How the church dealt with the allegations in Ferns


Extracts from the report published yesterday

The nature of the church response evolved over a 40-year period and may be summarised as follows:

1 The response of Bishop Donal Herlihy (Bishop of Ferns 1964-1983) to an allegation of child sex abuse by a member of the diocesan clergy which was brought to his attention in 1966 was to remove the priest immediately from his post and send him to the diocese of Westminster. Two years later the bishop returned the priest to his position as a teacher in St Peter's college in the diocese of Ferns. The priest was not treated or assessed.

The alleged victims do not appear to have been contacted by, or on behalf of, the bishop. It appears that the diocese of Westminster was not alerted to the reasons for the priest's transfer. No written record of the complaint was created by the diocese, or if created, preserved. Virtually no restriction was placed on the priest after his return. The fact that no records were kept of these matters meant that no impediment to the appointment of this priest as principal of St Peters in 1988 was apparent.

2 In 1973, Bishop Herlihy became aware of a complaint against another priest of the diocese who had allegedly sexually abused a young girl. His response was to send the priest in question to Westminster, although on this occasion the church authorities there were informed, to a limited extent, of the circumstances that led to his removal. This priest received no assessment or treatment and was subsequently appointed to curacy positions in the diocese and to chaplaincy and managerial roles in local schools, before being transferred abroad.

The bishop did not meet with the victim although financial assistance may have been offered.

3 When allegations of sexual misconduct were made against two priests in the diocese of Ferns in the early 1980s, Bishop Herlihy's response was to send the alleged perpetrators for assessment to the Rev Prof Feichín O'Doherty, who was then the professor of logic and psychology at University College Dublin.

Notwithstanding the extremely unfavourable reports provided by the professor, both priests were appointed to curacies in the diocese of Ferns and continued in those positions without any effective monitoring or control.

4 During his episcopacy from April 1984 to April 2002, Bishop Comiskey received allegations in respect of 10 priests who were living at the time of the allegations. In addition, he received allegations against four further priests who were deceased.

5 Bishop Comiskey agreed that the proper response to an allegation of child sexual abuse against a priest was to remove him from active ministry pending the determination of the allegation. Notwithstanding this belief, no priest was stood aside during the episcopacy of Bishop Comiskey, and no precept was issued preventing any priest from saying Mass and partaking in religious ceremonies. Priests were moved out of the diocese in some cases, but no child protection measures were put in place to ensure that children in the diocese to which the accused priest was sent were not placed in danger.

6 Where an allegation of child sexual abuse was made against a priest of the diocese and denied by him, as happened in the majority of cases, the bishop attempted to institute or conduct some form of inquiry to satisfy himself of the guilt or innocence of the accused. For the greater part, those inquiries and investigations were protracted and inconclusive, and in all cases failed to meet the standard of proof required by the bishop.

7 Complaints were made to Bishop Comiskey alleging child sexual abuse by priests who had died before the complaint was made. Where the complainant in those cases sought financial assistance from the bishop to pay for counselling to redress the problems caused by the alleged abuse, such assistance was provided.

8 Bishop Eamonn Walsh became apostolic administrator of the diocese of Ferns in May 2002. His response to allegations of child sexual abuse was to require the priest against whom the allegation was made to step aside from ministry, pending a determination of the matter. He takes this action where he is of the opinion that a "reasonable suspicion" exists against a priest and after consulting the advisory panel.

Bishop Walsh reviewed all of the allegations of child sexual abuse against priests which had been made prior to his, Bishop Walsh's, appointment and requested six priests to stand aside; each of them did so without any proof or admission of guilt.

9 Bishop Walsh invited two priests who had been convicted of child abuse to apply for laicisation but they declined. Therefore, Bishop Walsh applied for and obtained an order from the Holy See excluding them from the priesthood. A third priest against whom an allegation was made but who was not convicted of child sexual abuses, has likewise been excluded from the priesthood by direction of the Pope.

The adequacy of responses of the church authorities

Bishop Donal Herlihy

(Bishop of Ferns 1964-1983)

1 Before 1980, Bishop Donal Herlihy had evidence that two priests of the diocese had abused children sexually. A further two priests came to his attention in the late 1970s.

In the case of the first two priests, his response was to remove the priest concerned from the diocese without taking any steps to protect other children from the dangers which the priest presented. In the context of the time, the danger that a person who had abused children once could do so again was clearly understood, even if the compulsion to do so was not as apparent as it is today.

