The Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) published a review of the Report by Commission of Investigation into Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin (the Murphy report) and the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004 some weeks ago. However, fundamental issues raised by the review have not been debated widely enough.
As Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin said, the fact that more than 500 children may have been abused is a source of shame to all Catholics.
It could therefore be argued that disputing any aspect of the Murphy report risks drawing attention away from victims of child abuse. But there is another important argument. If the Act has fundamental problems, as the ACP alleges, this should concern every citizen.
Commissions of investigation have a complex history but in summary their mandate is to investigate system failures without damaging the constitutional rights of individuals. They must be robust but also just and fair.
The ACP review was written by barrister Fergal Sweeney, a judge in Hong Kong for many years. His report states: “In the course of its investigation the Murphy commission . . . went well beyond its mandate in respect of one category of witness by building up and making a ‘case’ (called ‘the commission’s assessment’) against individual clerics who testified before the commission, instead of being ‘concerned only with the institutional response to complaints, suspicions and knowledge of child sexual abuse”.
Our justice system exists for a reason: so that guilt or innocence may be decided within a framework that aims to protect those who have been damaged but also the right of the accused to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. It is the strong contention of the ACP review that natural justice was not granted to the clerics "named and shamed" in the Murphy report.
It is not, of course, talking about people charged and convicted of sexual abuse but rather about the priests and bishops who had a role in dealing with complaints.
It is very striking that when the Murphy report is critical of State authorities the individuals are named in only one or two cases. When it came to church authorities, in every case the individuals are named. How can this be justified, particularly since the report is highly critical of health boards and says the Garda response was also very flawed in some instances?
At the time there was justified and completely understandable anger about how the church had acted. However, as former attorney general Paul Gallagher stated in 1999: “Fundamental rights are designed, at least in part, to provide protection against the emotions of the majority and against high running feelings amongst the public.”
The media coverage that followed the publication of the Murphy report did not help. Few people now know that the report looked only at a sample of 46 cases and found 27 had been handled well to varying degrees, though it was highly critical of 18.
The Murphy report also acknowledged the strides made by the archdiocese in safeguarding children today.
A ghastly time
The publication of the report was a ghastly time, firstly and most importantly because it revealed yet again the devastation caused by child abuse. All other suffering pales into insignificance compared with that. But it was also ghastly for many priests of the Dublin archdiocese, because one paragraph in the report was interpreted to mean the majority of priests knew all about child abuse but chose to do nothing.
When you read the paragraph in question it says some priests were aware particular instances of abuse had occurred. But the paragraph is referring to a minority, and alleges that of that minority the "vast majority simply chose to turn a blind eye". It is still a serious allegation but it was not a blanket condemnation of the majority of all Dublin priests. But close reading and careful interpretation did not characterise the response to the report.
Fr Pádraig McCarthy has published his own book examining the Murphy report, called Unheard Story. He says: "The Murphy report is outstanding in that it gets so much right, bringing out into the light information about abuse about which there had been rumours for years. This vindicated and gave closure to those who had been abused, and whose stories could now be seen to be validated, something that is very welcome."
But he also criticises the report for failing to provide historical context, for failing to look at how the issue of child abuse was dealt with in previous decades in medicine, the law, by the Garda and by the wider society. An opportunity to examine the appallingly high level of abuse in Ireland as a whole was therefore missed.
Rights should not be vindicated on the basis of the popularity or lack thereof of individuals or institutions. Nor should it matter who draws attentions to flaws in natural justice. The issues raised by the Sweeney report could affect any citizen at any time.
Nothing will restore the lives blighted by abuse but nothing is gained by treating others unjustly in turn.