Why do some missionary societies still lag behind when it comes to child protection?

Generally positive reviews of dioceses shows Irish Catholic Church could teach bishops overseas

It has been a long road. Based on the findings of the eight reviews of child protection published yesterday, we can conclude that much has been achieved by Catholic Ireland in this fraught area.

But it is remarkable that, yet again, another missionary society has demonstrated it too, apparently, has been quite oblivious to the abuse crisis that has engulfed the church and the possible implications this may have for the behaviour of some of its members.

It is as though superiors of these societies have felt that because members work abroad they were somehow immune to practices found among some fellow clergy at home, or that because they were in foreign countries it was acceptable to do things differently there.

Not only do those superiors help sustain, if not facilitate, the abuse of children through a casual approach, they have also helped damage the good name of a great majority of our missionaries. It is a pattern witnessed before in Ireland, where the bishops were concerned. Superiors of some missionary congregations, it would seem, are slow learners.

It is astonishing 20 years after Fr Brendan Smyth was first jailed for abusing children that the review of St Patrick's Missionary Society, Kiltegan, yesterday found that "accused priests were afforded too much tolerance and so found it too easy to avoid being held accountable for their actions".

Children abroad
Worse, there appears to be a two-tier response by the society. The review found "the identification of abuse of a child on the missions did not always evoke the actions that evidence an empathic response to the experiences of victims. The society must ensure into the future that there is no lower standard of safeguarding afforded to children abroad than that which is available to Irish children."

The Kiltegans are not alone. A 2012 review by the National Board for Safeguarding Children of the Sacred Heart Missionaries, found it “difficult to express adequately the failure of this society to effectively protect vulnerable children”. The congregation, it said, “failed to take account of admissions by perpetrators by passing them on to the appropriate authorities”.

A 2012 review by the board of the Spiritans (Holy Ghost Fathers) found that suspected abusers were often moved, within Ireland or abroad, provoking concern that victims had yet to come forward here or in countries such as the US, Canada and Sierra Leone. It said congregation files made for "very sad reading" with "unacceptable failures" to prevent the abuse of children.

It is not as if missionary societies face insurmountable difficulties when it comes to implementing and ensuring proper child protection. This was illustrated in the review of the Society of African Missions published last April.

It found that within this congregation, which has personnel in seven African countries, “there was recognition of the need to ensure that the safeguarding standards which apply in Ireland are implemented by all SMA members internationally”.

Reports to police of abuse allegations received had been made by the SMA’s “without any unnecessary delay in all cases”, while it “removed all priests from ministry while investigations were conducted into the complaints”.

If the SMAs can do it, why not other missionary societies?

The reviews of the six dioceses published yesterday were positive in the main, with Cashel and Emly particularly impressive due in no small part probably to the often uncompromising leadership of Archbishop Dermot Clifford, former administrator of Cloyne diocese. Armagh archdiocese also came out well, where Cardinal Brady has surrounded himself with a strong child protection team.

Vatican advice
It was Cardinal Brady himself who made the point yesterday the Irish Catholic Church could play a useful role in advising the new Vatican commission on child abuse, set up by Pope Francis last week.

The Irish Catholic Church has much to teach the world about the subject. Few national churches have had as much experience of the disasters and successes that can mark institutional handling of this awful scandal.

An often bitter experience in Ireland has bred an expertise that is rare, and which would be of value far beyond these shores.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times