Bishop Herlihy's failure to take even basic precautions to protect children from men known to have abused in the past must be seen as inadequate and inappropriate.

2 Clearly, Bishop Herlihy regarded priests who abused children as guilty of moral misconduct. He does not appear to have recognised that the wrongdoing was a serious criminal offence. Neither he nor the medical and health care community appreciated the grave damage which child sexual abuse can cause to its victims.

3 Bishop Herlihy's decision to restore the two offending priests to their former positions after a two-year period of "penance" in the diocese of Westminster was ill-advised and to do so without any supervision or monitoring was neither adequate nor appropriate.

4 The inquiry is satisfied that the diocese of Ferns knew, or ought to have known, that allegations of child sexual abuse were made against two seminarians in St Peter's in the mid-1970s. Notwithstanding this information, these men were ordained for the diocese.

5 The decision of Bishop Herlihy in 1980 to refer these two men who went on to abuse again after ordination to Prof Feichín O'Doherty for assessment was entirely appropriate and reflected the developing understanding of the nature of child sexual abuse.

The failure of Bishop Herlihy to act on the reports received from the professor, and the appointment of those two priests to curacies, is inexplicable. It represented a wholly inappropriate and inadequate response to the allegations of child sexual abuse.

6 The inquiry believes that the bishop felt bound to appoint any priest ordained for his diocese to a curacy, notwithstanding his manifest unsuitability for the position.

Bishop Brendan Comiskey

(Bishop of Ferns 1984-2002)

1 Where Bishop Comiskey had a suspicion about the propensities of a particular priest, either arising from the bishop's own unease or from specific information reported to him, he requested the priest to attend a psychiatrist or psychologist for assessment and, if necessary, to undergo the treatment then considered appropriate.

It was intended that the priest would be reappointed to an appropriate position in the diocese if a certificate was obtained from the medical consultant certifying his fitness for the position.

That programme would have been an appropriate and adequate response to any suspicion of sexual abuse. However, even when such medical intervention had been availed of, Bishop Comiskey wasunable or unwilling to implement the medical advice which he received.

In addition, the inquiry had seen some evidence that Bishop Comiskey did not fully inform these medical experts of the full history of priests against whom previous allegations had been made.

2 By the late 1980s, Bishop Comiskey accepted that the appropriate response to an allegation of child sexual abuse was to have the accused priest to step aside from active ministry, pending a determination of the allegation made against him. Bishop Comiskey consistently failed to achieve this objective.

In the majority of cases the failure to achieve the desired result was due to the conviction of the bishop that it would be unjust, if it were possible, to remove, even temporarily, a priest on the basis of an allegation which was not corroborated or substantiated by what he considered to be convincing evidence.

In the nature of the alleged criminal activity, evidence of that nature was unlikely to be obtained. Indeed, Bishop Comiskey recognised that he did not have the resources or the expertise to carry out investigations into what were serious criminal offences. The particular and inconclusive investigations conducted by Bishop Comiskey were an inappropriate and inadequate response to serious allegations.

The bishop was rightly conscious of the need to protect the good name and reputation of his clergy, but he failed to recognise the paramount need to protect children as a matter of urgency from potential abusers.

Bishop Eamonn Walsh

(Apostolic administrator of Ferns, 2002-present)

1 Bishop Eamonn Walsh has told the inquiry that he would be prepared to require a priest to step aside from active ministry where he had a "reasonable suspicion" that the offence of child sexual abuse had been committed.

He said that a rumour of suspicion emanating from a single source might not in itself be sufficient grounds for acting against a priest, but that he would note it and if he received any further information of untoward behaviour on the part of that priest, he would act immediately.

2 In practice Bishop Walsh has not invoked his powers under canon law to stand aside from active ministry any priest of the diocese. Seven out of the eight priests whom Bishop Walsh asked to stand aside agreed to do so. One further priest so requested has been the subject of a dismissal from Rome following an application by Bishop Walsh.

This approach and the response to it may reflect a more efficient management of the diocese, In combination with a clearer understanding on the part of members of the clergy of the need to respond promptly and effectively to allegations of child sexual abuse. Notwithstanding the hardship and embarrassment which this must cause to innocent members of the clergy, the responses made by the diocese since the appointment of the apostolic administrator had been adequate and appropriate.