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Church hits new crisis as just 16 join priesthood

The number of ordinations here has dipped below those in England and Wales for the first time in living memory, new figures show today.

The vocations crisis is a clear indication of how low the Church has sunk, considering that in the past we often provided Britain with a significant proportion of its priests.

According to new figures released by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Ireland, just 16 men are due to start training for the priesthood this autumn, less than half the 39 that signed up for the priesthood last year.

In the 1980s, the priesthood would regularly draw more than 150 new recruits every year.

The latest figures for England and Wales have yet to be released, but Church officials there are confident they will see an increase on the 43 men who put themselves forward for the priesthood in 2009.

The difficulty in attracting young recruits is a problem that is afflicting vast swathes of the Church, and is causing concern in Rome. The Church's reputation has been battered in the past five years by the sexual abuse scandals.

According to the Church newspaper The Tablet, which obtained the new figures, there are just 99 men training for priesthood in Irish seminaries compared with 150 in England and Wales.

Fr Patrick Rushe, national co-ordinator of Diocesan Vocations Directors, said the recent stories of sex abuse scandals had had a negative effect on recruiting.

Scandals

"The recent difficulties with Church scandals mean that those thinking tentatively about priesthood... are not going to be launching themselves forward," he told The Tablet.

"This has been a difficult year for the Church and is bound to have an effect [on numbers]."

Unless the slide can be addressed, the number of priests is expected to fall from 4,700 to just 1,500 by 2028.

The biggest problem the Church faces is the lack of new recruits to replace older priests that die or retire. The average age for a priest is currently 63 whilst clergymen over the age of 70 currently outnumber those under 40 by 10 to one.

In 2008, 160 priests died with only nine new ordinations.

hnew@herald.ie