Response to clerical child abuse report


Madam, – The formal statement issued by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin on the resignation of Bishop Donal Murray (Home News, December 18th and Dublin diocesan website) was so terse as to be graceless.

It is ironic that the archbishop said he appreciated “the personal difficulty and pressure” Bishop Murray had been under, since much of that pressure had been created by Dr Martin’s mighty media megaphone.

Bishop Murray’s resignation had obviously become inevitable and the archbishop had to comment on it, but did his words have to sound so dismissive? There was not a single word acknowledging Bishop Murray’s impressive contribution to the church and society. I find that difficult to understand.

Whatever Bishop Murray’s failings, he has given many years of invaluable service to the diocese of Dublin, as pastor, theologian and bishop, to his adopted diocese of Limerick, and to the whole Irish church. All this he has done with a quiet dignity and style.

As a member of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Advisory Committee which drafted the framework document, the guidelines for responding to allegations of child sexual abuse by priests and religious issued by the Bishops’ Conference and the Conference of Religious, I, with the other members, attended several plenary meetings of the Bishops’ Conference in 1994 and 1995. The purpose of these encounters was to report to the bishops the progress of the committee’s work and to discuss with them how best to proceed, since they would eventually have to “own” the document if the guidelines were to be effective.

I was always struck by the quality of Bishop Murray’s contribution to these discussions. They were thoughtful, carefully-considered, incisive and invariably wise. In addition, he directly assisted the committee by giving the benefit of his expertise on particular questions. He fully supported the thrust of the committee’s work.

The Murphy report notes that most of the complaints of child sexual abuse made to the Dublin diocese in the period investigated by the commission dated from 1995 and onwards, especially after the framework guidelines became the norm for Irish dioceses in 1996. It also notes the way in which many of these complaints were handled appropriately by the diocesan authorities and by religious orders.

The framework document was the foundation stone for a more effective church response to the appalling crime of child abuse by priests. It became the benchmark against which the development and improvement of child protections measures in the church and elsewhere had to be measured.

At the time of its publication Barnardos strongly welcomed it, saying “society might take a lead from the bishops’ advisory committee in endorsing the principles on which its report is founded”.

The ISPCC described the document as “a watershed both for the church and society” and noted “doctors, psychiatrists, counsellors and some social workers remain ambivalent in the reporting of some abuse”.

This is hardly surprising, since the Murphy report records the following evidence given to the commission by the HSE: “In the mid 1970s there was no public, professional or government perception in Ireland or internationally that child sexual abuse constituted a societal problem or was a major risk to children” (the italics belong to the report). The report also says social workers told the commission that “awareness and knowledge of child sexual abuse did not emerge in Ireland until about the early 1980s”.

As the Murphy report also acknowledges, the first set of guidelines for the reporting and investigation of non-accidental injuries to children, issued by the Department of Health in 1980, made no reference to child sexual abuse. When revised guidelines were issued in 1983, they included one brief reference to it but no elaboration of the issue. It was not until 1987, when a further revised version was issued, that the department’s official guidelines included a substantial section dealing specifically with child sexual abuse.

In drafting the framework document, the advisory committee had the benefit of a growing understanding and awareness in society at that time of the dynamics of abusive behaviour by perpetrators and its enduring and extremely painful consequences for victims.

The framework document, and the acknowledged improvements in practice which followed its publication, are part of the legacy Archbishop Martin inherited when he succeeded to the see of Dublin in 2003. – Yours, etc,


Myrtle Park,

Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin.

Madam, – Marie Collins (December 21st) is absolutely correct. Why do these bishops keep talking about themselves?

They have become so arrogant with their power that they think a few platitudes and promises of a better future will allow the matter to fade from view and they will continue with their pretence of being men of God’s church.

Let them all resign, take humble jobs within the church to show their shame and sorrow and beg forgiveness from the people they allowed to be abused. It is only by a true showing of remorse that the Catholic church in Ireland can survive and grow back the trust of the people. – Yours, etc,



Greystones, Co Wicklow.

Madam,   There are a number of issues in Dr Garret FitzGerald’s article on December 19th, which seem to echo and develop ideas in my own article (December 8th). One issue must be addressed immediately:  his interpretation of the Vatican’s 2001 instruction, Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela.

In attempting to rebut my understanding of the document, he repeats the erroneous claim by other commentators, that “secrecy be maintained about these crimes” and that this was clearly interpreted by our bishops as “precluding them from reporting such cases to the Garda.”

How does Dr FitzGerald come to such a conclusion? To begin with, he evidently fails to understand the nature of the secrecy that surrounds such disciplinary procedures (similar to in-camera trials in civil law). The Latin term “secretus” in this context means, very simply, “confidentiality”, one, I am informed, that applies only for the duration of the disciplinary procedure.

The Murphy report, in outlining its own procedures, also found it necessary to draw up its own “Memorandum on Confidentiality for parties involved in the Commission’s work as well as protocols of confidentiality and conflicts of interest for its own staff” (2.13).

More crucially, Dr FitzGerald does not take into account how bishops have in practice interpreted this document of 2001. For example, since its publication, the diocese of Ferns has referred no fewer than 10 cases to the Vatican involving priests against whom allegations of child sex abuse have been made. Six ended with dismissal from the clerical state, two in voluntary laicisation; two cases are still pending. The diocese has ensured that all such cases be reported to the Garda. In addition, it should be noted, that, since 2002, in Ferns all cases continue to be discussed at inter-agency meetings – Garda/HSE and diocese. The meetings were the result of an initiative of the diocese and gave rise to a recommendation (not yet implemented) of the Ferns report of 2005 to legislate for such meetings.

This practice belies Dr FitzGerald’s interpretation of the 2001 document. It shows that confidential internal disciplinary procedures can and do run in tandem with informing the civil authorities of allegations against clergy. Those who believe Rome in 2001 ordered bishops to “cover up” the scandals need to explain why it is that a diocese like Ferns informs both Rome and the civil authorities whenever an allegation comes to its attention. – Yours, etc,


SVD, Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology,

Divine Word Missionaries,

Maynooth, Co Kildare.