For as long as we persist in giving bishops complete responsibility for our children's safety, we have an absolute duty to insist that the State investigates how these bishops have handled cases of child abuse

Thu, Jul 14, 2011, 01:00

Roman Catholic bishops have been shown again and again to be utterly unsuited to have responsibility for the safety of children. How long can they continue to control schools?

SHOCKING AND even sensational as some of the revelations in the Cloyne Report are, it does still leave us with the question of where do we go from here?

The previous government held the view that nothing could be gained from further inquiry into other Roman Catholic Church dioceses; that we now know enough about the phenomenon of clerical child sexual abuse and that we should move on.

This is a flawed and dangerous argument. It is one which has the potential to risk the safety of almost every child in the State.

Each of the three inquiries so far into clerical child sex abuse (Ferns, Murphy on Dublin, and now Cloyne) has laid bare the disregard shown by so many bishops for the safety of children. In each case, it has been revealed that bishops deliberately placed the reputation of their institution ahead of the welfare of children.

When we combine this painfully learned lesson with the fact that bishops hold a powerful position of control over 90 per cent of national schools in the country, it should inevitably lead us as a society to question fundamentally the way in which the Irish State, in our name, organises the education of our children.

It is remarkable that the information we now possess about the unsuitability of bishops to be responsible for the safety of our children in schools has not led to public outcry and demand for change. And lest anyone argue that bishops have very little power or responsibility within the education system, one has only to look at a number of court rulings which state unambiguously that it is school boards (and the patron bishops who appoint them) who are in law wholly responsible for the safety of our children in school. The State has been found to have zero legal responsibility in this area; this of course despite the fact that the system is entirely funded by the State through the taxpayer.

The Cloyne report gives us numerous examples of the consequences of the way we have chosen to embed our school system so deeply within Catholic structures and ethos. It deals with a number of priests intimately involved in school governance about whom there were either allegations or concerns of child sexual abuse. And it is worth remembering that these are recent events, mainly occurring within the past 10 to 15 years.

Perhaps the most telling of these relates to the priest referred to in the Cloyne report as “Fr Calder”. Despite serious concerns raised about his behaviour with children, he was appointed by Bishop John Magee in 1997 as chairman of a local national school board of management.

Shortly afterwards, Fr Calder ordered the school principal to permit a number of small boys to leave the school to serve at his Masses and to attend private confession with him.

The principal had become aware of the concerns about Fr Calder and she refused to allow the children to leave school premises. The priest then proceeded to threaten her. According to Judge Yvonne Murphy’s report, Fr Calder suggested she remember “who was paying her wages. He told her that he could refuse to sign her salary form if she was not obeying the Rules for National Schools by not complying with his requests as chairman.”

This reality must now go to the heart of the dawning debate about school patronage in this country. That a priest could threaten a school principal with docking her salary – which, incidentally, is paid entirely by the State – when she was clearly acting to protect the children in her care is not only profoundly shocking, it is fundamentally wrong.

However, it is the direct consequence of how we as a society have abrogated our responsibility for our education system.

IT HAS ALMOST become a platitude that one of the key responsibilities of any state is to vindicate the right to safety of its most vulnerable citizens, namely its children. In Ireland, we have a strangely ambiguous attitude to this duty in that we seem untroubled by off-loading it on to the Catholic Church, despite the church’s clearly demonstrated failures.

As a first step towards taking mature responsibility for the safety of our children, it is vital that the Government extend the Cloyne inquiry process to each and every diocese in the land. For as long as we persist in giving bishops complete responsibility for our children’s safety (through their central patronage role in schools), we have an absolute duty to insist that the State thoroughly investigate how these bishops have handled cases of child abuse brought to their attention.

In instances where they are shown to have been derelict, they should immediately be removed from any contact with schools. It is salutary in this regard to remember that Bishop Magee was patron of almost 130 schools in his diocese of Cloyne, responsible for the safety of thousands of children.

