Nine years ago, while studying abroad in Austria, my girlfriend at the time and I visited Ireland on a 10-day break. At that point in my life, I was a rather serious Catholic, and I figured Ireland would be a study in devotion — in addition to yet another locale on the European landmass devoted to beer.

While I wasn’t disappointed on the second count, I was surprised — after a many-hours-long hitchhiking trip along the south coast of the island to the city of Cork — to sit down in a large church Sunday evening and hear the mass said at breakneck speed. It was over in less than half an hour. I found it stunning that people in Ireland (clergy included, apparently) were so eager to get out of church as quickly as possible.

Little wonder, after today’s headline: Catholic Church shamed by Irish abuse report.

DUBLIN – After a nine-year investigation, a commission published a damning report Wednesday on decades of rapes, humiliation and beatings at CatholicChurch-run reform schools for Ireland’s castaway children.

The report details the institutionalized humiliation of thousands of Irish children sent to “reform schools” run by the “Christian Brothers” and other clerical orders. This was no case of Abu Ghraib-type “bad apples” (although we’re getting more of a picture of the institutionalization of that abuse, too, which puts the lie to the “bad apples” argument to begin with); this was a system-wide program of humiliation and torture — mental, physical, and, of course, sexual.

From the story:

The Catholic church has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements to victims of clerical abuse over the last decade.

The Catholic church has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements to victims of clerical abuse over the last decade.

The investigation of the tax-supported schools uncovered previously secret Vatican records that demonstrated church knowledge of pedophiles in their ranks all the way back to the 1930s.

Wednesday’s five-volume report on the probe — which was resisted by Catholic religious orders — concluded that church officials shielded their orders’ pedophiles from arrest amid a culture of self-serving secrecy.

When stories of priestly child abuse began emerging in Boston ten years ago, one might have been forgiven for being too shocked to believe rumors that the Boston archdiocese had quietly shuffled ordained pedophiles around to fresh flocks in far away parishes. The whole thing smacked of a Dan Brown-type conspiracy theory. However, guilt was finally admitted — and Boston was no one-off archdiocese in the United States. Hundreds of millions of dollars have now been paid in out-of-court settlements by bishoprics across the U.S. to the victims of molestation and rape — and one might justifiably assume that this was done at least in part to avoid the public airing of grievances in open trial (according to Wikipedia, the Catholic church spent $615 million in payouts to victims in 2007 alone). And has anyone forgotten the scandal surrounding the late Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ?

In the lead-up to this past weekend, when President Barack Obama gave the commencement speech at Notre Dame University, I heard a small throng of voices decrying the institution’s plan to bestow an honorary degree on Obama as a “scandal,” since the president’s stance on abortion differs from their own. Strange that they’ve decided to use the word “scandal” to describe this — when it might easily be said that the true “scandal” is that any American politician would accept an invitation from a faith community whose leaders are known world-over for their proclivity toward sexual abuse of the young entrusted to them.  Instead of being outraged at this continuous scandal, they decide to quibble over a cheaply-won honorary law degree?

This caricature might be unfair, and some no doubt will believe that to be so. But could anything be more similar than the details of the abuse inflicted by the so-called “Christian Brothers” at their schools in Ireland and the treatment of Muslim children in Middle-Eastern madrassas? Are we not willing to caricaturize Islam as a religion of violence and subjugation? Maybe both stereotypes are more accurate than we might like to think.

Maybe today will mark a turning point in the minds of people who, like me, have not personally experienced the shame of abuse by the religious authorities.Perhaps it is indeed unfair to judge the quality of a church by the actions of an individual. But at what point do we concede that it is the church itself — or the cult within it — that is actually fostering this kind of sickening behavior?

That’s probably a question best left to someone else. But I think we can agree: the Catholic Church, around the world, has utterly failed at what it pretends to be best at — the protection of the young and innocent.