Notable progress on clerical child abuse

Thu, Dec 12, 2013, 01:00

Another year, another disturbing report from the Catholic Church’s National Board for Safeguarding Children as it works its way through decades of diocesan and institutional files. Progress has been reported in implementing effective child protection protocols within six dioceses, which is most welcome.

But attitudes within some congregations and missionary orders towards clerical predators were protective, excessively legalistic and involved double standards. Accused priests within the Kiltegan Fathers found it “too easy to avoid being held accountable for their actions”. The policy of Christian Brothers in responding to allegations within a strictly legal framework ensured it had little or no contact with victims.

The Catholic Church in Ireland has experienced shaming and traumatic times arising from its efforts to protect its members and conceal evidence of their sexual predations, while failing to safeguard children. Even now, 25 years after members of the hierarchy took out insurance against anticipated legal actions, there is a residual reluctance to admit liability or culpability in the handling of abuse cases.

The National Board for Safeguarding Children has completed inquiries into how the great majority of Irish dioceses responded to allegations of child abuse since 1975 and whether best practice guidelines are now being implemented. As recently as two years ago, some bishops were refusing to open their files. That has changed. An audit of documents and of formal responses to allegations of abuse within the remaining four Catholic dioceses, along with assessments of a number of religious congregations, are due to be published next year.

Some religious congregations appear to have learned nothing from the experience of their bishops. The assessment of how the Kiltegan Fathers responded to “serious and on-going abuse” was highly critical. Accused priests were allowed excessive tolerance by their superiors while responses to the needs of young victims, in Africa and in Ireland, differed considerably. The Christian Brothers were motivated by financial considerations, rather than a concern for victims, following a large number of complaints stretching back to the 1950s.

Cardinal Seán Brady welcomed the diocesan reports and suggested the Irish Catholic Church could play a useful role in advising a Vatican commission on child abuse. That may be so. Certainly, the hierarchy has gone through a long and corrosive learning process in recent years, and is much more supportive of victims than in the past.

But it is too early to hang out flags and pronounce an end to the failure by authority figures, in the Catholic Church and the State, to protect vulnerable children from rapacious paedophiles. Continuing vigilance is required.