Church body not State agency uncovered Cloyne practices


If any bishop or diocese ever again tries to hide child abuse, they should be exposed, writes IAN ELlIOTT

IT IS certainly true that Bishop Magee and his delegate, Msgr O’Callaghan, should never have been able to get away with incompetent and dangerous practice for as long as they did. However, the issue that now has to be addressed is how can we make sure that something similar can not happen again? How can we be sure that there is not another Cloyne in place today?

To find answers, we are going to have to recognise another truth, one that it is less popular to hold. The inadequate and dangerous practices that took place in the diocese of Cloyne were identified, reported on, and addressed by the church itself through the work of its own National Board for Safeguarding Children. This is acknowledged by the State’s Cloyne report.

It wasn’t the HSE or the Garda, or the Government that exposed the problems in this diocese; it was the board and then the diocese itself when they published in December 2008 the board’s review of two of their cases. Credit is due to the Department of Health and Children and the support group One In Four as it was complaints highlighted by the latter and passed on by the former that initiated the investigation.

This board carried out its investigation within a context where we had been waiting for several years for a coherent statutory framework to be created for child protection services in this country. The recent announcements from the ministers for justice and children that this is now to happen is warmly welcomed but long overdue.

Possibly the most significant development that happened during the investigation of Cloyne was that the hierarchy did attempt to mislead us. False documents and evidence were supplied. The board refused to accept that information, sought the support of the rest of the church, received it and collected accurate information instead. Even without the backing of legislation or even the threat of legislation the process worked.

So, there is a system in place that has produced results and that has audited a further six dioceses so far. It is our understanding that the bishops will publish all of the audit reports.

It is a system that is independent, that much must be clear from the content of the original Cloyne report and will be reinforced when the audits of the other dioceses are published. To be clear, the audits are only one aspect of the system that is in place. The national board constantly monitors the behaviour of the church, responds regularly to individual requests whether from concerned people, those stating that they have been abused and often from men and women of the cloth.

It is standards driven. Our website now contains the details of how we undertake the audit process and the responses that are required from the diocese or the congregation/missionary society. They are based on the guidelines that each of the 188 separate bodies that make up the church in Ireland, have pledged to follow. Those guidelines are on our site too. We’ve published both documents because it is important that people know the standards that the church will be held to.

In brief, it is a 14-step process that involves us spending a number of days or weeks (depending on the size of the diocese, congregation or missionary society) on site examining documentation and interviewing witnesses. They cross-check what they are told with the State authorities as well as examining how communications are conducted with those authorities.

All of our findings are examined by a reference group. This is chaired by Dr Helen Buckley, an eminent academic in Trinity College, Dublin, and someone who is universally acknowledged as expert in the field of safeguarding children. She is joined by Paul Harrison, a senior adviser in the HSE, who occupies a national role regarding the performance of children’s services, and Bernie McNally, director of children’s services in the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, which is the largest body of its kind in Europe.

The safeguarding framework that exists within the church is volunteer led. They work tirelessly to ensure that standards are upheld. Trained volunteers who give of their time freely and who do need support. And they are getting it.

What is needed now is a combination of strong leadership, a thought-through strategy, and a commitment to transparency, increased accountability, and partnership with statutory services that are fit for purpose.

It is not perfect. Just like every other agency, we could do with having more resources at our disposal. More money for training, more staff and more time to meet all of the demands on us.

Nor is it working in the perfect context. A stronger legislative context to work within is a much needed step in the right direction. However, this development has to be matched by a willingness to apply it. In 2006, the government introduced the offence of “reckless endangerment”. This was seen as addressing a deficit that existed in the law. It has never been used in the intervening five years. When drawing up new legislation the question should be asked before it is introduced as to whether it will bring added value. Thought should be given to whether it can be applied to real situations involving risk to vulnerable children. Through its existence are vulnerable children better protected or those that seek to harm them less secure? If we apply that test to the offence of “reckless endangerment” one would have to say that the evidence would imply that it is irrelevant or in need of reframing.

So, the best way to prevent another Cloyne from happening is for the church to adopt a strategy of independent, standards-based, monitoring across all of the church with a commitment to publication of the findings. In partnership with the HSE, the Garda, and the Government, this can be achieved.

If any individual church authority refuses to allow access to their cases or seeks to block legitimate monitoring, the national board should be mandated to bring that resistance into the public domain.

Ian Elliott is chief executive of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church