Vatican could learn from Irish Catholic Church about child protection

Developments in child safeguarding over the past 10 years in Ireland have been effective

In 2011, Ian Elliott and his team began reviews of child safeguarding in all Ireland’s 26 Catholic dioceses and at all of its religious congregations. File photograph Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times.

The Vatican could learn from how the Irish Catholic Church has addressed the clerical child sex abuse issue in parishes, dioceses and religious congregations. It might pick up some ideas which would help it progress beyond repeated apologies and expressions of shame.

Ireland has probably one of the longest histories of dealing with clerical child sex abuse in the Catholic world. The issue, and its cover-up, first came to light in the US long before the Boston Globe Spotlight team got to work in 2001.

It began with New Orleans journalist Jason Berry who, with Dominican priest Fr Tom Doyle, exposed the cover-up of clerical child sex abuse in the southern US Catholic diocese of Louisiana from 1984.

Hearing what may be coming down the line, Ireland’s bishops did something ignominious – they began to take out insurance from 1987, and just that. It was 1996 before they produced their first child protection guidelines, which were useless.


As then Archbishop of Dublin Desmond Connell told abuse survivor Marie Collins at the time, they were "only guidelines" with no authority in canon or civil law. In fairness, the Vatican would not authorise the Irish bishops to report such allegations to the Garda.

Safeguarding board

In 2006, many scandals later and one statutory report published – Ferns in October 2005, with the Ryan and Murphy reports pending – the Irish Catholic Church set up its National Board for Safeguarding Children based at Maynooth.

It is funded by the bishops, the religious congregations and the missionary societies, but operates independently of the three.

From the start this board had credibility because its first chief executive, Ian Elliott, came with an impressive track record in child protection from Northern Ireland, bringing with him a rigorous Presbyterian no-nonsense approach to the subject, though born and educated in Dublin.

Indicative of the seriousness with which the Irish Catholic Church took the issue, Ian Elliott was personally head-hunted for the job in 2007 by Fr Tim Bartlett, then assistant to the Catholic Primate Archbishop Seán Brady and currently secretary general of the World Meeting of Families in Dublin.

In 2011, Mr Elliott and his team began reviews of child safeguarding in all Ireland’s 26 Catholic dioceses and at all of its religious congregations. They published what they found, good and some very bad, without fear of favour.

It helped concentrate bishops and religious leaders’ minds wonderfully.

From 2013, this work was continued and completed as successfully under Mr Elliott's successor, Teresa Devlin, who is to begin the entire process all over again from January of 2019.

What the board found in Ireland’s Catholic dioceses was sobering, to say the least. It established that from January 1st, 1975, some 1,259 abuse allegations had been made against 489 priests in the 26 dioceses, of which 36 priests had been convicted in the courts.


Allegations are still emerging. Last June, in its 2017 annual report, the board said that by April last it had received a further 135 notifications of allegations, suspicions and concerns. Involved were 35 diocesan priests and 63 members of religious congregations, or 98 individuals in total. It compared with 76 allegations in the previous year, an increase of 29 per cent.

However, Ms Devlin pointed out that “with one exception, most of the alleged abusive behaviour occurred before 2000, in line with previous reports and should not be taken to indicate that the church is currently becoming a less safe place for children”. She believed the upturn in allegations of abuse was linked to “media reporting of high profile abuse cases”.

In general, she concluded that “the amount of abuse of children within the Catholic Church in Ireland in recent years is small. While this should not permit any complacency, there is reason for some optimism that the developments made in child safeguarding over the last 10 years in the Catholic Church in Ireland have been effective.”

Among those developments has been the successful recruitment of a small army of lay men and women, over 3,000 of whom police child safeguarding practices in Ireland’s 1,366 Catholic parishes. It means, probably, that there is no safer place for a child in Ireland today than a Catholic parish.

Though no one is saying so.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times