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Catholic Church Remains Quiet During Ireland's Fierce Abortion Debate


Tomorrow the people of Ireland will vote in a referendum that could open up access to abortion there. The country is sharply divided between those who want to remove a constitutional amendment that effectively bans abortion in Ireland and others who want the amendment to stay. While individuals and groups on both sides have been campaigning furiously the Catholic Church, which strongly opposes changing the law, has kept a low profile during the referendum debate. Alice Fordham in Dublin reports on why that might be.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Singing, unintelligible).

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The Catholic Church is still important in Ireland. Dozens of people are attending one of several daily masses in the opulent Whitefriar Street Church in central Dublin. Outside, a member of the congregation urges passersby to vote to keep Ireland's abortion laws among the strictest in Europe. And a priest here, Father Sean Mac Giollarnath, tells me the clergy are part of the referendum campaign.

SEAN MAC GIOLLARNATH: Priests would have reflected on the significance of the vote during their homilies on Sunday from time to time. Prayers would have been offered for guidance.

FORDHAM: Bishops have written letters to their parishes about the referendum and have published opinion articles in newspapers. But during this ferociously noisy national debate, the church's role has seemed muted, and most anti-abortion campaigners have played down the role of religion in their fight. The church's credibility in Ireland has suffered after investigations uncovered child abuse and institutional abuse of unmarried mothers, including forced work and forced adoption. Father Sean concedes this has changed things.

MAC GIOLLARNATH: I think for some people trust has been greatly diminished in the church.

FORDHAM: NPR approached the Bishops Conference for a comment but were told no senior representative of the church was available.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Speaking Latin).

FORDHAM: Even the devout here have struggled to reconcile their faith with the actions of the church. I meet Michael Casey outside Parliament with a group of anti-abortion campaigners praying the rosary and singing hymns.

MICHAEL CASEY: Yeah. Of course in our day, especially here in Ireland, the church has had an awful lot to apologize about. The church has had an awful lot to explain regarding things that they have done, you know, in the name of God, in the name of Christianity.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Singing) My Lord.

FORDHAM: Meanwhile, many of those affected by the church's abuses hope this referendum will mark a decisive defeat for the institution. I spoke with Kathy Finn via Skype. She was born in a church-run home of unmarried mothers.

KATHY FINN: Yeah, I was born in 1969 in a mother and baby home in Cork. And I was adopted at 3 months old up here to Dublin.

FORDHAM: Finn later discovered her birth mother had been shuttled between church institutions, including a place called an industrial school where children worked for a convent.

FINN: It's the shame that the Catholic Church puts on - it's the shame - people like my mother couldn't say they were raised in an industrial school. And then the shame of having a baby and giving it up for adoption.

FORDHAM: Finn points out thousands of Irish women every year travel abroad for abortions or take illegal abortion-inducing drugs.

FINN: We're doing the exact same to these girls every day of the week they travel for an abortion or they take an abortion pill. The shame - it's this Catholic guilt that we can't get over in this country, and we need to.

FORDHAM: Finn is optimistic tomorrow's vote will result in change in the law. She says people now are thinking for themselves. For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham in Dublin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.
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