What Irish Priests think

Here are some interesting data from a poll of Irish Catholic priests. More info here and here. First first question excerpted below is very reassuring indeed.

2. Do you believe in God?
100% Yes

5. Do you feel that the church hierarchy understands the work and challenges faced by priests in a modern world?
37% yes
61% no
2% unsure

6. How do you think the Vatican handled church sex abuse cases in Ireland?
10% Well
63% Poorly
27% Other

7. Do you think lay people should be more involved in the church?
98% Yes
2% No

9. Do you think women should be allowed become priests?
60% Yes
30% No
10% Unsure

10. Should sacraments only be administered to people from families who attend mass on a weekly basis?
17% Yes
78% No
5% Unsure

11. Do you think priests should be allowed marry?
17% No
78% Yes
5% Unsure

15. Does your bishop actively seek the views of priests, religious and lay people when making important decisions in your diocese?
44% Yes
44% No
12% Unsure

One priest wrote, “No – the new missal would be a good example.”

16. Do you believe that Irish bishops are too subservient to Rome?
67% Yes
31% No
2% Unsure

26. Do you feel that priests and the Catholic Church in general are portrayed fairly in the media?
14% Yes
84% No
2% Unsure

33. Do you think that this is an appropriate time for a Eucharistic Congress in Ireland?
51% Yes
45% No
4% Unsure

34. Are you or lay people in your parish excited about the Eucharistic Congress?
31% Yes
59% No


  1. I also found the high Yes rate in this item encouraging:

    17. In the light of your experience of the priesthood would you still choose it if you were setting out again?

    81% Yes
    13% No
    6% Unsure

    Respondent comments:

    – Probably not. I would have gone into a monastery instead and might yet.
    – I have experienced many disappointments and abuses in my priesthood – bullying, dishonesty, politics etc.
    – Would do it with no regrets – it was a privilege
    – Not without changes.
    – I would find another way of serving God and people.

  2. To underscore the media disclaimer:

    The Newstalk survey was submitted to 320 priests nationwide.
    114 priests responded. 96% of the priests surveyed having been serving for 10 years or more.

    1. Worse than useless, I’d say. While I’d pay attention in a one-on-one conversation, as a poll, it’s definitely worth ignoring. As are all such polls….

    2. It may be useless as a statistic but statistics is not the only measure of interest. It may be very successful as an exercise in information-gathering.

    3. Er, I don’t at all agree w/ either Sam’s or Karl’s conclusions.

      Occasionally, I will perform a statistical analysis on a medical trial to judge their conclusion. The sample size of 114 out of 320 is good. You do not need to receive a questionaire response from each of the 320 priests in the random sample, but 114 is indeed a good return.

      Statistics uses sampling distributions to give us the basis for inferential statistics. By studying the distribution of a sample statistics we can learn about the corresponding larger population parameter. According to the Central Limit Theorem when the random sample is greater or equal to 30 the distribution is considered normal.

      In other words the results of the 114 sample size does statistically approximate the results of the population of all priests in that area.

      You may not agree w/ the results but they are definitely not “close to useless” or “worse than useless”.

      1. If it’s a true sample, yes. But what if it isn’t? What if, for example, the priests who chose to respond are the ones who are not too depressed because they’re happy with their vocation in spite of all the problems?

      2. Doesn’t matter Claire. Random samples are considered, as you state, “true samples” because they are random and the results from a random sample will give you a statistically correct picture of that entire population. You can statistically assume (correctly) in random sampling that the responses to the questionaire in that sample will approximate the responses from their entire population. It’s just the nature of statistics.

      3. Dale, what you are saying would hold if the results had been obtained by taking 120 random people from among the 320, and forcing them to fill out a form. Then the 120 people would be a random sample of the 320. But that’s not how it’s been obtained: instead, they sent forms to all 320, waited to see who would turn them in, and ended with 120: so what they have is now, not a random subset of 120 persons, but the set of persons who are willing to fill out a form and send it in. Such a person could be quite different from a random person.

        For example, imagine that someone who is depressed and dispirited is more likely to just throw the forms away, while someone who is still upbeat is more likely to fill them in: then the 120 forms you will receive will present an image of happiness that is not representative of the 320.

      4. Claire, the Central Theorem still holds.
        You are making a classic error when you state: “imagine that someone who is depressed and dispirited is more likely to just throw the forms away, while someone who is still upbeat is more likely to fill them in…”
        You have no proof for this, as you say “imagine” it.
        It might sound logical ( to you and me) but logic sometimes doesn’t hold up against the science.
        As a fun aside 🙂 for example, if I simultaneously drop two steel balls from the empire state building, one weighing 10 pounds and one weighing 1 pound logic tells me that the 10 pound ball will land first because after all it is 10 times heavier. But that’s not the case, they will land simultaneously. Logic and statistics are sometimes like water and vinegar!

