Abuse report to highlight tawdry saga of cover-ups
ANALYSIS:The report about to be published into child sex abuse by Dublin priests will shine a light on how some of the country’s most senior churchmen covered up their crimes, writes MARY RAFTERY
ON THIS day, precisely seven years ago, RTÉ television broadcast Cardinal Secrets, the Prime Timeinvestigation which uncovered widespread clerical child abuse and cover-up within the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Dublin. The government’s response was swift. Then minister for justice Michael McDowell announced its intention to establish a commission of investigation. This was to be one of the first of the so-called fast-track tribunals – a lean operation designed to complete its business rapidly.
And yet, here we are, seven years later, still awaiting its report.
However, the fault for the delay does not lie with the commission. As the initial political enthusiasm for inquiry waned, various government departments dragged their heels, and it was over three years before it was finally established in March 2006.
It has been one of the most silent of our tribunals, with all of its hearings conducted in private. It was catapulted into the public eye only once – during the attempt by Cardinal Desmond Connell, former archbishop of Dublin, to prevent its examination of almost 6,000 church documents over which he claimed privilege. He subsequently dropped his challenge in the face of the clear intention of the current archbishop, Diarmuid Martin, to co-operate fully with the commission.
Connell will of course be at the heart of the commission’s report. How he and his chancellor (or diocesan administrator) Msgr Alex Stenson handled complaints of child abuse against their priests will be one of the key findings of the report. We know already that the cover-up was extensive, and that it stretched back over the tenure of at least three of Connell’s predecessors – archbishops Kevin McNamara, Dermot Ryan and John Charles McQuaid.
It is this involvement by the most senior of the country’s prelates that will set the Dublin report apart. The Ryan report on institutional abuse focused primarily on responsibility and cover-up within religious orders, most of which operate as independent entities within the Catholic Church. Indeed, it was clear in the wake of the report during the summer that the hierarchy was keen to distance itself from the religious congregations involved.
Now, however, it is the turn of the bishops themselves to face the consequences of their actions and omissions, and to be held responsible for the grievous wrongs inflicted on hundreds of children through failure to protect them from abuse.
Bishops all over the country are implicated in this saga of tawdry self-protection. Many of the present hierarchy served apprenticeships as auxiliary bishops in Dublin, and so were in a position to be aware of sexual abuse of children by their priests. For instance, the report is likely to examine the role of the Bishop of Limerick, Donal Murray, in the case of convicted paedophile Fr Thomas Naughton. As a Dublin auxiliary bishop, Murray was told in the early 1980s of complaints made against Naughton while serving in Valleymount, Co Wicklow. Naughton denied all allegations and was allowed remain in the parish.
When further complaints were made, Naughton was simply moved on. He was transferred to Donnycarney parish on Dublin’s northside, where he immediately found new child victims. Again complaints were made, and eventually the priest admitted that he had sexually abused one child only. This was Mervyn Rundle, who several years later sued the archdiocese and received a large sum in compensation.
What happened then provides a key insight into how the archdiocese did its business. The chancellor, Stenson, became centrally involved, although he reported back extensively to his superiors – in the case of Naughton, three archbishops: Ryan, McNamara and Connell. Naughton admitted to Stenson that he had abused the 10-year-old Mervyn on six occasions. Stenson decided to send Naughton to a psychiatrist, who submitted a report stating that, based on what Naughton had told him, he did not view the priest as a serious problem.
The reality was that Naughton had lied. He had told the psychiatrist that there had been only one incident of minor sexual abuse with one child. This was never contradicted by the archdiocese, despite the fact that Naughton had admitted to Stenson that he had abused young Mervyn on six occasions, not to mention the complaints from Valleymount that Bishop Donal Murray knew about.
Nonetheless, Naughton was allowed to remain in Donnycarney parish for the next seven months, saying Mass and hearing confessions, despite the fact that he was a self-confessed criminal. Finally, when further victims became known, it was decided at a meeting of the auxiliary bishops to send Naughton to the UK for treatment.
On his return to Dublin some months later, he was permitted to continue parish work and assigned to Ringsend. There he again began abusing children, sexually assaulting at least two young altar boys. It took a further two years before he was removed from parish ministry in 1988. Eventually in 1995, Mervyn Rundle, then aged 20, made a complaint to the Garda. Naughton was convicted in 1998. For well over a decade, several bishops and senior priests had covered up his criminal activity, protecting him and exposing further very young children to incalculable harm.
This, however, is only a single case. The report will deal with an additional 44 priests. It is likely to establish similar patterns of cover-up, together with cases where abusing priests were given glowing references, allowing them to move to other dioceses and countries. It may also be possible to discover how priests used their involvement with national schools to gain access to victims. There are also indications that working class parishes were at greater risk of having a preponderance of child-abusing priests.
Other patterns likely to emerge are that the children targeted for abuse came very often from the most devout of families. And to further compound the scale of the tragedy, these families and individuals who complained were often ostracised and condemned by many within their own parish who chose to disbelieve them.
We may also finally get answers to other questions, some relating to the role of the State. Why, for instance, have there been so few prosecutions brought against abusing priests, and what (if any) information has been provided to the civil authorities through the years? While we know that Connell stated that he supplied the names of 17 known abusers to the Garda in 1995, we do not yet know precisely what action resulted.
And crucially, there remain areas of mystery around the issue of insurance. The archdiocese has admitted that in 1988 it insured itself against claims in respect of child abuse perpetrated by its priests. It is further documented that during this period and throughout the 1990s, the archdiocese was claiming that it knew little about the issue of child sexual abuse.
It did, however, clearly know enough to insure and protect its assets against future claims.
Finally, it should be remembered that almost every aspect of what will be revealed in the Dublin report has been repeated in other dioceses around the country. Most of them have so far escaped similar scrutiny. Perhaps an extension of the inquiry process nationwide should now be the next step.
Mary Raftery, with reporter Mick Peelo, produced and directed Cardinal Secrets