Ruined bishops may at least be a catalyst for change


Like the drunk who insists that this time they really are on the wagon, Catholic Church protestations about dealing with clerical sex abuse of children cannot be believed, writes NIALL MULDOON

IN THE fallout from Judge Murphy’s report into how the diocese of Cloyne handled clerical child sex abuse allegations, we have heard a wide range of shocked, appalled and apologetic spokesmen for the hierarchy, who are at pains to point out that things are different now and that it will not happen again.

This fallout continues to amaze me. As national clinical director at Cari (Children at Risk in Ireland), I am regularly meeting children who have been traumatised by sexual abuse, and they consistently report that one of the biggest aids in their recovery is when their disclosure is accepted and believed by a positive and supportive adult.

Cari is flabbergasted that the sort of rhetoric one hears from the church continues to be believed and is accepted as a suitable level of contrition that allows this organisation to receive “another chance”, much like the repentant alcoholic who assures us all he will “never do it again” – we should only fall for it once!

There is an old saying I think is apt in this situation: the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. We have seen that Bishop Brendan Comiskey covered up child sexual abuse in his diocese through the 1990s; that Archbishop Desmond O’Connell covered up in his dioceses in the 1980s and the 1990s; that Bishop John Magee covered up in Cloyne through the 1990s and 2000s, right up until his retirement in 2009.

The Brendan Smyth case brought down a government in 1994 and therefore each one of the men named above knew the dangers to children when best practice was not followed. However, each one of these men also knew the civil authorities were practically impotent when it came to holding them to account.

So they, each independent of the other, decided to continue to ignore the pleas of children and their families looking, firstly, to make it safe for other children and, secondly, to receive justice. Instead, they paid a callous and hollow form of lip service to the victims who sought help from the church by saying they understood and wanted to help, while all the time acting in a way that perverted the course of justice, and worse still, encouraged a lot of religious men to continue their abuse of children.

When Archbishop Dermot Clifford stated on July 13th that “this was another dark day in the history of response of church leaders to the cry of children abused by church personnel”, it is difficult not to see it as another hollow statement from a spin doctor rather than the heart of a repentant man and organisation.

No lessons were learned by these bishops because if they were, I feel sure that, at the very least, Bishop Magee would have stopped his abhorrent child protection practices once the Ferns report was published in 2005. Not only did he not feel compelled to do that, he continued to practise as a bishop while himself under investigation for inappropriate sexual behaviour, in contradiction of every set of child protection guidelines available. In committing this act of defiance, Bishop Magee had support from the head of the Irish Catholic Church.

How can any parent feel safe again in allowing their child to interact within such an organisation?

Cari has been offering therapy and support to children affected by sexual abuse, and their families, for over 20 years and we can see more than a few parallels in the hiding, denial and obstruction of certain bishops when compared to those of family members who may not wish to acknowledge a close relative may have abused a child.

Fear, disbelief and anger are normal emotions following a disclosure, but within a properly focused family the needs and fears of the child will always be put above those of the accused.

It is at this point the church fails to act like a true parent or carer because they often deny the child’s rights, despite the evidence and history that make it certain they are telling the truth. Such behaviour has done untold damage on too many victims and the individuals within the church who behave in this manner need to be brought to account more than has been the case to date.

Cari is very pleased with the response of the Government to this report and we are fully supportive of the proposed range of measures they are bringing forward.

We are especially pleased with finally placing a statutory obligation on all those connected to children to report suspected abuse.

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald should bring in quality legislation that will bypass the rhetoric of the church and allow the State to maintain a proper overseeing role in child protection. The “confessional seal” is a side issue.

Cari is not anti-church but rather pro-child protection and therefore we acknowledge the State has been far from perfect in its handling of child sexual abuse matters. However, the level of trust and faith placed in the HSE (or health boards previously) was never on a par with that vested in the church over the past 50 years.

It may be the ultimate irony that the only positive contribution to child protection these ruined bishops will make is to be the catalyst for better protection for all the children of Ireland.

Dr Niall Muldoon is a psychologist and national clinical director of Cari (