Time for media to reflect on wider injustice

 

ACCORDING TO the recent Rape Crisis Network national statistics and annual report 2010, some 20 per cent of survivors of child sexual abuse said the perpetrators were under 18.

Breda O’Brien wishes to point out that her remarks regarding social workers are inaccurate. The report mentioned is Analysis of submissions made on national review of compliance with Children First: National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children. The relevant section, page 21, refers to ‘allegations of abuse against employees and volunteers’. It states ‘In addition, it was suggested that colleagues are ‘not comfortable’ reporting on each other and that sometimes ‘allegations and suspicions of child abuse may not be reported’, thus allowing the behaviour to continue.’ Nowhere does this extract mention social workers, and it was wrong to apply it to them. Two-thirds of all sexual abuse is carried out by family members, friends, neighbours and acquaintances. It paints a grim picture, but there is no sustained public soul-searching.

In recent times, Dr Helen Buckley of Trinity College’s children’s research centre, Maeve Lewis of One in Four, and Fiona Neary of the Rape Crisis Network have all said that there is a disproportionate focus on sexual abuse of children by clergy, given that the figures for abuse by that category of people are so low.

The disgraceful targeting of an innocent priest, Fr Kevin Reynolds, and the utterly false allegation that he had sexually assaulted a young woman, impregnated her and then abandoned her, has brought the issue into sharp focus.

This could be a watershed moment, when we begin to really look at the widespread nature of sexual abuse, or it could be a moment when a couple of heads roll, and then we go back to business as usual. It could be a moment when we look at media practice in general, or we could just castigate Prime Time and remain complacent.

Fr Reynolds was a lucky man. He was accused of fathering a child, something which he could disprove by taking a paternity test. If he had been accused of rape alone, he would be just as innocent, but he would have found it impossible to obtain a fair hearing, and he would never have worked as a priest again.

He was lucky in that he was alive to defend himself. A Christian Brother from South Africa, Gerard Dillon, against whom there has been no previous allegation, was also accused in that programme of sexual assault. He is dead. He cannot defend himself.

The Prime Time team broadcast these allegations against Br Dillon without ever contacting his family in Ireland to warn them what was coming. It never even spoke to his religious community in South Africa, where the man had a blameless record for 60 years. His family are outraged, and are asking if Prime Time could get it so wrong on Fr Reynolds, what credibility does the other allegation have?

There is an eerie similarity between how the church initially reacted to scandals, and the way in which RTÉ first reacted to this case. There was an initial failure by the church (and by ordinary Catholics such as myself) to see how systemic the problem was.

There is a similar failure within RTÉ, and within the media in general, who are at pains to suggest that this incident is an “aberration”.

It is not an aberration. It is an inevitable consequence of a long series of editorial decisions across many forms of media that led to a disproportionate focus on the crimes of clergy and religious.

There are many journalists who have an honourable record of attempting to focus attention on other areas where children are neglected, abused or maltreated, such as Carl O’Brien of this newspaper. Those journalists do not get the public support that their efforts merit. There are no outraged calls to Liveline, no loud denunciations by the Taoiseach.

This near-martyrdom of Fr Reynolds could be an opportunity for us all to pause, and examine our role in the creation of a climate where something like this could happen. Amarach Consulting, on behalf of the Iona Institute (of which I am a patron) asked the public: “In your opinion, what percentage of Irish priests are guilty of child abuse?”

Seventy per cent of respondents overestimate the level of abuse. About one in six thinks that half of priests are abusers. More than four in 10 people think that more than 21 per cent of priests are abusers. In fact, 3 per cent of abuse is carried out by priests.

What has led to this state of affairs? On his TV3 show on Wednesday, Vincent Browne suggested to me that the church is targeted because of the way in which it covered up. Without in any way attempting to minimise the church’s appalling behaviour, I said that other institutions also cover up, as shown, for example, by official reports which state that social workers are reluctant to report colleagues.

He dismissed it as normal human behaviour to be unwilling to inform on colleagues and friends. However, he forgets that when you are talking about a bishop and his priests, you are talking about exactly that situation – colleagues and friends.

Second, whatever the motivation, the end result is the same. If you cover up for a colleague, children are still left exposed to intolerable risk. Do we really care about children? If we do, why are we not equally outraged when children die in the care of the HSE, as we are about clerical sexual abuse?

Why do we excuse social workers who protect colleagues, and excoriate bishops who protect colleagues? I’m not asking that the focus be taken off the church, but just for a return to balanced journalism, which does not rely on dramatisations, emotive imagery and editorialising, but on facts.

Why do we attack people who attempt to tell anything except a simple, black-and-white story of the unique evils of the Catholic Church, and accuse them of defending the indefensible? It is widely acknowledged that Catholic parishes are perhaps the safest places in the country now, but until we can debate these issues in a mature way, children will remain at risk from so many others they know and trust.

* Breda O’Brien wishes to point out that her remarks regarding social workers are inaccurate. The report mentioned is Analysis of submissions made on national review of compliance with Children First: National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children. The relevant section, page 21, refers to ‘allegations of abuse against employees and volunteers’. It states ‘In addition, it was suggested that colleagues are ‘not comfortable’ reporting on each other and that sometimes ‘allegations and suspicions of child abuse may not be reported’, thus allowing the behaviour to continue.’  Nowhere does this extract mention social workers, and it was wrong to apply it to them. 

* This article was amended on November 30th, 2011