Sex Abuse Documentary Threatens to Topple Head of Ireland’s Catholic Church

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Cardinal Sean Brady speaks to members of the media outside Armagh cathedral in northern Ireland May 2, 2012. Brady said he would not resign as Catholic leader of Northern Ireland following revelations in a television documentary that claimed he had information on paedophile priest Brendan Smyth.

During the four decades that pedophile priest Brendan Smyth abused children, he frequently took them on driving excursions across Ireland. Brendan Boland, one of his victims, began going on those trips in the early 1970s when he was just 11 years old. On one outing, Father Smyth drove a group of children from Belfast, Northern Ireland, to Cavan, Ireland, some two hours away. He checked them in to a bed and breakfast. “There was two bedrooms…one for the girls and one for Father Smyth and the two boys,” Boland remembers in the BBC documentary The Shame of the Catholic Church. Boland was one of the boys sharing a room with Smyth. “He called me over first and he abused me the way he did before. And when he was finished with me I went back to the bed and then he called the other boy over and done the same with him and I — this time I was — I was in the bed watching. Well I was listening, I didn’t want to watch.”

Smyth, Ireland’s most notorious pedophile, died of a heart attack in 1997 while serving a 12-year sentence for abusing some 20 children. But time doesn’t heal all wounds. The BBC documentary, which aired on May 1, has re-ignited the furor over Smyth’s crimes—and the church’s alleged conspiracy in covering them up. Critics—who include former victims and top Irish politicians—now want Cardinal Sean Brady, the head of Ireland’s Catholic Church, to resign. That’s because in 1975 Boland came forward about the abuse. As the documentary reveals, Boland, then 14, gave testimony to Brady, then a canon lawyer, which included the names and addresses of other children Smyth had abused. Boland was sworn to secrecy about the hearing. And Brady never reported the information to police—or to the children’s parents.

In a country where 88% of people describe themselves as Catholic, Ireland’s politicians have traditionally hesitated to speak against the church or its top officials. But revelations of widespread sex abuse in recent years have clearly weakened such deference. Leaders of three out of the four main political parties have said the cardinal should consider stepping aside. “It is my own personal view that anybody who did not deal with the scale of the abuse that we have seen in this case should not hold a position of authority,” Eamon Gilmore, Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister, said. Social Protection Minister Joan Burton insisted the cardinal’s position is no longer sustainable. “You could say perhaps at that stage people like that were tremendously naive, but he was highly educated. He also held a position in a school,” she said. “I think he would really have to ask himself as a man, as a person who would be concerned for the welfare of other people, what was it in the system that failed to at least bring those matters to the attention of the parents of those children and at least protect those children?”

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Brady apologized Monday to Boland and other victims of abuse but said he will not be stepping aside. The day after the program aired, he issued a detailed response that accused the BBC of setting out “to deliberately exaggerate and misrepresent my role in these events.” He explains that he was merely a “note taker” during the Boland hearing and that it was not his responsibility to report the matter to civil authorities. He also points to a lack of guidance within the church at the time: “In 1975 no State or Church guidelines existed in the Republic of Ireland to assist those responding to an allegation of abuse against a minor. No training was given to priests, teachers, police officers or others who worked regularly with children about how to respond appropriately should such allegations be made.” His response seems to include a great deal of buck-passing. But this likely reflects the rigid hierarchy of the Catholic Church. He had “no authority over Brendan Smyth” and notes that even his bishop had “limited authority” over him. The only bodies that could stop Smyth from interacting with children “were his Abbot in the Monastery in Kilnacrott and his Religious Superiors in the Norbertine Order.”

The Vatican has come out in support of Brady. Monsignor Charles Scicluna, its senior prosecutor, has said Brady “did what he should have done—he forwarded all the information to the people that had the power to act.” He added that Brady’s experience of working with abused children will be important to the Church in the years ahead. “My second point is that in the interest of the church in Ireland, they need to have Cardinal Brady as the archbishop of Armagh because he has shown determination in promoting child protection policies. You need to have leaders who have learned the hard way and are determined to protect children.”

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Rome, of course, has an agenda. The 50th annual International Eucharistic Congress takes place in Ireland from June 10-17. Held every four years, it’s a massive gathering of clergy and laity meant to reaffirm the role of Catholicism in the world. Should Brady bow to pressure, it would cast a huge shadow over the event. Furthermore, senior clergy in other parts of the world face similar calls to resign. If Brady falls, it might spark a chain reaction of forced resignations that would embarrass the church. Finally, the Vatican wants to protect its role as an institution above the state. It cannot risk the appearance of kowtowing to politicians or the media.

Boland, the abuse victim who features prominently in the BBC documentary, now lives in London. Speaking to the Irish Times, he said he avoids contact with men of the cloth. “I have had such a bad experience with priests that I can’t talk to any of them. I know there are some good ones, but I can’t tell who is good and who is not good.” What he does know, however, is that the hierarchy within the church should never dictate doing what’s right. He rejects Brady’s defense that the church lacked guidelines for reporting abuse to civil authorities and parents. “I was only 14 years of age,” he said. “I knew it was wrong.”

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Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.