The unprecedented step by the Catholic diocese of Dromore to set up its own redress scheme for victims of clerical abuse in the diocese has set a new bar for everyone else in the church.
It may well be emulated by other Irish dioceses and even, where relevant, by some religious congregations, but that appears unlikely.
The decision to create the scheme followed discussions between Archbishop Eamon Martin, who is currently in charge of the diocese, and abuse survivors.
So far, about 70 people in the diocese have made complaints, with about 40 alleging they were abused by the late Fr Malachy Finnegan, a former president of St Colman's College in Newry.
The scheme was announced on Wednesday by Archbishop Martin, the Catholic Primate and Archbishop of Armagh, who has been Dromore's administrator since the resignation of Bishop John McAreavey in 2018.
However, the system that will soon operate in Dromore will not apply in the archbishop’s own diocese of Armagh, at least for now. Nor is there evidence that other bishops are considering same.
Many of the abuse survivors in Dromore are anxious to avoid adversarial court proceedings and the flurry of publicity that often surrounds such cases .
The redress scheme will take less time too, hence reducing accompanying stress. And where the redress scheme may prove unsatisfactory in cases, survivors still have the option of going to the courts.
As for the diocese itself, a redress scheme will be more efficient, take less time, incur fewer legal fees and cost less in the round than lengthy court proceedings, and with no attendant publicity.
Unlike Dromore, it is now accepted that most dioceses and religious congregations have already dealt with the great majority of legal actions taken against them by clerical child sex-abuse survivors.
These have been settled either out of court, where dioceses are concerned, or through the State’s redress board, where survivors of residential institutions were involved.
A separate statutory redress scheme was set up for survivors of the Magdalene laundries following publication of an interdepartmental report into those institutions in 2013, and such a statutory redress scheme has yet to be put in place for survivors of the mother and baby homes.
The Dromore scheme will apply to those who suffered clerical child sex abuse in the diocese between January 1st, 1950, and December 1st, 2010, and who were under 18 at the time.
Up to £2.5 million will be available for the scheme and counselling, though Dromore said it was “willing to commit whatever resources it has available for the purpose of redress to this scheme, even if that should exhaust those resources”.
The scheme will be limited only by the assets that are available to the diocese. As with all dioceses, Dromore is a separate legal/financial entity within the church and so costs of redress can only be met from its own resources.
It is also the case that within church/canon law that each diocese is a separate, independent entity. In other words, Dromore does not have recourse to other resources should it become bankrupt in paying for the scheme.
Tony Gribben (61), who was abused for years at St Colman's, last June received "six-figure" damages at the High Court in Belfast for the sexual and physical assaults he suffered when he was a pupil at the school.
Mr Gribben sued the trustees and board of governors at St Colman’s College and the diocese of Dromore. A personal apology was issued on behalf of Archbishop Martin, as administrator of Dromore diocese, under the terms of agreement reached.
Outside the court, Mr Gribben said “the diocese needs to be completely transparent in cooperating with a long overdue investigation on its failings”.
He had claimed for negligence and failures to protect him from Finnegan’s alleged “industrial-scale abuse” while he attended the school from 1970 to 1977.
Finnegan taught and worked at St Colman's College from 1967 to 1987. Approving the terms agreed in that Belfast High Court case, Mr Justice McAlinden stressed that the circumstances of the action should not be forgotten.
“Nothing said or done in dealing with the legal complexities of such issues takes away from the stress that individual [Mr Gribben] has suffered,” he said.