      5. Self selected sample?
        What were the two groups being compared?
        A self selected sample involves the allocation of units or cases of a population to one or other of two groups which are to be compared.
        Sam, I think you mean self selected bias, not self selected sample.

        The response rate is good and conforms to the Central Limit Theorem.

      6. The problem with those results is better explained in the wikipedia article on “sampling bias”. In statistics, sampling bias is when a sample is collected in such a way that some members of the intended population are less likely to be included than others.

        The wikipedia article then goes on to discuss the types of sampling bias, and in particular, “self-selection bias”: Self-selection bias, which is possible whenever the group of people being studied has any form of control over whether to participate. Participants’ decision to participate may be correlated with traits that affect the study, making the participants a non-representative sample. For example, people who have strong opinions or substantial knowledge may be more willing to spend time answering a survey than those who do not.

        I think that you are worried about a different problem: even if the sample was truly random, if it was too small, then the results would be unreliable. But that’s not an issue here: 120 out of 320 is plenty, I agree with you on that.

        So, quantitatively, there is enough data. But qualitatively, that data is suspect because of self-selection bias.

  3. Answer 16 is interesting. The problems discussed in the Cloyne report arose from the bishop ignoring the Vatican and the guidelines agreed by the Irish bishops.

  4. Mr Haydon, you are quite incorrect. The problem is exactly the opposite to what you claim. If the bishops had dealt with the matter themselves, instead of looking over their shoulders, to those who appointed them, the matter would have been dealt with more responsibly.

    That brings us back to the more fundamental question of the appointment of bishops.

    The Roman Catholic bishops in Ireland have a good model of local responsibility in the bishops of the Church of Ireland, who are elected normally by a combination of bishops, priests and lay people. It would be impossible to imagine the Church of Ireland bishops handing over responsibility to an external body when it comes to managing affairs over which they have authority.

    1. “If the bishops had dealt with the matter themselves, …, the matter would have been dealt with more responsibly.” True.

      “…instead of looking over their shoulders, to those who appointed them…” False.

      The findings of the Irish reports were quite clear that the Irish bishops did not deal with the abuse of children properly and equally clear that they neither applied canon law properly nor made the reports to Rome that were mandated by Crimen Solicitatis: they were hardly “looking over their shoulders” to a Vatican that they were keeping in the dark (whether the Vatican would have done anything effective about abuse is a different matter, but we did not get the chance to find out).

      There are enough myths being circulated by the secular media about the scandal of child abuse, everyone should desist from instrumentalising the scandal to benefit their position in the culture war.

      1. Let’s be fair here in a complicated arena:
        – the bishops of Ireland developed and proposed a child safety plan in 1998
        – as with many issues in conferences, there was disagreement on how to proceed, present to Rome, implement, etc.
        – in reality, it was presented to Rome – Rome had questions, etc. and rejected some aspects of the safety approach (e.g. notifying civil authorities) and yes, some bishops were looking over their shoulder and yes, we don’t know and did not get the chance to find out but Rome did not help in this matter
        – because of this, some Irish bishops did not follow the proposed directives (e.g. Cloyne)
        – Vatican and revisionist arguments: conference policy was never approved? the consistent Vatican story that canon law was never followed (unfortunately per this storyline, most world bishops interpreted canon law to require secrecy (Crimen Solicitationis) and non-involvement of civil authorities despite what the Vatican said in their re-interpretation (sorry, behavior speaks louder than revisionist history)
        Tom Doyle’s reply to your last statement about “enough myths to benefit their position in the culture war”

      2. Bill
        My understanding is different. Each Bishop can make his own rulings for his diocese. What was proposed was a rule that would apply to all the dioceses in Ireland and the conference considered asking the Vatican for the formal approval. The draft was presented and the point made in response was that it might not be in conformity with Canon law. This posed the risk that a Canon law process against a priest could fail on a technicality. One for the bishops to allow for. In fact each diocesan bishop said that they would apply the framework document. The problem was that Cloyne did not apply it.
        The question about mandatory reporting to civil authorities of any allegation was the other issue. There was no national consensus on this. It is still not required by Irish law. In one respect this is a red herring: nothing stopped complainants taking their complaint to the police rather than the bishop. It seems that the civil authorities were little better than the clerical ones.
        Unfortunately the Irish government made allegations against the Vatican and demanded a response. The response dealt with the issues raised. The Irish government then resorted to bluster.
        See the Thirsty Gargoyle for a detailed analysis.

