An Irish Tragedy

by Joe Rigert


The Story of how Irish immigrants helped to build the American Catholic Church is well-known. But the sad tale of how Irish priests later undermined the Church has gone untold, until now.


Investigative reporter Joe Rigert's search for the roots of the Catholic sex-abuse scandals led him to Ireland. There, he found that rigid sexual repression in both society and the priesthood had the opposite of its intended effect, fostering bizarre and criminal sexual expression.


Though a tiny country, Ireland has been a chief exporter of abusers to America. The cases Rigert documents range from a priest who as a youth was molested by priests in Ireland and then went on to abuse up to 50 girls and boys in America, to a bishop who had never dated a girl in his home country and later turned to boys for sexual satisfaction in an American seminary. Ultimately, Rigert reveals that abuse by Irish priests mirrors a sexual disorder in the Vatican itself. The late Pope John Paul II looked to Ireland to maintain his strict view on sexual morality, but could not enforce it even in his own nation state.



Rigert provides a troubling and disturbing account of sexual abuse by Irish priests who migrated to various parts of the world, especially the United States. At the core of the crisis, according to Rigert, was a “Catholic culture” in Ireland that glorified the priesthood and frequently prodded men into church vocations for which they were ill-prepared. Moreover, when a priest became a sexual predator they were frequently dispatched to dioceses in the United States to get a “fresh start” in a new setting. An Irish Tragedy relies on interviews with victims and predators, church pronouncements, court records, newspaper accounts, and a wide range of theological and psychological sources. The records of dioceses and religious orders are conspicuously absent – a common shortcoming in many treatments of the sexual abuse scandal.

Joe Rigert, a life-long Roman Catholic and career journalism, did not intend to produce a narrative on Irish clerical abuse, but a circuitous examination of the scandal exposed a disturbing pattern among clerical expatriates from Ireland. The most disquieting element of the accounts presented is the “culture of secrecy” that evolved in both Ireland and the United States to hide the actions of abusive priests and to protect the reputation and assets of the church. Interestingly, Rigert maintains that many of the Irish priests abused women – an event that has been overshadowed by priestly abuse of boys and male adolescents. The narrative is coherently organized which allows the reader to grapple with the magnitude of the crisis, patterns of serial abusers, and how Irish culture produced both saints and sinners.

The most helpful insights emerge in two biographical sketches of serial abusers from Ireland – Father Oliver O’Grady and Bishop Anthony O’Connell – whose cases were adjudicated and civil settlements finalized. Both men entered the seminary at an early age and exhibited sexual immaturity throughout their careers; the bishop created a culture of promiscuity, while the priest abused men and women of all ages. O’Connell was assigned to the Diocese of Palm Beach and O’Grady served in several places in California. Both men were eventually exposed – O’Connell dispatched to a Trappist monastery in Mepkin, South Carolina, and O’Grady imprisoned prior to deportation to Ireland. An Irish Tragedy reveals other important issues, including discussions of gay subcultures, challenges of celibacy, complexities of Irish Catholicism, and covert efforts by church officials to limit exposure to sexual abuse.

Rigert’s arguments are both compelling and upsetting for Catholics. He carefully explains that homosexuality – the target of many church officials seeking to explain the abuse crisis – is not synonymous with sexual abuse. In addition, his arguments are balanced and consider the sensibilities of both those abused by priests and those committed to the mission of the church. In the final analysis Rigert has made an important contribution; however, additional treatment of “good” Irish priests and their contribution to worldwide Catholicism would have provided a valid counterpoint to those who committed grave indiscretions. Unfortunately, the actions of abusive Irish priests and recent disclosures of sexual and physical abuse by Irish Christian Brothers at several industrial schools in Ireland overshadow the positive efforts of Irish missionaries.

— James T. Carroll, American Catholic Studies, Vol. 120, No. 3 (2009)

Rigert, an investigative journalist, reveals the truth about the Irish sex abuse scandal in the same way the Boston Globe documented the crisis in the United States. Because Ireland has a history of exporting its priests accused of abuse to the US, he asserts that the roots of the sex abuse scandals are in Ireland. Rigert blames sexual repression both in Irish society and the priesthood for the scandals but demonstrates how the hierarchy in the United States and the Vatican itself are to blame for the extent of the scandal.

Conscience Magazine, Vol. 30, No. 2 (2009)

The Washington Times.

Click Here to read the book review by Julia Duin.



A riveting read with many remarkable insights.

—Terence Dosh, Catholic historian

An original contribution toward understanding the awful secret of clerical abuse and subterfuge in the American Catholic Church across the decades.”
—James Langford, director emeritus, University of Notre Dame Press

Great and convincing.”
—A. W. Richard Sipe, expert witness and consultant in more than 200 lawsuits
of clergy sexual abuse and co-author of Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes

—David Clohessy, executive director,
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP)





Joe Rigert is a veteran investigative journalist, retired from the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He served as president of the international organization Investigative Reporters & Editors, and is the author of two books, Europe on Eight Kids a Day and All Together: An Unusual American Family. He and his wife, Jan, raised a multi-racial family of eight children, seven adopted.


Author Joe Rigert is available for speaking engagements . Mr. Rigert may be reached by email at