Bishops have again deserted their flock


THERE APPEARS to be a view that Cardinal Seán Brady’s words of support this week for the Bishop of Cloyne John Magee have drawn a line in the sand where this latest Catholic Church clerical child sex abuse controversy is concerned. They have not.

Rather, they have added to a growing deficit in the moral authority of the Catholic Church in Ireland, a deficit now every bit as large as that in the State’s finances, if deteriorating more rapidly. In this, the bishops have only themselves to blame.

Their first instinct, when alerted in 1987 to the probability of clerical child sex abuse cases emerging in Ireland, was preservation of the institution at all costs. You might say it established what has become a consistent pattern.

They took out insurance.

They admitted this in February 2003 when they said in a statement that: “Between 1987 and 1990 most dioceses obtained separate insurance policies from Church General against the eventuality of legal liability accruing to a diocese from acts of child sexual abuse by priests.”

It would be another eight years before they addressed the protection of children from such abuse. Then, in 1996, they published their first guidelines on child protection. These were updated in 2000 and again in 2005. It was in 1996, coincident with those first guidelines, that Cardinal Desmond Connell, then archbishop of Dublin, let it be known they were “only guidelines”.

It was believed such thinking in the Irish church belonged to the past. Not so. From what we were told last month it would appear to have been the mindset of Bishop Magee until late 2008. This was disclosed in a report published on December 19th by the church’s own watchdog, the National Board for Safeguarding Children.

That all those 21 years later such could still be the case, and that it should involve at its centre a man who has been a member of the Irish Bishops’ Conference throughout, beggars belief. But Bishop Magee’s culpability runs even deeper.

This is a man who twice and recently misled the State, in writing, on child protection practices in his diocese.

As recalled by Minister for Children Barry Andrews last week, on November 23rd, 2005, “in a direct reply” to then minister for children Brian Lenihan, Bishop Magee said Cloyne “fully complied with” the church’s 1996 guidelines and was “fully compliant” with the State’s guidelines.

He did so again on January 3rd, 2007, also in written form, when he stated for a HSE audit that Cloyne was “in compliance with Children First [State] guidelines” and that he had “notified the Garda and HSE of all child abuse cases”. None of this was true.

It has meant, as Andrews said, that because of “the discrepancy between stated policies and procedures and the validation of these policies and practices” in the diocese, Cloyne was being referred for investigation to the Dublin Commission.

The Minister did so too as he believed “there is evidence that points to the fact that Bishop Magee, as the responsible person, did not faithfully report actual compliance with child protection procedures and the manner in which clerical child sexual abuse allegations have been dealt with”.

Mr Andrews continued, “in a post-Ferns Inquiry environment, it is unacceptable that full and faithful reporting of child sexual abuse should not take place”.

Clearly, Cardinal Brady thinks differently as to the gravity of Bishop Magee’s omissions. So also do two of the three other Catholic archbishops in Ireland – the Archbishop of Cashel, Dermot Clifford, and the Archbishop of Tuam, Michael Neary. For his part, the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, chooses silence.

Cardinal Brady and the great majority of his fellow bishops are decent, well-meaning men.

But this is about addressing what the Minister described as “the deficit of trust” where the church is concerned on this issue, a deficit so well illustrated by what was discovered in Cloyne and reinforced by the response to that of the church leadership.

In his Killarney address on Tuesday night, Cardinal Brady said that “if it was not for the quiet fidelity of thousands of priests and religious in the last few years the impact of the scandals would have been even more damaging than they have undoubtedly been”.

It ought to become a mantra which every Catholic bishop in Ireland would repeat with his prayers as he goes on his knees at night. Because, owing to the bishops’ consistent mishandling of the clerical child sex abuse issue here over recent decades, were it not for those same priests and religious, the Catholic Church in Ireland would by now be a mere memory.