      3. Bill

        (1) The Cloyne report is pretty clear that the diocese neither implemented the norms adopted by the rest of the Irish bishops NOR adopted the norms put in place by Rome after the shake up of canon law at the turn of this century.

        (2) It is crystal clear that canon law was not followed: priests accused of crimes were not referred to Rome for disciplinary measures to be taken (as was required by canon law); in Cloyne, for example, only a handful of allegations were actually submitted to Rome, only one of which related to someone actually convicted of a criminal offence, and all of the reports were submitted in the period of weeks before the bishop was “asked” to retire.

      4. When Josef Ratzinger was head of the CDF he introduced the novel and further centralising measure that all cases involving sexual abuse by clergy should be referred to the Vatican. That was the first mistake. Ireland, like other civilised nations is perfectly well able to deal with criminal activity by going the civil route.

        Ratzinger’s decision could be criticised on a number of fronts, not least that of prurience. It is reminiscent of the hopefully long gone type of confessional practice and moral theology which was inordinately interested in matters sexual.

        If the Irish bishops had taken responsibility for handling these matters instead of deferring to the Vatican, things could have been much different. Of course, if they had been elected by diocesan electoral college, instead of being appointed “from on high,” their accountability would have been first of all to those who put them there.

      5. Gerard

        I appreciate that this gives you an opportunity to mount your hobby-horse about elected bishops, but you seem to be wilfully blind to the simple facts that (i) the Irish bishops did not report these criminal offences to the civil authorities and (ii) they did not report them to the Vatican either.

        Your argument that the problem is down to Vatican centralisation fails because the writ of the centre seems to have extended no further than St Peter’s Square.

        I’d also point out that the cases that were referred to the civil authorities were rarely dealt with by them any more effectively (e.g. The accounts of the Guards ignoring allegations of abuse, the fact that the industrial schools were subject to the government inspectorate)

      6. Mr. Haydon – thanks but your drill down only repeats what I have said. Would also take issue with some of your clarifictions. Yes, anyone could report to the Gardai but, in reality, most bishops and staffs encouraged, if not, required parishioners to come to them first. Then, they were often forced to sign confidentiality statements or were browbeat into “trusting and not reporting” to the Gardai promising that the issue would be handled. Of course, it rarely was handled except that “father” was protected.
        Yes, you are correct that Irish civil law was just as “behind”:as church practice but does that really absolve either Rome or the bishops from moving forward on a process that almost all Irish bishops knew was the best way forward.

        Sorry, the Thirsty Gargoyle when investigated shows that it reflects only one side of the story. Its constant theme that the Irish Government overrreacted to Rome based on two very legalistic interpretations of the proposed process and later response from Rome – it confuses the actual timeline as if Rome had the “perfect” process and Irish officials misunderstood this or characterized it incorrectly. Let’s just say that there is more than enough blame to go around on both sides.

      7. Bill
        To your 9 March 6.04 pm

        Without challenging what you say the about who did what I doubt that there is any serious suggestion that the Vatican instructed bishops to forbid parishioners to report matters to the police etc.
        The original question was 16. Do you believe that Irish bishops are too subservient to Rome?
        I think that the perception may be that they were but the reality is different. That is not to say that guidance from the Vatican was perfect. It does leave open the idea that following Vatican instructions was not the cause of their failings.
        As for the Thirsty Gargoyle I will make the point that it exposed as a lie the Prime Minister’s claim that the Vatican had interfered in the affairs of the Irish state in the previous three years. The specific dates stated by the PM left no wriggle room.
        I suspect that many other nations would also blame foreigners for their problems and cite as illustration the Greeks blaming the Germans for their economic problems. The Greek failure to collect taxes and control spending were home grown problems. The Irish, faced with similar challenges, seem to have responded much better.

      8. Now you have shifted subjects – started with the Cloyne Report and now you are referencing Enda Kenny’s talk.

        Again, let’s be fair – Kenny’s talk was not a legal brief but an emotional appeal, period.

        The Vatican reply took 8 weeks and was a detailed legal brief whose starting point is a contention that canon law and Rome never prevented bishops from reporting and acting on abusers. Too much documented history indicates that this statement is a reactive, technical and legal statement that ignores reality, episcopal behaviors, and the differences of approach by vatican officials and dicasteries since 1975.

      9. “I suspect that many other nations would also blame foreigners for their problems ”

        There is a difference. The Vatican appoints bishops to Irish dioceses. (Interestingly, in the time of Benedict XV only one-sixth of the world’s bishops were appointed centrally, i.e. by the Vatican.)

