Cloyne's appalling legacy

Thu, Jul 14, 2011, 01:00

ANOTHER ROUND of breast-beating by Catholic churchmen over the sexual abuse of children in their pastoral care has become a source of public anger, rather than of reassurance. Apologies and pledges of future cooperation with civil authorities have lost all credibility following 15 years of foot-dragging and broken promises. The latest report into this festering scandal by the Murphy commission demonstrates clearly that the Government has to assert its authority and ensure primacy of State law. This, after all, does not centre on failures in our dark, secretive past of decades ago; it relates to allegations made in the recent 1996 to 2009 period.

Thankfully, Ministers Alan Shatter and Frances Fitzgerald propose to introduce legislation and statutory changes that will at last protect children and vindicate their rights. Failure to report sexual abuse of a child or an intellectually disabled person to the Garda Síochána will be a criminal offence. Children First regulations will be put on a statutory basis; agencies working with children will have to share “soft information” and there will be robust oversight of child protection services.

Three reports into child abuse uncovered common themes: extensive clerical predation; concern for the abuser rather than for the victim by church authorities and denial and suppression of information. An audit of these matters by the Catholic Church’s own National Board for Safeguarding Children – as a means of identifying and rejecting past unacceptable behaviour – has been thwarted by some bishops who refused access to their files. The Government is now demanding full co-operation and publication of a report by a set date. Cardinal Seán Brady appears amenable to that.

Catholic authorities took out insurance against anticipated claims of child abuse by paedophile priests 23 years ago. Since then, as scandal has been piled upon scandal, bishops, archbishops and cardinals – supported by the Vatican – have engaged in systematic cover-up and relied on canon law and the concept of “mental reservation” to minimise issues and to flout the State’s laws. In the process, they have dismayed and alienated many of their followers. In all of this, Vatican authorities have played a malign, controlling role. When Irish bishops agreed child protection guidelines in 1996 the document was not approved by Rome. That encouraged conservative church elements to ignore the guidelines and to cling to canon law in defence of their reputations and their assets. That devious response was reflected by Bishop John Magee’s actions in preparing a truthful report on clerical abuse for the Vatican and a false one for diocesan files.

Describing the Vatican’s reaction to the Irish bishops’ framework document as “entirely unhelpful”, the Cloyne report claims this gave individual bishops freedom to ignore the procedures which they had agreed. This finding alone necessitates a comprehensive response from Rome. The many victims of clerical abuse in Ireland and the church’s followers here, above all, deserve no less.