests, often with the promise of a Cadillac in the rectory garage.  Some of the priests shipped off to the new world were bright and devout.  Others were castoffs, without a solid vocation or much intelligence, but with plenty
of ambition and a gleam in their eyes for the pot of gold in Boston, Chicago,
or Los Angeles.


The church has pooh-poohed the notion that celibacy is a contributing cause to child sexual molestation.  In fact, it is almost self-evident that for emotionally immature men, incapable of a full, adult attachment to another person, the celibate life was a refuge from a mother’s prodding about when her son was going to marry.  Once the heat was off on that account, father was free to roam at will among the flocks of fresh-faced boys and nubile girls.


The author has cast a powerful beam into unexplored territory.  There is plenty of rich anecdotal material here, as well as plausible and thought-provoking analysis.  The skill and intuition he has deployed in this book make his next announced effort even more tantalizing: a study of the involvement of American bishops in the cover-up of sexual abuse.  The bishops claim the legacy of St. Peter, but they seem to have ignored Jesus’ words to that disciple: ‘Do you love me, Simon?  Tend my sheep.’


Michael D. Fleming, Ph.D., J.D., is a respected scholar, lawyer, cultural critic, and journalist whose commentary has appeared in publications worldwide. Dr. Fleming’s academic expertise includes music of the Baroque Period, Medieval Latin, and cultural history; his legal practice focuses on elder law, estate planning, and real property.  He
is general counsel for Come to the Stable/The Stephen Spalding Foundation.



An Irish Tragedy:  Dysfunctional Clerics

Operating within a Dysfunctional Church


Thomas P. Doyle, O.P., J.C.D.


A number of books have been written about sexual abuse by Catholic clerics.  Some are the gut-wrenching stories of victims themselves, told in their own words or through another.  Some are polemical in that they confront the official Church for its hypocritical response while demanding both recognition and action to help solve the problem.  Still others are scholarly ventures into the mysterious depths of this unique socio-cultural phenomenon by academics from a variety of disciplines.  All are seeking answers as to “why.”  The answers are much more complex and elusive than simply saying “celibate priests are sexually dysfunctional” or “bishops only want to protect  their 

turf.”  Both are true statements but there are many more “whys.”


Joe Rigert is an investigative journalist with an uncanny ability to ask the right questions and a tireless capacity to find the answers.  With An Irish Tragedy

he has moved into territory not yet explored by those seeking answers, namely the ethnic component to clergy abuse.  The Irish clergy are natural subject of inquiry.  I must admit that I underestimated and undervalued the causal relationship between the Irish Catholic culture and the fact that a significant number of clergy abusers in the U.S. are either Irish immigrants or of Irish descent.  The author did much more than simply provide a well documented exposition of sexual abuse by Irish priests in the U.S.  He went to Ireland to look at the roots and in doing so he became immersed in the Irish expression of Catholicism, especially the rather bizarre brand of sexual morality.


An Irish Tragedy is an apt title for this book because it describes precisely the end result of the continuum of excessive and superstitious piety, toxic clerical control and a twisted sexual morality which has all converged into too many cases of sexual abuse of minors and deceitful cover-up by bishops. 


Sex abuse by Catholic clergy is not limited to a “church” problem.  It is a deeply rooted, complex flaw in society in general because the results impact so many aspects of our daily lives.  Many have arrived at the conclusion that expecting the official Roman Catholic Church to accomplish anything like a basic change of attitude marked by an honest recognition of the problem followed by concrete and realistic steps to help bind the wounds and reduce the chances of future abuse is completely futile.  It is left to writers like Joe Rigert to probe deeply into the dark, mysterious and malignant shadows of the Church to find more answers.


This book is foundational to comprehending the breadth of sexual abuse, the rank duplicity of the hierarchy from the popes on down and the deep roots the causality has in our culture, both religious and secular.   An Irish Tragedy will have a long shelf life because it will remain an invaluable resource for those who are compelled to probe deeply in order to find the answers to the “whys”.  The answers are pivotal as we strive to move past the institutionalized dishonesty of the Catholic Church in order to create a religious environment where children and the vulnerable are safe, not only from dysfunctional clerics but from a dysfunctional Church.


Thomas P. Doyle is a Dominican priest with a doctorate in canon law degree and five master's degrees in other academic disciplines.  As a Vatican-trained canon lawyer, he has served as a staff member of the Roman Catholic Church's embassy in Washington, D.C.  Consequently, Father Doyle is an expert in the canonical and pastoral dimensions intrinsic to pedophile priest matters.  He also is a former Navy chaplain.  Father Doyle is the author of numerous scholarly articles and books, including the recently published Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church's 2,000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse with A. W. Richard Sipe and Patrick Wall.