DUBLIN, Ireland - The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, whose network of theological schools once exported priests worldwide, closed another hallowed institution Thursday, leaving only a single seminary in this predominantly Catholic nation.
The directors of St. Patrick's College in Thurles, County Tipperary in southwest Ireland announced that their few remaining seminarians would transfer immediately to the church's flagship seminary, Maynooth College near Dublin, which is struggling to produce enough priests for the next generation of Irish Catholics.
This and other closures of seminaries in Ireland reflect declining observance of the Catholic faith in Ireland and particularly growing public anger at church authorities' mishandling of decades of sexual abuse within the church.
"The decision to suspend seminary work in St. Patrick's College will, understandably, cause disappointment to past students and friends of the college. However, circumstances rendered unavoidable the present painful decision," said the institution's president, the Rev. Christy O'Dwyer.
He said school officials would "pray for the day when increasing numbers of vocations to the priesthood may render it possible again for St. Patrick's College to resume its ministry of priestly formation."
Since 1994, public confidence in the Catholic church in Ireland has steadily eroded as hundreds of cases have been exposed involving church officials' sexual abuse of children dating back to the 1950s.
The government in January established a compensation fund, expected to pay out more than 500 million euros (dlrs 500 million) in coming years, to victims of physical and sexual abuse at church-run schools and orphanages. That deal doesn't cover parish priests, more than 20 of whom have been convicted of criminal counts of sexual abuse.
The government and Catholic bishops this summer launched separate investigations into the extent church leaders concealed abuse cases from civil authorities until the 1990s. The scandal has hit Maynooth, where trustees in June appointed a senior lawyer to investigate allegations that teachers sexually abused seminarians in the early 1980s.
St. Patrick's of Thurles, founded in 1837, had once specialized in the export of diocesan priests to America and Australia. Among its more than 1,500 graduates, about 180 still serve parishes in the United States.
The Thurles seminary was the seventh to close in the Republic of Ireland since 1993, leaving only Maynooth, which was the first Irish seminary, founded in 1795. This summer Maynooth enrolled 15 new seminarians. A handful of others entered the Irish College in Rome and a Belfast seminary, St. Malachy's, in the neighboring British territory of Northern Ireland.
The Rev. Kevin Doran, the priest in charge of recruiting seminarians in Ireland, got a phone call Thursday morning with the news that Thurles was closing.
"I was surprised. It feels like when a relative, who has been sick for a long time, finally dies," Doran said. "It is very sad. All these seminaries meant so much to so many people who passed through them. And priests, just like other people, do like to think there will be somebody coming after them."
Catholicism and Irish nationalism were once closely linked. Ireland's 1937 constitution praised the "special position" the church enjoyed in the life of the nation. Until the 1960s, ambitious families sent their sons into seminaries in hopes of escaping an Ireland that produced few high-status jobs and many emigres.
But since the 1960s, as Ireland increasingly opened its doors to foreign investment and cultural influences, the church's standing has steadily declined. In 1972, when voters in a referendum overwhelmingly approved the removal of the "special position" clause, weekly Mass attendance was over 90 percent. Recent polls put it at less than 50 percent.