Church used 'don't tell' approach

The pre-occupations of the Dublin Archdiocese in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid 1990s, were…

The pre-occupations of the Dublin Archdiocese in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid 1990s, were the “maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church and the preservation of its assets”, the Murphy commission has said.

It says the American phrase “don’t ask, don’t tell” was appropriate to describe the attitude of the Dublin Archdiocese to clerical sex abuse for most of the period covered by the report.

There was an “obsessive concern with secrecy and the avoidance of scandal” and successive Archbishops and bishops failed to report complaints to the gardai prior to 1996.

Main findings:


- The archdiocese first made inquiries about insurance cover against compensation claims in the mid 1980s and such cover was put in place in 1987.

- The commission said it “did not accept” as true the church’s repeated claims to have been on “a learning curve” in relation to allegations of child sexual abuse.

- In 1981, Archbishop Dermot Ryan “showed a clear understanding of both the recidivist nature of child sexual abusers and the effects of such abuse on children” when he referred a priest to a therapeutic facility in Stroud, in the UK.

- “All the Archbishops of Dublin in the period covered by the Commission were aware of some complaints. This is true of many of the auxiliary bishops also. At the time the Archdiocese took out insurance in 1987, Archbishop Dermot Ryan and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid had had, between them, available information on complaints against at least 17 priests operating under the aegis of the Dublin Archdiocese. The taking out of insurance was an act proving knowledge of child sexual abuse as a potential major cost to the Archdiocese and is inconsistent with the view that Archdiocesan officals were still on a ‘learning curve’ at a much later date, or were lacking in an appreciation of the phenomenon of child sexual abuse.”

- Many of the auxiliary bishops also knew of the fact of abuse as did officials, including Monsignor Gerard Sheehy and Monsignor Alex Stenson who worked in the Chancellery. Bishop James Kavanagh, Bishop Dermot O’Mahony, Bishop Laurence Forristal, Bishop Donal Murray and Bishop Brendan Comiskey were aware for many years of complaints and/or suspicions of clerical child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese. Religious orders were also aware.

- The commission said it found claims of ignorance on the part of the church authorities and the religious orders who were dealing with complaints “very difficult to accept” as they were all “very well educated people”.

- “Child sexual abuse did not start in the 20th century. Since time immemorial it has been a ‘delict’ under canon law, a sin in ordinary religious terms, and a crime in the law of the State. Ignorance of the law is not a defence under the law of the State. It is difficult for the commission to accept that ignorance of either the canon law or the civil law can be a defence for officials of the church”.

- Some priests were aware that particular instances of abuse had occurred. “A few were courageous and brought complaints to the attention of their superiors. The vast majority simply chose to turn a blind eye.”

- “There is no doubt that the reaction of the Church authorities to reports of clerical child sexual abuse in the early years of the commission’s remit was to ensure that as few people as possible knew of the individual priest’s problem. “There was little or no concern for the welfare of the abuse child or for the welfare of other children who might come into contact with the priest. Complainants were often met with denial, arrogance and cover-up and with incompetence and incomprehension in some cases. Suspicions were rarely acted on.”

- All the Archbishops and many of the auxiliary bishops in the period covered…handled child sex abuse complaints badly.

- During the period under review, from 1975, there were four Archbishops – Archbishops McQuaid, Ryan, McNamara and Connell. “Not one of them reported his knowledge of child sexual abuse to the gardaí throughout the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s. It was not until November 1995 that Archbishop Connell allowed the names of 17 priests about whom the Archdiocese had received complaints to be given to the gardaí. This figure was not complete. At that time, there was knowledge within the Archdiocese of at least 28 priests against whom there had been complaints.”

- “The Archbishops, bishops and other officials cannot claim that they did not know that child sexual abuse was a crime. As citizens of the State, they have the same obligations as all other citizens to uphold the law and report serious crimes to the authorities.”

- The situation improved from the start of the implementation of the church’s Framework Document in 1996 but it took “some time” for the structures and procedures to be fully implemented.

- Commission is satisfied there are effective structures and procedures currently in operation.

- “The commission is satisfied that all complaints of clerical child sexual abuse made to the Archdiocese and other Church authorities are now reported to the gardaí.”

- Current Archbishop [Dr Diarmuid Martin] and the Director of the Child Protection Service are “clearly committed and effective” but “institutional structures need to be sufficiently embedded to ensure that they survive uncommitted or ineffective personnel”.

- New guidelines were introduced in 2009 by the National Board for Safeguarding Children. Ian Elliot, the chief executive of the national board which covers all 32 dioceses on the island, told the commission that all dioceses, religious organisations and other parts of the Church that wish to be part of a new child protection policy will have to sign a commitment to implement the policy.

- The names of those church authorities who fail to sign will be made known to the public.


Prior to 2002, complaints into child sexual abuse were handled locally by the gardai. Consequently, there was no co-ordinated approach taken by the gardai in relation to the investigation of child sexual abuse by clerics. “There is therefore considerable variation in the manner in which those investigations were undertaken and the results achieved.”

- “The Garda investigation undertaken into clerical sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Dublin which commenced in October 2002 was, in the opinion of the Commission, an effective, co-ordinated and comprehensive inquiry. It established a databased recording complaints and valuable information which continues to be maintained.”

- “The commission would like to note the considerable praise heaped by many of the complainants who came forward to the Commission on members of the specialist unit in the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation who carried out individual investigations.”


- The commission “formed the impression that the HSE was not adopting a systematic approach to locating records” requested in the course of its investigation.