People will be shocked by sex abuse report, says archbishop

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A 'staggering' 400 people are known or suspected to have suffered clerical sex abuse at the hands of priests in the Dublin diocese, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin tells Patsy McGarry

IT WOULD be fair to say that few institutions face 2009 with such dread as the Catholic Church in Ireland. Not alone will it have to deal with the effects on its services of the economic downturn and its losses on the stock market, but it must also anticipate publication of four separate reports on clerical child sex abuse from among those in its ranks.

It begins this week, on Wednesday, when Minister of State for Children Barry Andrews will present a HSE national audit on child protection practices in all the State's Catholic dioceses, including Cloyne, to the Cabinet.

Later this month the church's own independent watchdog, its National Board for Safeguarding Children (NBSC) in the Catholic Church in Ireland, will present its audit of such practices in all Catholic dioceses on the island.

Then, at the end of the month, the report from the Dublin Archdiocese Commission of Investigation into how the archdiocese handled allegations of clerical child sex abuse between January 1st, 1975, and April 30th, 2004, is expected to be published.

No one believes it will make for pleasant reading.

And in February, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse is expected to publish its report on the abuse of children in reformatories, industrial schools and orphanages run by 18 Catholic religious congregations throughout the State. This year promises to be yet another annus horribilis for the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Where the Dublin Commission is concerned, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin is "happy it is coming to a conclusion. I hope they have time to finish it and don't have to truncate its work unilaterally". He is under no illusions as to what is expected. "People are going to be shocked," he said.

He described as "staggering" a figure disclosed by the archdiocese in another update last November of information from its files, that approximately 400 people are known or suspected to have suffered child sexual abuse by priests there since 1940. It was also pointed out that this was not the final figure.

That update disclosed that allegations of clerical child sex abuse have been raised against 140 priests who have served in the Dublin archdiocese since 1940, with suspicions raised against a further 32. Eight of the priests have been convicted, while a further three are before the courts.

The legal and settlement costs associated with 120 claims against 35 priests in Dublin is running at over € 12.4 million currently, with 26 more cases pending.

Archbishop Martin said he had been giving out figures covering the 68-year period since 1940, which is over twice the time span being inquired into by the commission as he wished to accommodate living memory and every priest of the archdiocese ordained since 1940. It was also the case that "our detection rate, as opposed to the rest of society, is very high", he said.

He recalled how "over the last few years there has been a growing awareness of the effects abuse has on children and how it doesn't go away. I presented 66,000 documents to the commission, which I read in large part. It was not nice reading. It was revolting. Saying 'sorry' is all I can say, but it doesn't mend people's lives," he said.

In the weeks before Christmas he had meetings with priests of the archdiocese to prepare them for publication of the commission report. He couldn't even tell them about his own dealings with the commission, as "it's an offence".

But as a general observation on its work, he found the commission's conduct of the investigation "very beneficial . . . with no leaks".

He won't know what is in the report until it comes out, but suspects that "a lot of priests will be very hurt" by its findings.

"We have great priests. They are in the front line and have been extremely good to victims when maybe the institution was less sensitive." But the report "will be a shock. The [2005] Ferns Report shocked clergy, the church, the nation. It would be foolish not to realise that this will also be the case now", he said.

On another note, he is not one of those people who welcomes the death of the Celtic Tiger as something that might bring people back to religion.

"Those who are consumed by consumerism will continue to be, while a large number of others will suffer," he said. His own great worry is for older people. In particular, he feels that if State and church services have to be cut back, it could mean many older people who currently can live on their own, may no longer be able to do so.

Similarly he worried about the irreversible consequences for disadvantaged and marginalised young people of cutbacks in education.

He has found recent financial scandals in Ireland "worrying". "Possibly we need to come back from a fascination with the markets and see the economy as a function of society," he said.

Laws and regulations were needed "to protect the poor and curb the natural tendency to arrogance of the powerful. When the regulatory authorities are not functioning that natural arrogance emerges", he said.

However, this should be done in such a way as "to ensure the necessary freedom for initiative and innovation is fostered", he said. Where his exercise of authority was concerned, particularly priestly appointments, he said the majority were made on the recommendations of a board. He acknowledged there had been some tensions. In some instances he had made changes later on, often involving "significant innovation for which people were not prepared. I see that now". It arose from "the tension between consultation and getting things done".

He has set up pastoral councils in each parish against the advice of the Priests' Council. It involved a new style of parish organisation "which may have left some feeling insecure, but left room for innovation. Everywhere this has happened it has been stormy". But, in general, "there was a huge amount of consultation going on. There may be a problem with communication, but that is two-way", he said.

He invited priests with concerns to bring them to him. "I prefer people to be upfront. I have a very good relationship with the vast majority of priests. They do extraordinary work."

The archbishop also dismissed persistent rumours that he is to return to Rome in coming months to replace Cardinal Renato Martino, who is retiring as president of the Vatican's Council for Justice and Peace.

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