      10. Two responses to my last: thank you both.

        I fear that in attempting to analyse how the Vatican dealt with matters we are going off onto a detailed analysis where we would have to study from reports and quote at length. As you mention “Episcopal behaviours” we would have some uncertain ground to argue over. The question was how it was perceived by so many clergy that the bishops were “too subservient to Rome.” How subservient should they be I wonder: that would make an interesting discussion.
        My observation was that their failings did not arise from excessive subservience to Rome. Thomas Dalby makes the point that the Vatican writ “seems to have extended no further than St Peter’s square.” I gave reference to the Thirsty Gargoyle as it seemed to have a detailed and clear analysis. My own reading of the reports online seems to support the Gargoyle analysis. You may be able to show that there are errors on some matters so I cited the “within the last three years” as a specific case where the Gargoyle was right.
        Yes, the PM’s comments were fuelled by emotion but he did formally ask for a response. Something politer than “Liar, liar, pants are on fire” was probably appropriate.
        You and I can do better even if we are not in full agreement.

        Indeed the Vatican does appoint bishops. In my view there is insufficient training for them for the responsibilities they will take on and insufficient supervision. The removal of bishops who fail seems very rare. Dom Gregory Dix seems to have noticed a problem there. Of course when a bishop is removed there is quite a fuss as we saw in Australia recently.

      11. Thanks, Mr Haydon…agree.

        On removal of bishops – we need more removals based on incompetence, illegalities including abuse cover-ups and financial matters. Citing the removal of Wm. Morris has little to do with the above – it was, unfortunately, a papal political step moved by an ultra rightwing group based on lies, non-transparency which violated the natural rights of Wm Morris. Not a shining light for B16.

      12. Dear Bill
        We advance to agreement. Good.
        Perhaps better preparation and training and support would mean that fewer would need to be removed. I seem to find that just when I have decided that a bishop is no good he does something excellent. Now Bishop Roche of Leeds has attempted to fight the closure of his local Catholic adoption agency. Excellent. Before that there were mixed reviews of him.
        In business we have internal audit, compliance and external audit as well as regulators to keep us in line. Who is there to tell a bishop to pull up his socks? Who can help when he is out of his depth on one subject?
        If we did sack more bishops what would we do with them? Appointing them to sinecures may be silly. I wonder if one could copy from the military where an officer may have a low substantive rank but be appointed, temporarily, to act in a more senior role. There is not so far to come down to earth after that.
        Interestingly it was, I gather, the inspectorate of the Irish bishops that uncovered the problems in Cloyne, not the government. So there is hope of some self correcting process.

    2. Gerard
      Thank you.
      Perception may be more important than reality here. I suspect that a natural desire to blame someone else for one’s failings may be part of the issue. I suspect also that the recent introduction of the new translation of the Mass may have contributed to the response to the survey. Quite how Ireland could have taken a different path to other English speaking countries is a matter for conjecture.
      We saw with the row after the Cloyne report that the media and politicians were more concerned with the story than the truth. All of this will have been unsettling for the ordinary clergy in Ireland who are mostly wholly innocent of all abuse but are denigrated nevertheless. No wonder their morale is undermined.

      1. Good points. Msgr O’Callaghan found the episcopal guidelines impossible to follow in the iffy cases he had to deal with in Cloyne; he did not break any government law, since the Irish government had several times refused to make any laws about mandatory reporting; even the new law that is in process includes the saving clause “without reasonable excuse”, which Msgr O’Callaghan could plausibly invoke. Taioseach Enda Kenny’s much-lauded performance is more and more seen as tawdry.

    3. Thomas Dalby speaks of “these criminal offenses” in connection with the Cloyne report. But in fact the issue is allegations, not proven offenses; some of the allegations stretch back to the 1930s; another concerned an alleged abuser of whom the complainant could give neither the name nor the location; in several cases the accused priest was dying or dead.

      1. Joe

        I think that we are at cross-purposes: I’ve pointed out that the events at Cloyne only resulted in one criminal conviction (the point about Cloyne was that it appears that there was a negligent disregard of child protection that *could* have caused harm, not that it did cause harm); where I mention criminal offences I have in mind cases where someone was, eventually convicted (e.g. Brendan Smyth) or darn well should have been convicted (e.g. The undoubted neglect and cruelty inflicted in the industrial schools).

      2. Thanks, Mr. Dalby. Fr. O’Leary is on his typical meme about the Irish abuse scandals. Unfortunately, his views do not align with the facts; much less with Irish Catholics’ perceptions.