The extension nationwide of the inquiry process should of course be Government policy – or at least it was when they were in opposition. Charlie Flanagan, as shadow spokesman on children, committed Fine Gael to a full-scale, nationwide inquiry as recently as December 2010. There is in place an efficient, fast-track procedure for such inquiries, which are relatively inexpensive – Cloyne for instance cost just under €2 million.

Aside from the overwhelming moral duty to examine independently the child protection record of each bishop and diocese, there is ample evidence that many of them have serious questions to answer.

Take the diocese of Limerick, for example. It was inextricably linked to Cloyne through a shared child protection committee, the functioning of which has been singled out for particular criticism in the Cloyne report. It states, damningly, that “the concerns about the priests’ future and the impact on the diocese seemed to preoccupy the committee to the exclusion of the effects on the complainant and the more general issues of child protection”.

It is important in this context to remember Peter McCloskey, who took his own life within days of an acrimonious meeting with Limerick diocesan representatives in 2006. As a child, Peter had been repeatedly raped by a priest in Limerick and fought for years to uncover the truth about what church officials knew about his abuser. Members of the McCloskey family were highly critical of how he was treated by the diocese and its bishop, Donal Murray (now retired in the wake of criticism of him in the Murphy report). They stated that an independent inquiry was needed urgently.

Various other dioceses call for the same approach. The most obvious are: Raphoe (with persistent allegations that there was knowledge of abuse at the highest levels which was not acted on); Derry (which takes in parts of Donegal and has had a large number of abusing priests); Kerry (where two priests have been quietly defrocked, a penalty reserved for only the most egregious of offenders); and Elphin (where the bishop was informed of allegations of child abuse against one of his priests in 2002 and only removed him from ministry three years later).

AND WHAT THEN of the country’s archbishops? The incumbent in Tuam, Michael Neary, accepted a number of years ago that his diocese had a problem, with allegations of abuse against 27 priests. Serious concerns arose in 2005 over the handling of allegations of child abuse against the principal of a school presided over by the archbishop as patron. Further concerns arose over his reluctance to ask a priest to stand aside from ministry in the face of rape allegations.

It should be remembered that Michael Neary was one of the three archbishops who in 2009 supported Bishop Magee of Cloyne in his refusal to resign – only one archbishop, Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, declined to voice public support for the Cloyne bishop.

The other archbishops who so eagerly defended Bishop Magee are Dermot Clifford, Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, and Seán Brady, Primate of All Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh (which stretches deep into Co Louth). The Cloyne report tells us that their statements that Bishop Magee should not resign were made in the full knowledge not just of his failure to protect children but also that he himself was the subject of an allegation concerning inappropriate behaviour with a minor, a fact which has only now become public.

As the most senior prelates in the land, they provide guidance to their fellow bishops in the critical matters of child protection, national school patronage and appointments of school boards of management. Given this role, and their extraordinary defence of a fellow bishop against whom an allegation had been made, it is unarguable that their own records of handling child abuse cases must now be opened to full independent scrutiny.

Two other factors make the need for inquiry even more compelling. It has become clear that many bishops have been dragging their feet over co-operating even with their own internal child protection audit and monitoring procedures. They also have widely different understandings of what it means to restrict the ministry of a priest suspected of child abuse, according to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s comments last April at a conference in the United States.

The above litany of dioceses in dire need of investigation is far from complete – they are only the ones we know something about. They involve recent cases where partial stories have become public knowledge but where the full truth remains hidden. At the beginning of each of the inquiries into Ferns, Dublin and Cloyne, no one imagined the scale of what would be uncovered.

It is now beyond time to lay bare the full truth in each corner of every diocese in the land.

Mary Raftery, with reporter Mick Peelo, produced and directed RTÉ 1 television’sPrime Time programme Cardinal Secrets, which resulted in the establishment of the Murphy commission