Special Report: In Irish schools, Catholic Church remains master

Dublin, Ireland - Roisin Hyde was five when she was hastily baptized a few days before she started primary school. Hyde's parents were agnostic but because non-Catholics in Ireland had few other places to learn how to read and write, the family latched onto the only option they knew.

Thirty-five years on and Hyde, an architect in Dublin, is struggling over where to educate her own two-year-old son.

It's a dilemma faced by parents the world over. But in Ireland, where the Catholic Church runs more than nine in ten primary schools and half of all high schools, it's a question that too often has just one answer.

"I would say that a lot of my friends, the only time they have been inside a church is to get their kids christened so they could go to the local school," Hyde, 40, says. "I just feel so hypocritical doing it, going along for one day and then not attending."

The reverence with which the Irish hold the Catholic Church had begun to fade even before the abuse scandals of recent years. As the economy boomed in the 1990s and 2000s, churches emptied. The abuse revelations have further undermined the Church's authority and fractured trust, alienating committed believers as senior clergy have remained in their posts. Parents, politicians, and even church leaders have begun to call for a rollback of clerical power. Why should our children have to follow a creed just to get an education, many ask.

Despite these changing attitudes, the Catholic Church retains far more power in Ireland than in almost any other country in Europe. And nowhere is the Irish Church so deeply woven into the fabric of daily life than in education. The number of nuns and priests teaching may be down compared to a few decades ago, but the Church controls so many schools and writes so many of the rules its influence remains pervasive. In Ireland, "if it's a state school, it's Catholic. If it's private, it's usually Catholic," Hyde says.


It's never been easy to escape the Church in Ireland. Hyde remembers how dominant religion was when she was growing up in south Dublin. Teachers would ask about Sunday mass, parents of friends would try to convert her. "I just remember feeling really uncomfortable as I hadn't been to mass. It was like they were keeping an eye on you in school."

Unlike other Catholic nations such as Italy or Poland, Ireland has no formal agreement to regulate the relationship between church and state. Clerical influence has simply been taken for granted for decades.

Part of that is habit. State-funded broadcaster RTE still rings the 'Angelus' bell at noon and six p.m. every day on television, and shows images of families or workers pausing for a moment of quiet contemplation before the main news bulletin -- which lately has often opened with details of the latest church scandal.

On Good Friday, the day commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the sale of alcohol is prohibited nationwide. This year, for the first time, a judge granted an exemption to pubs in the western city of Limerick, to allow drinking during a match between two provincial rugby teams.

While many commentators saw that as the beginning of a trend, change can come slowly in Ireland. Condoms were officially banned until the late 1970s, and only became freely available in vending machines in 1993. Divorce was not legalized until 1995 and abortion remains banned despite several referendums. A blasphemy law -- the sort of thing other Western countries long ago dropped -- lives on.


In many ways, the Church's power is rooted in its history. Like much else in Ireland under British rule, the Catholic Church was oppressed by the Protestant establishment. Despite this -- or rather, because of it -- Catholicism became the frontline institution standing up for Ireland's culture, religion and nationalism. By the time the Republic won independence from Britain in the early 20th century, no organization in the country was more powerful.

The Church happily filled a gap for the struggling young state by running schools and hospitals. That helped consolidate a dominant role that few questioned until the late 20th century.

In education, the Church's influence remains profound: professionally trained lay teachers dominate school faculties, but school boards are typically chaired by a parish priest. The Church still has a say in enrolment and recruitment and has occasionally weighed in on issues considered controversial such as teachers who have children out of wedlock.

A typical timetable in schools provides for about half an hour a day of religion, but there are constant reminders in other areas of school life such as assemblies. Religious icons also hang on many classroom walls.


Those symbols of faith feel increasingly anachronistic in a country that has transformed itself from one of Europe's poorest to one of its richest in just a generation. James Kelly, a lecturer in theology at Trinity College Dublin, says that as Ireland has changed, fewer and fewer people have stayed committed to the Church.

While a small group of dedicated followers remains, others only attend Church for baptisms, marriages and funerals, he says. "If you go into church on an ordinary day, you would find older people. Now we have become much more secular."

Reports into the decades-long abuse of children by priests and other Church staff have prompted some to break away altogether. Last year, in a move unthinkable in Ireland even 20 years ago, three lapsed Catholics set up a website called CountMeOut, which outlines the steps needed to leave the Church and provides the paperwork to make it official.

Unlike in German-speaking countries, where the state collects taxes for churches, defection is purely symbolic in Ireland. Still, some 10,000 people of a population of some 4.5 million have downloaded the forms that allow them to remove their name from church rolls. It is less clear how many have followed through and sent them on to their parishes.

"People would nominally call themselves Catholic ... almost as if it were an ethnic group, without really considering it as an identity," says Cormac Flynn, one of the site's founders. "When they find that there is a way to leave, even if they don't go through with it themselves, it pushes them to consider what it means to call yourself a Catholic -- and I think that's important considering what has been happening in the last year."

The impact of the abuse reports published last year -- the Ryan report on church-run orphanages and schools in much of the 20th century and the Murphy report into the Dublin archdiocese between 1975-2004 -- has also fueled distrust. Before the abuse reports, a census in 2006 found 86.8 percent of Irish described themselves as Roman Catholic, down from 93.9 percent in 1971 but still a high proportion compared with the rest of Europe. This year, according to a survey by market research company Amarach carried out in February, the number of people who did not trust the Church "at all" rose to 32 percent from just 6 percent in 2001. Those who trusted it "a great deal" fell to 4 percent from 18 percent.

Little wonder that more and more people question the Church's role in educating future generations. "There has been a lessening of direct involvement of people in the Catholic Church in particular and there has been a growth of public disquiet (following) the very many stories of sexual abuse," says Dan Boyle, chairman of the ruling coalition member Green Party and a member of the upper house of parliament. "All those factors are combining to make ... Catholic Church involvement in the education system questionable."


