Airbrushing the past as collection plate sent out


OPINION:The people of Ferns didn’t cover up, didn’t move abusing priests, didn’t indulge in any of what Bishop Denis Brennan brazenly calls ‘mismanagement’ – yet they are asked to pay, writes MARY RAFTERY

SINCE THE turn of the century, brave little Ferns has been the pioneering diocese. It was the first where the revelations of clerical child sexual abuse caused enough public outrage to force the government to become involved.

The inquiry which followed was the first of its kind in this country, and the first time the State had so directly interfered in the affairs of the Catholic Church. The Ferns report which followed was the initial volume of the now trilogy of reports (with Ryan and Murphy) into the lethal damage caused to tens of thousands of Irish children by the institutional Catholic Church in this country.

It follows that it is a reasonable assumption that what is now occurring in the Ferns diocese will apply shortly to the entire country.

So far, it is just the good people of Ferns who are being told by their bishop where their duty lies – namely to contribute personally to make up the shortfall in funds needed by the diocese to compensate victims of child abuse.

No matter that they as parishioners damaged no child, transferred no paedophiles from parish to parish, covered up no abuse, hid no shameful secrets. Their bishop, Denis Brennan, has harsh words for anyone who might entertain such thoughts: “That I did not cause the problem is not the response of the Christian,” he intones in his message to the faithful yesterday.

To most of us, this is a brazen case of trying to have your cake and eat it. Successive bishops behave disgracefully, wantonly expose dozens of children to unspeakable assaults, refuse consistently to accept responsibility for their gross negligence, and then tell their flock that it is their duty as Christians to pay the price of compensation to victims out of their own pockets.

Should the people of Ferns consider accepting this proposition, and complying with their bishop’s definition of what constitutes a good Christian, it might be worth their while to give some thought to the current attitude of the diocese of Ferns to its past sins against children.

Bishop Brennan’s statement yesterday was instructive in its use of language. Indeed, all such public utterances from bishops repay close analysis of the language used. The problems which caused the diocese’s current financial difficulties are now defined as “the actions of individual perpetrators along with mismanagement, poor understanding and/or lack of resolve”.

No mention at all of unpleasant words like “cover-up” or “criminal negligence”. Five years after the Ferns report, the diocesan authorities clearly felt it was safe to take out the air-brush.

It is worth looking back at just what was said about the diocese in Justice Frank Murphy’s seminal report in 2005. It detailed a litany of accounts of sickening abuse by over 20 priests in Ferns against over 100 children in the period from the 1960s until 2004. In the cases of a number of unnamed priests and of Frs Seán Fortune, James Doyle, Donal Collins, Martin Clancy and James Grennan, the report forensically teased out the extensive knowledge within the diocese at the highest level that they were raping and sexually assaulting children.

It further identified in each case the shocking pattern of moving these priests from parish to parish in the full knowledge that they were child abusers. The two bishops involved here were Donal Herlihy and Brendan Comiskey.

The latter had been an auxiliary bishop in Dublin for several years during the period when that diocese was presiding over a culture of covering up widespread child abuse, as described so powerfully in the Murphy report published last November. It was a culture that Comiskey perpetuated during his tenure in Ferns, with such devastating and tragic consequences for so many children in Wexford and Wicklow.

That the current bishop of Ferns should now describe this pattern of reckless and lethal cover-up as “mismanagement, poor understanding and/or lack of resolve” begs the most fundamental question of whether the Catholic hierarchy has even the remotest understanding of the public abhorrence at what the Ferns report described as the practice of placing “the interests of individual priests ahead of those of the community in which they served”.

A further instructive aspect of the financial crisis in Ferns is that it allows us to perceive the convenient way in which the Catholic Church compartmentalises its organisational structure. Ferns is an island, we’re told, separate from all other dioceses in Ireland, from all religious orders and indeed from the Vatican. Ferns must sink or swim on its own.

But why should this be so? It is certainly a clever way to limit your liabilities, and to preserve the assets of the wider Catholic organisation. But is there not something inherently immoral in placing such an enormous burden on to the entirely innocent people of one diocese simply in order that resources and assets of the wider organisation remain unscathed?

And we do know that these resources are immense. Ten years ago, the religious orders of Ireland squealed that they had no money and so the State bailed them out in the now infamous church/State deal on redress for survivors of institutional abuse. The total bill here will be around €1.3 billion, of which the taxpayer is shelling out well over 90 per cent as the religious orders laugh all the way to the bank with a paltry contribution.

But lo and behold, in the wake of the entirely damning findings of the Ryan report last May that these same religious orders

presided over reigns of unimaginable terror within their institutions for children, the nuns and brothers have been shamed into discovering a few hundred million more within their coffers to dispense to those they so badly damaged.

Most people have little doubt that the institutional church, either nationally here in Ireland or by calling on Vatican assistance, could perfectly easily shoulder the relatively small amounts required to compensate abuse victims in Ferns.

There is, however, one other possibility – perhaps one could even call it an opportunity. For a relatively small amount (perhaps amounting to the compensation shortfall), the Department of Education could purchase from the diocese of Ferns any land it owns on which schools are located.

This would clear up – at least in one part of the country – the legal morass surrounding the ownership of the education infrastructure. At present, the State has, through its direct investment, a considerable ownership stake in most school buildings. However, the land on which they sit belongs in the main to the Catholic Church.

The legal complexities around ownership of schools are likely to become an important issue as we begin as a society to consider how safe are our schools and our children under the patronage of a Catholic Church proven to have been so heinously derelict towards generations of children.

It is an excellent time for the taxpayer to purchase such critical infrastructure, and it would clearly suit the diocese of Ferns in its time of financial need. The State may never have a better opportunity to begin the process of untangling the complex web of school ownership. It is beyond time for us as a society to grasp this nettle.

Mary Raftery produced and directed the documentaries States of Fearand Cardinal Secretson the abuse of children by priests, nuns and brothers

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