Bishop Magee has lost the moral authority to remain in office


OPINION:The Bishop of Cloyne must take full responsibility for failing to implement safeguards agreed after the Ferns inquiry report

I RECENTLY spent an uncomfortable part of a weekend reading cover to cover the National Board for Safeguarding Children (NSBC) report, which makes for disturbing reading. The NSBC is an independent body set up by the Catholic bishops to audit child protection practices in the church in the aftermath of the Ferns inquiry report. The NSBC report arose from two separate complaints of clerical child abuse in the Diocese of Cloyne and was published last month by the diocese.

The NSBC report found child protection services in the Diocese of Cloyne "inadequate and in some respects dangerous" and has brought into question the capacity of the diocese to respond appropriately to information received regarding child protection concerns involving the clergy.

Moreover, the response by the church authorities in the Diocese of Cloyne to allegations of child sexual abuse by priests operating under the aegis of that diocese raises fundamental concerns as to the consistent implementation of statutory guidelines and agreed church policies on safeguarding children from abuse across all the Catholic dioceses.

It is important to emphasise that the aforementioned agreed church policies were implemented in response to the Ferns inquiry report. The Ferns inquiry was set up on March 28th, 2003, to investigate complaints and allegations made against clergy operating under the aegis of that diocese. The members of the Ferns inquiry expressed the hope that, should the type of abuse outlined in the Ferns report of October 2005 ever occur again, action would be taken to terminate the wrongdoing. The NSBC report indicates that agreed church policies were not followed in the Diocese of Cloyne.

The Ferns inquiry report (pp262-267) made a number of recommendations for dealing with complaints of child sexual abuse.

Ferns observed the key role of the bishop in the diocese as the manager and leader of the priests within that diocese. In addition to his pastoral role, Bishop John Magee holds the position of patron of nearly 130 primary schools in the Diocese of Cloyne.

The bishop did not respond in an adequate manner to the complaints that were made to him. Indeed, he has publicly admitted "full responsibility for the criticism of our management of some issues". He should now take responsibility for these failures and resign.

The resignation of Bishop Brendan Comiskey was followed by the appointment of Bishop Eamonn Walsh in Ferns. This provided the impetus for change in that diocese. Bishop Magee has lost the moral authority to remain in office by the failure to implement in his diocese the safeguards that were agreed by the church following the publication of the Ferns inquiry report. His position is untenable, and has the potential to undermine the rigorous standards of child protection applied in other dioceses

Some dioceses have embraced fully the recommendations of the Ferns inquiry report. For example, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin has taken effective steps to ensure the protection of children and has been pro-active and exemplary in the handling of clerical abuse allegations in his diocese. The archbishop has set a high standard in the handling of such cases.

Similarly, the Catholic primate Cardinal Seán Brady in his statement last Friday night reiterated "the moral and civic duty on everyone with responsibility for safeguarding children to implement all statutory guidelines".

He said: "At all times the welfare of children must be the paramount consideration. This is a Gospel value as well as a core principle of safeguarding policy."

There has been some confusion surrounding the role of Minister for Children Barry Andrews in dealing with the Cloyne clerical child abuse claims. This has only served to deflect attention from where the blame rests. The Minister for Children followed the recommendations of the Ferns inquiry report in referring the matter to the Health Service Executive (HSE). While some questioned his decision not to read the report before referring it to the HSE, this was in my opinion the correct course of action. It is not for the Minister or his staff to investigate child protection matters. Moreover, neither the Minister nor his staff have the competence to do so. This is a function reserved exclusively to the HSE. The Minister is to be commended for the measured and balanced manner in which he has dealt with the issue to date. He must now, however, make some difficult decisions.

Given the public disquiet on the mismanagement of allegations of clerical abuse in the Diocese of Cloyne, there is a compelling case to refer the matter to the Dublin Archdiocese Commission of Investigation. The commission is currently investigating the handling of allegations and complaints of child sexual abuse made against clergy operating under the aegis of the Dublin Archdiocese and is to complete its report by the end of the month.

However, the commission can investigate the position in any Catholic diocese in the State, following a notification from the Minister for Children that the diocese may not be implementing church guidelines in relation to child sexual abuse by a priest, or a notification that a diocese may not be implementing satisfactorily the recommendations of the Ferns inquiry report. There is surely a prima-facie case for referring the Diocese of Cloyne to the Dublin Archdiocese Commission of Investigation.

The report on child protection practices in the Diocese of Cloyne has also highlighted the issue of delay that is often associated with bringing child sexual abuse cases to trial.

The child is asked to "hold onto" the trauma until the case is completed. A year or two years can see significant changes in the lives of children - they may have progressed from primary school to secondary school, they may be entering a period of State examinations, etc.

If a system was introduced which ensured that trials would proceed as efficiently and as promptly as possible, this would ensure minimum disruption in the life of the child and minimum prejudice to his/her outside life.

Cases in which children are sexual abuse victims ought to be governed by a statutory system of case management. Assistance can be gleaned from case management models found in other areas of Irish law, eg the commercial court, but particular consideration ought to be given to the English and Australian models.

The process should be judge-led, with increased focus on time limits for processing the case. Sanctions ought to be included to deal with any party that does not adhere to the system.

Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 (UNCRC) is the key international legal provision on child abuse and neglect. It provides that states shall take all appropriate measures to protect children from all forms of abuse. The second paragraph of Article 19 of the UNCRC outlines a wide range of potential responses to child abuse and neglect.

The state action which it calls for includes the establishment of social programmes for the prevention of abuse and neglect, a system for reporting child abuse and a system for responding to such reporting with treatment where necessary.

It is clear from Article 19 that state

obligations do not simply involve negative obligations (ie that the state and its organs refrain from abusing children). Article 19 also stipulates that states have a positive obligation to ensure children are not abused or neglected.

This requires a proactive approach obliging states to put effective child protection systems in place.

Child protection is not a discretionary issue. The Minister for Children and Government should remember this when deciding whether to refer the Diocese of Cloyne to the Dublin Archdiocese Commission of Investigation.

Geoffrey Shannon is a solicitor and a special rapporteur on child protection