Monday, November 30, 2009

International help needed to speed Church clean-up

International help needed to speed Church clean-up

Monday November 30 2009

THANK God for Diarmuid Martin; thank God for the courage and persistence of the victims of clerical child abuse who have been vindicated; thanks too for Judge Yvonne Murphy and her team for drawing back the veil and shining a light into the darkest passages of church administration.

Without minimising in any way the suffering of victims or the criminal culpability of the abuser, the public sense of outrage attaches mostly to the cover-up by diocesan authorities over many years. Indeed, for many victims, their treatment by church authorities added not only insult, but additional pain and suffering to the original injury.

The diocesan authorities were proved to be just as insensitive, just as callous, and, in their own way, just as abusive as the original offenders. The fact that there was an abuse of power and office by those who put the defence of an institution above the protection of children made it, if anything, even more offensive.

Northern Ireland has had its own public debate on some of these issues 20 years ago in the wake of the Kincora scandal. That, it should be remembered, involved a home run by a local authority, later a health board, who showed no less anxiety to protect their organisation from the shame of disclosure, and no less willingness to protect staff rather than listen to the children.

Indeed, their attitude contrasted with that of the Catholic Bishop William Philbin in a similar case at the time involving a Catholic home.

Kincora involved abuse in residential homes rather than clerical paedophiles. Nevertheless it resulted, in the North, in the development of rules and methodologies for screening staff in contact with children, keeping registers of offenders, and imposing a duty of informing the civil authorities on employers and others.

It seems odd that none of this seems to have informed attitudes across the border, the more so since some dioceses spanned both jurisdictions, that the cardinals resided in the North, and indeed that some of the most notorious clerical abusers had worked there, had been transferred there, perhaps, to keep them ahead of the posse.

But what now? The Ferns, Ryan and now Murphy reports have turned up the edge of the carpet. It would defy logic to argue that the position was essentially different in other dioceses, and there will be calls to extend the work of the tribunal to the rest.

What Judge Murphy has disclosed is systemic failure, and another two dozen inquiries are unlikely to change the picture. There is little to be gained but voyeuristic satisfaction while the real work of safeguarding children and prosecuting offenders is delayed.

A better option would be to direct the gardai, when a priest has been convicted of abuse, to then turn their attention to the way the complaint was handled by the church authorities, and to bring charges where they find evidence of cover-up, collusion, failure of the duty to care for children, negligence or simple ineptitude.

To the extent that it is legally possible to do so, the same approach should be taken to those authorities named as delinquent by Judge Murphy.

For this task, it would be sensible for the gardai to draw in help from other forces that have had experience of investigating and prosecuting clerical child abuse, and from countries where there is not the same culture of deference to the Church.

Archbishop Martin, and more recently Bishop Noel Treanor in Belfast, have brought a breath of fresh air to the Irish Church, in their commitment to openness and their refusal to defend the indefensible.

It is no accident that they have both spent some years in an international arena. It is no accident either that the midwife who blew the whistle in the Drogheda hospital scandal was trained in another professional culture.

Given the hitherto closed nature of large sections of Irish society there is a lot to be said for frequent infusions of fresh thinking from outside the system into the gardai and the public service. The so-called 'National' Board for the Protection of Children should be clearly separated from the Catholic Church, put on a statutory basis, funded by the State and given powers akin to the Police Ombudsman Commission.

Without doubting the credibility and professional integrity of the people involved, the public will not have confidence in the Church being policed by a body it has itself set up and which depends on the Church for resources.

Apart from the victims, the main loser in all this has been the Church, and the main casualties the thousands of dedicated priests and religious who gave their lives to the service of the community.

Many years ago, a cynical but saintly old priest told me that the surest argument for divine foundation was that the Church had survived the best efforts of bishops and popes for 2,000 years. Given Christ's unequivocal anathema of those who scandalised little children, if Ireland really was a Republic of Conscience any canny clerical outfitter with an eye to business should be clearing the shelves of Roman collars and stocking up on millstones.

The bigger and weightier, the better.

- Maurice Hayes

Irish Independent

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