Association of Catholic Priests discuss Church's future

Cardinal Sean Brady The leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, has faced calls to resign

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An organisation which represents more than 850 priests in Ireland has been meeting on Monday to discuss the future direction of the Catholic Church.

The Vatican has recently criticised leading members of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) for expressing views which contradict Church teaching.

The ACP meeting comes at a turbulent time for the Church in Ireland.

Its leader, Cardinal Sean Brady, is facing calls to resign over his handling of a clerical sex abuse case.

The ACP meeting, entitled "Towards an Assembly of the Irish Catholic Church", has been taking place at a hotel in Dublin.

One of the event's organisers, Father Brendan Hoban, said: "We believe that in 20 years time there will be very few priests in Ireland.

"We believe too, as everybody understands, that without priests you have no eucharist, and without eucharist you have no church.

"We are saying, 'what's the plan B'."

Many women at the conference said they felt excluded from the Church, and there were calls for a debate on the issue of female priests.

The organisers said they expected only 200 people to show up but there were more than 1,000, which they said was proof of the demand for a more open and democratic Catholic Church.

Change

The conference was described as a first effort to bring people together to discuss the current state of the Catholic Church in Ireland which has been rocked in recent years by a series of high-profile child abuse scandals.

During that period, a number of priests have openly expressed their desire for change in Church rules on matters such as clerical celibacy, the ordination of women and the ban on contraception.

Analysis

The Catholic Church once dominated Irish public life, but Irish society has diverged sharply from its traditionalist teaching.

In the wake of the sex abuse scandal - and with its leader Cardinal Brady hamstrung by his own role in failing to report abuse to police - the Irish Church has lost authority and respect with bewildering speed.

The deepening sense of public alienation, and dwindling congregations has rallied more than a quarter of all active Roman Catholic priests in Ireland to what amounts to a rebel group.

On Monday, they recruited lay Catholics to the call for fundamental reforms, including some they know Rome views as impossible. It represents an unprecedented challenge to the Vatican's authority.

For its part, the Vatican will flatly refuse such reforms, but publicly it is likely to say little, hoping to deny the Association of Catholic Priests the advantage that taking them on might provide.

However, in recent months, some of Ireland's most vocal, liberal priests have been disciplined by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

They include leading ACP member, Father Tony Flannery, and the broadcaster and newspaper columnist Fr Brian D'Arcy.

Fr Flannery, who is based in County Galway, was ordered to stop writing articles for a Redemptorist Order magazine to which he had contributed for 14 years.

Fr D'Arcy was told he must get prior approval to write or broadcast on topics dealing with church doctrine.

In the run-up to Easter, Pope Benedict warned that the Church would not tolerate priests speaking out against Catholic teaching.

Last week, a BBC documentary uncovered new revelations about an internal Church investigation into clerical child sex abuse in 1975.

It said a teenage boy who had been sexually abused by Fr Brendan Smyth gave the names and addresses of other children who were at risk from the paedophile priest to Cardinal Brady, who at that time was a 36-year-old priest.

He passed the allegations to his superiors but did not inform the police or the children's parents.

Fr Smyth continued to sexually assault one of the boys for a year after that.

He also abused the boy's sister for seven years, and four of his cousins, up until 1988.

The ACP recently commissioned a survey of Irish Catholics which found that 90% would support the introduction of married priests.

The survey also found that 77% of Irish Catholics want women to be ordained, while more than 60% disagreed with Church teaching that gay relationships were immoral.

At the time, Fr Brendan Hoban from the ACP said the results were proof that the perception of Irish Catholics as traditionalist, conservative and resistant to change was wrong.

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