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PM says Ireland owes debt of gratitude to religious orders

Addressing 1500 religious in Rome on Saturday, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern paid tribute to the work of religious in Ireland, suggesting that it would be "dangerous" to portray the work as a negative force. reports that while acknowledging the horrendous toll of hurt and anger experienced by individuals directly affected by cases of clerical sex-abuse and other Church-related scandals, the Prime Minister warned against tarring everyone with the same brush and thus overlooking the enormous good work of Irish religious orders, in Ireland and the wider world.

He insisted sex scandals had unfairly left most religious as "casualties who have " . . . simply by virtue of belonging to a religious community, found their good name taken away. In this climate of sustained criticism, it becomes all too easy to tar everyone with the same brush," he told the reception at the residence of the Irish Ambassador to the Holy See, having returned from the EU constitution signing ceremony.

Ireland's economic prosperity, he said, did not come about by a "mere wave of a wand" but was rather "painstakingly nurtured" over decades. Foremost among those who nurtured that prosperity through their contribution to education and health were the religious communities of Ireland.

Those same communities now found themselves in difficulty in today's Ireland, with vocations plummeting in the context of a bewildering, even hostile society of increasing affluence and individualism. Yet, argued the Prime Minister, Ireland would only progress if people continued to respect the values that enabled them to grow as a society.

In that context, the religious had a "key role" to play in modern Ireland, underpinning a new spirit of solidarity. "Any blanket portrayal of the church as a negative force in our society, therefore, is not only misleading, but also inherently dangerous," he said.

He went on to say that Ireland owed a debt of gratitude to the religious communities. The education of women, the poor and the health services had all been provided by the religious orders. Gaelic games might not have even survived were it not for the unpaid work of priests and teachers throughout every parish in the country.

"At a time when the expectations and opportunities for young women in Ireland were extraordinarily limited, religious sisters were the loudest, and sometimes the only, champions of education for girls. Today, we see the fruits of that hard work in the self-confident young women of my daughters' generation," said the Prime Minister.

He also praised the work of the church for social justice, naming agencies like Trocaire and the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice as examples. He said such groups should lead the way to developing a more just and equitable society for all to share. The current generation was privileged, but now faced the challenge of not becoming blinded to the richness of human life and human possibility by material wealth, he said. Religious had a prophetic role to play in Ireland to see this did not happen.

The rector of the Irish College in Rome, Monsignor Liam Bergin welcomed the Prime Minister's comments, and said it was the first time he had heard the recent scandals put into a context that was positive about the religious.

"While not denying the awful reality, we feel we have been scapegoated," he said, noting that it was encouraging for young priests and seminarians to hear such comments.

Ireland owes debt of gratitude to religious orders - Ahern ( 2/11/04)

3 Nov 2004