It doesn't help that many Irish believe senior clergy such as primate Cardinal Sean Brady need to step down before the country can move on. Some 76 percent of Irish adults think Brady should resign because of the abuse scandals, according to a June Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll.

One abuse victim, who gives her name as Lizzie, says she does not want to step foot in a church ever again. "Even my sons refuse to go to church because of what happened to me," she says. "I think the Church needs to do more and Cardinal Brady should take more responsibility. If you talk about healing the Church, why not start by yourself?"

Brady has said he is ashamed of meetings he attended in the 1970s, where children were forced to sign oaths of silence about abuses allegedly committed by a priest who was later convicted on 74 counts. The priest, who died in prison, chose his victims from among the boys and girls in his parish for more than 30 years.

Nevertheless, Brady says he will stay on in his role so he can further improve the protection of children.

A letter of apology from Pope Benedict in March left people wanting more. It expressed remorse and sorrow for abuse inflicted on children by priests and religious brothers, but victims said they were deeply disappointed by its failure to address the role of current senior Church leaders. Since then, the Pope has accepted three bishops' resignations in connection with the abuse reports. "Some people out there still don't want to believe that people from the Church could do this," said another abuse victim, who gave her name as Annie.

Despite her own experience, Annie took her children to mass every Sunday when they were growing up. "I like to believe that there is something more out there," the 74-year-old says, breaking down into tears as she recalled her childhood in a Church-run school. "I (now) go to church and sit there, but only when it is empty. I still have a problem with it."

Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin has spoken of "strong forces" who "would prefer that the truth did not emerge" and about "signs of a rejection of a sense of responsibility for what had happened". Such frankness has drawn criticism from priests who believe he has failed to defend his subordinates.

Martin says the Church must move on -- but has to open up more about its dark past. "The Catholic Church in Ireland is coming out of one of the most difficult moments in its history yet the light at the end of the tunnel is still a long way off," he told the Oxford University Newman Society in a speech in June. "There is no simple way of wiping the slate of the past clean, just to ease our feelings. Yet the Catholic Church in Ireland cannot be imprisoned in its past. The work of evangelization must if anything take on a totally new vibrancy."

Abuse victim Lizzie says she respects Martin's sentiment. "It is only through real intentions that people can regain trust in the Church again."


Even if trust can be rebuilt, the push for change in Ireland's education system is likely to continue. Even the Church recognizes the shift underway.

"I believe that Catholic education has its place in Irish society today and will continue to maintain its place into the future. That is not to say that things should not change," Archbishop Martin told a meeting of primary school principals last year. The near-monopoly of patronage, he said, is a "historical hangover" that makes no sense when fewer people call themselves Catholic.

Others inside the Church agree. "The Church got involved in most of its extra activities to meet a need that was not being met and ... when that need is being met, you should move out," a senior Catholic official told Reuters. "There is an openness within the Church to sit down and work out a gradual withdrawal and it's been demonstrated more at secondary level than primary level."

The official, who declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media on the matter, was also keen to clear up school entrance requirements. "There's a misunderstanding out there that if you're not baptized, you can't get into a Catholic school," he says.

Demand for multi-denominational schools is growing. The Educate Together civic group, originating from a movement to establish new multi-denominational primary schools in the late 1970s, opened its first such school in 1978. Now it has nearly 60 schools under its wing, most in the Dublin area.

The government, too, understands it has to take on a bigger role in education. "Society has been changing and there are increasing calls for parental choice in relation to the patronage of primary schools," Education Minister Mary Coughlan told parliament in May. The education ministry says the vast majority of Ireland's 450,000 primary-age children already attend schools funded by the state but "giving explicit recognition to their denominational character" and under the patronage of the local bishop. A government initiative to take on more schools is being tested, Coughlan says.

As with so many things in financial crisis-hit Ireland these days, finding the money to fund such a big shift will be a problem.

"The idea that you have a choice in every parish is just economically not viable," says Brian Hayes, a spokesman for the center-right Fine Gael opposition.

As the Church official points out: "One of the reasons the state hangs onto the church-run schools is that it costs far less to run them because there's far more parish volunteers and parish fundraising to look after them. If we just said in the morning 'take all the schools back,' the state wouldn't be able to run them."


Some want the sort of change that goes beyond money. Church doctrine is built into Ireland's constitution, which opens with a preamble on the obligations to Jesus Christ and has several references to God. Could it be time for that to change?

"A lot of us are arguing that there is a need for a complete overhaul of the constitution -- a new constitution for a new republic," says David Farrell, a professor of politics at University College Dublin, adding that the main opposition parties Fine Gael and Labour have signaled moves in that direction. "If you're going to reform the constitution to reduce, or ideally remove references to the Church which is inappropriate in a modern society like ours, that would have to be part of a larger package of reforms."

The Green Party's Boyle argues that the constitution "is a document of its time and it doesn't seem to have taken (into account) the changes that occurred to the wider world or in particular to Ireland in the meantime". In particular, its treatment of the family provides "a very narrow and outdated (reflection) of what a family is like," he says.

But while most politicians seem committed to making education more secular, a fundamental overhaul of the constitution would be tricky. Conservative politicians could face pressure from some constituents to oppose such a move. Winning enough votes in a referendum could also prove difficult, as last year's Lisbon Treaty vote showed.

That means the Church's influence is likely to live on, despite the scandals and the growing agitation for change. "The Church used to control everything here in Ireland, now they have been left struggling to keep the respect of people for what was done," said Paul O'Reilly, a Limerick shop keeper, after coming out of mass one Sunday in May. "But I still can't see them disappearing to the margins of society just yet."