Focus shifts to likelihood of abuse by religious in missions


THE PAST is slowly catching up on Irish missionaries. As the one group within the Catholic Church that had escaped direct condemnation over the child sexual abuse scandals, they now sit uncomfortably in the spotlight.

The first three religious congregations to be investigated by the Irish church’s child protection watchdog all have significant missionary operations. The Spiritans (formerly Holy Ghost Fathers), the Dominican Friars and the Sacred Heart Missionaries were criticised to varying degrees by the National Board for Safeguarding Children (NBSC), the latter especially so.

While the board’s terms of reference are limited to investigating congregations’ compliance with child safeguarding standards in Ireland, its work is also helping to shed light on practices overseas.

Taken together with previous inquiries, it points to a serious catalogue of abuse and cover-up in mission countries – but one that has yet to be fully investigated.

One of the worst cases cited in the 2009 Murphy report, which examined abuse by priests in the Dublin diocese, was that of convicted paedophile Fr Patrick Maguire. The Columban Father worked in Japan between 1961 and 1974, where his abusing was first reported to the congregation by a nun. In 1997, Fr Maguire admitted to having abused about 70 boys in a number of countries, 13 of whom were in Japan.

Other convicted abusers with a missionary background include: Fr Gus Griffin, a Spiritan formerly based in Sierra Leone, who was jailed in 1998 for 7½ years; and Fr Thomas Naughton, who was also convicted of abusing boys in Dublin, and had previously served under the Kiltegan Fathers in Nigeria.

A disturbing policy identified in both the Murphy and Ryan reports was that of moving known offenders overseas. The pseudonymous Brother Adrien, for example, was removed from an industrial school in the late 1960s after being labelled by peers as “positively dangerous”, according to the Ryan report.

“He later spent 10 years on missionary work. There is no reference in his personal card to his ever receiving any sanction or warning in relation to his abuse.”

In its report on the Spiritans this week, the NBSC similarly notes: “In some instances, priests/brothers were moved either out of the country or to other ministries, where they continued to abuse children.”

Neither religious congregations nor the Catholic hierarchy has shown any desire to examine the extent of wrongdoing in missionary settings. The fact that abuse victims have not as yet come forward in large numbers appears to have much to do with the taboo attached to the subject in developing countries, allied to the relative difficulty in pursuing complaints.

Ironically, the first time anyone put serious resources into examining the issue was when RTÉ’s Prime Time Investigates commissioned its ill-fated Mission to Prey programme.

Its libelling of Fr Kevin Reynolds removed the issue from the public limelight as quickly as it had placed it there. Yet broader questions for the missionary movement remain.

The Spiritans told The Irish Times this week it has been alerted to a total of six complaints from two mission countries and these “are being followed up”.

The Missionaries of the Sacred Heart said nine of the 61 allegations it had identified relate to its work outside of Ireland.

For the Dominicans, Fr Bernard Treacy said he was unaware of specific allegations overseas but he admitted that some of those people against whom allegations had been made in Ireland had also served in the missions.

But are congregations doing enough to identify survivors in mission countries as they are obliged to do in Ireland under church guidelines here?

Fr Treacy said two years ago its leadership began training personnel at its main missionary operation in Trinidad and Tobago on “developing and following safeguarding protocols”.

Part of this would be “putting out an invitation to possible victims”.

However, “whether it is actually happening I cannot say,” he added.

The other two congregations were similarly vague when questioned about the issue. The Sacred Heart Missionaries would only say it was seeking to “respond effectively and appropriately to any information or allegations of abuse” overseas, while the Spiritans said “we are seeking to find new ways to seek out and engage with anybody who has been abused”.

The Irish Missionary Union, the umbrella group for such orders, said it would consider this week’s reports at a board meeting next Tuesday.

It “will decide what to do after that”, its outgoing executive secretary Eamon Aylward said.

Asked whether child safeguarding procedures were being applied universally by its members overseas, he replied: “I could not say all congregations are trying to do it. There are some who are definitely making concrete efforts to do it.” As for the prospect of a comprehensive inquiry into the handling of abuse allegations in the missions, he replied: “It might be a realistic proposal” but it would have to be done by a body such as the NBSC.

“I would still stick by my own personal impression that the incidence of abuse would be less than at home,” Fr Aylward added.

Asked what this view was based on, he replied: “Just having an idea of some cases, the numbers of missionaries overseas and the number of cases we are aware of.”

In the absence of a full inquiry, combined with a genuine attempt to trace survivors of abuse in Africa, Asia and South America, we are left with such speculation.

One question lingers, moreover: why should Irish religious who worked overseas be held to different standards from those at home?

Joe Humphreys is an Irish Times assistant news editor and author of God’s Entrepreneurs: How Irish Missionaries Tried to Change the World (New Island)