        Facts – thousands of kids were abuse sexually, psychologically, and emotionally and the institutional church and Irish government did little to change this for 100+ years and then when it began to come to light; they ignored, covered up, and delayed protecting children.

        Fr. O’Leary can always play his game of minimizing & legalities (e.g. they weren’t pedophiles but confused sexually; his almost extreme views that sound like justifying man-boy love based on ancient times, etc. making excuses in terms of “one time” clerical offenders; etc.) but, in reality, despite even the very public investigations to date (more on the way) we know that probably 50% of all sexual abuse has never been reported.

  5. Dale Rodriguez :
    Doesn’t matter Claire. Random samples are considered, as you state, “true samples” because they
    are random and the results from a random sample will give you a statistically correct picture of that entire population. You can statistically assume (correctly) in random sampling that the responses to the questionaire in that sample will approximate the responses from their entire population. It’s just the nature of statistics.

    DR – This is an honest question about your comments above about the inherent validity of random sampling. How is it, if you are correct, that one can consistently choose randomly pollees who are representative of the general population’s stand on any given matter? Isn’t it always just possible that the pollers just happen to ask, even in a random sampling, a majority of persons whose stand on a given matter are not representative of the broader populace? If, for instance, you are polling about British royalist sentiment as opposed to republican sentiment, it is just possible that those you just happened randomly to poll were not representative of society at large. What is the guarantee that you don’t randomly poll the wrong 200 people? Is there such a thing as random error? Your observations are as interesting as is the phenomenon of polling itself. Many of us routinely place little trust in polls, which often have been wrong – particularly in the area of politics and elections – and my experience is that they rarely reflect my views, or those of many of my friends. And, do not quite a few of us hold in low esteem those leaders in government or other arenas whose decisions are overweaningly shaped by polls? There must be a reason for this.

    1. Hello MJO.
      There are different types of sampling. A poll usually involves face to face questioning and is usually not a random sampling of the population but simply asking individuals what they think about a particular question. For example polling outside of a voting facility is skewed because many people will not tell the person who is polling how they actually voted. Their responses to the face to face questioning is usually suspect. Random sampling is different. Another example, (if you live in the States) presidential winners are actually picked by the major news networks when only a small percentage of votes have actually been counted. This is because their sampling is random.
      As I understand it, there was a questionaire that was sent out to the priests, not polling. Therefore, one usually is more honest filling out the answers to the questionaire and less likely to lie to a pollster. Statistically it works. Defies logic sometimes, but it works!
      ps One might remember in the 1950’s that one newspaper printed that Harry Truman lost the presidential election based on their sampling. However, it was faulty. They sampled by calling on the telephone. However, they forgot that many people didn’t have a telephone at that time and those who didn’t were usually Democrats, who therefore weren’t polled but who voted for Truman!

      1. “Dewey Beats Truman” was actually 1948, but the illustration holds. And thank you for enlightening us about statistics.

  6. One has to distinguish between the reliability of poll results, i.e. whether one gets the same results to a question across different samples, and the validity of results, i.e. are the questions really measuring what they say they are measuring.

    Reliability depends upon the population size, e.g. number of priests in Ireland, the sample size, i.e. the number of priests who were sampled, and the response rate (number of priests who actually responded).

    The response rate in this case was only 35% i.e. 114/320. While in past decades researchers usually wanted 75% response rates; today most get only about 50%. Careful researchers usually include questions (age, number of years in priesthood) so that they can check for response bias against the total population statistics. This is especially valuable when response rates get this low.

    In large populations, e.g. state or national surveys, usually a sample around 500 gets a confidence interval, or margin of error, around 4%. e.g. if Candidate A gets 30% and Candidate B gets 33% they are statistically the same, but if candidate B gets 35% they are different, i.e. if you repeated the same survey again 19 out of 20 times you would get the same answer, i.e. B has more votes than A.

    In smaller populations of several thousand, sample size can be smaller, i.e. 300 people can get you the confidence interval of 4% rather than needing 500.

    This is where response rates get to be important. With only 114 people it likely means that our confidence interval has widened probably to something like 10%. For example 51% said it was an appropriate time for the Eucharistic Congress versus 45% said no. They are unlikely to be statistically different especially with only 114 priests responding If they had gotten all 320 priests they would likely have been statistically different, i.e. more than 4% so that in 19 out of 20 samples we would have gotten the same answer.

  7. It would be nice to think that Irish priests are as liberal as they appear in this poll — but let’s not forget that the conservativism of Irish priests is supremely expressed in their silence, and that could include not responding to questionnaires.

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