Saddened by sex abuse scandal, Irish priest shares atypical vision for priesthood and Catholic Church

Father Gerard Tanham, 72, tugged at the neckband of his black shirt. Only a sliver of his white priest’s collar peeked through. He doesn’t remember when he started hiding it.
He does remember a December concert at the parish school where he was blocking a child’s view.

Photograph by Audrey Deiser

“I asked if I should move, and his mother said ‘Oh it’s all right, Father. If he can’t see, he’ll just sit on your knee.’”
Her husband exploded, hurling epithets for the whole room to hear.
“I didn’t say anything,” Tanham recalled, his eyes wet and his voice thick.
The night was ruined. Responding was pointless.
That night was almost 20 years ago, long before Tanham started his tenure in Howth, a seaside village whose parishioners are largely of his own generation. Media coverage of the clerical sex abuse scandal was at a fever pitch, and the issue was at the forefront of the Irish conscience.
It was around the time when he gripped an accused pedophile’s arm to stop him from jumping off a railway platform and took another priest out of a tree, years when he counseled priests who had sexually abused children.
Now, he sat on his couch inside his bungalow with a teacup, his stirring spoon balanced precariously on the edge of the saucer.
“The church is a big organization,” he said. “It’s been different in different ages and countries, obviously. And because it’s human it’s done some bad stuff.”
He looked down, and his voice grew softer.
“Obviously in Ireland, in my lifetime, the worst thing that’s happened has been the exposure of the fact that some priests…were child molesters,” he said. “That’s actually been disastrous. The biggest disaster is for the kids who have been injured.”
In May 2009, The Dublin Archdiocese Commission a published a 720-page report detailing clergy members’ sexual, verbal and physical abuse of children in Ireland since 1975, much of it in the 1970s and ’80s.
Commissioned by the government and named “The Murphy Report,” it revealed clergy members’ emphasis on silencing victims’ voices.
Most Irish Catholic churches have signage with child protection policies in the entrances or on the front page of their websites, demonstrating just how salient the issue is – and will continue to be.
Pope Francis visits Dublin for the World Meeting of Families in August, the first papal visit to Ireland since 1979. Catholics and survivors have accused him of talking without action in regards to the sex abuse problem in the Church. A country still reeling from decades of abuse will likely demand answers from him.
When Pope John Paul II visited in 1979, 16 years before Irish people voted to approve divorce, one million people came to Phoenix Park. Pope Francis is expected to draw a much smaller crowd during this transition in Irish culture.
The percent of church-going Catholics has dropped from 90 percent in the 1970s to 30 percent today. It’s not just a generational divide, although the drop in numbers can be partially attributed to the older generation dying out. Dedicated churchgoers are leaving too. Numbers are dwindling in the pews and in the seminaries.
Tanham graduated in a class of 11 others at Holy Cross College, Clonliffe in Dublin. He said the seminary had a “quite monastic approach,” but he was happy enough and persevered to graduation. At the time, 140 men were enrolled. In 2001, the seminary shut down and the students were moved to Maynooth. Clonliffe is now used for diocesan retreats and conferences.
Much like Tanham’s spoon on the edge of his saucer, the Catholic Church seems poised for a fall.
“The church will survive,” Tanham insisted. “It’s too big not to survive.” But he thinks the Church will look different, “more than people can imagine.”
Tanham has served as a Roman Catholic priest in Ireland for 47 years. He said he has loved all seven of his assignments: five parishes and two as director of educational programs. Tanham said he knows he was called to the priesthood. He doesn’t doubt he is where he belongs. The years, he said, have flown.
“It’s something to do with providence.”
Before joining the priesthood, Tanham spent a year after initial schooling training to be an accountant. At 18, he had a girlfriend, a social life, and a job. As time went on, however, his calling toward the seminary grew. He said he had always been interested in the “meaning of life, science and God questions.”
His cohort entered the seminary in 1964, when hopes for radical changes in the Catholic Church were still high. Vatican II had taken place just 2 years earlier. The council of bishops had reviewed tradition and doctrine with plans to modernize the church, but many hoped more changes would still be revealed.
“Change was in the air during the ‘60s – but it came — still comes — very slowly,” he said.
Vatican II raised hopes for many seminarians – Tanham included – that they would be able to become priests but also marry. Instead, he settled for other, lesser chances implemented by Vatican II. He faced the congregation and celebrated the Mass in English.
Tanham is the kind of post-Vatican II seminarian who was hoping the Church would change, said Hugh Turpin, a researcher at Queen’s University in Belfast, “and then that didn’t really happen, and they got disappointed.”
Turpin, who studies the anthropology of religion, has interviewed Catholics in various stages of belief for his research. He interviewed cultural Catholics, liberal Catholics, conservative Catholics, and among them, lay people and clergy.
“I’d be a bit of an old city liberal,” said Tanham. “I’d be all for the church doing a big rethink. But it’s very slow to change.”
He said maybe there wouldn’t have been so many cover-ups if the clergy had more women in powerful positions and if power was less concentrated altogether. He didn’t want to speculate, but he said the possibility couldn’t be ignored.
Tanham’s thoughts echo those of Robert Orsi, a professor of Religious Studies and History at Northwestern University who has studied the spiritual lives of adult survivors of clerical sexual abuse. He investigates the premise that the victims of sexual abuse were “abused in a Catholic way,” according to one survivor Orsi spoke to.
In “What is Catholic about the Clergy Sex Abuse Crisis?” a reflection in an anthropological reader on Catholicism published in January 2017, Orsi wrote that the abuse was able to continue in secret because the Church’s clergy had power over its members few other religious organizations wielded 
“Survivors are deeply troubled by Catholics who refuse to acknowledge the full reality of the tradition, its capacities for evil as well as for holiness,” he said.
Survivors were abused for so long, he said, due to the nature of the institutional Catholic Church and the revered place of priests as alter Christi, or Christ’s earthly stand-ins.
“None of the survivors I know are hopeful that the Catholic doctrine of the priesthood and the practices of deference, acquiescence, and undeserved reverence that grew out of it will change soon,” Orsi said.
Survivors may not be hopeful for a revolution within priesthood, but Tanham is.
His ideas for a rethink include permanent pastoral workers and reevaluation of doctrine. He wants more ecumenical ties among Christian faiths and less exclusivity in Catholicism.
“You keep the core, which is love. And you get stronger on practice,” he said.
Future priests might be community leaders who work with groups historically left behind by the Church. He emphasized less condemnation and more outreach.
“Everyone comes to church as a sinner,” he said. “God is the one who judges.”
Tanham clearly intended to use the concept of God as sole juror not just as a platitude. He seeks real shifts within the Church he has loved his entire life.
“It’s the end of an old way of being church, I think,” he said. “We’re still working on the old model, and I think most priests realize that a new model is needed.”
Tanham proposed permanent female pastors who would run churches and have a priest come in to transform the Eucharist. He said he was also not opposed to women priests.
“He [Jesus] didn’t ordain priests,” he said. “He left apostles.”
Despite everything he has seen and lived through, he said he was more hopeful than ever. “It’s an act of trust that there’s going to be a future.”
For background on divorce referendum see Christopher, A. (1997). The Irish Divorce Referendum of 1995. Geography, 82(1), 79-81. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40572868
For reflection by Orsi, see Orsi, R. A. (2017). What is Catholic about the Clergy Sex Abuse Crisis? In K. Norget, V. Napolitano, & M. Mayblin (Eds.), The Anthropology of Catholicism: A Reader (pp. 282-292). University of California Press.