VICTIMS OF clerical sex abuse could be forgiven for feeling revulsion and rage over the manner in which members of the Catholic hierarchy and religious congregations delayed the implementation of procedures and guidelines designed to protect children and to report criminal behaviour to the Garda Síochána. The latest review by the National Board for Safeguarding Children concludes that while progress has been made on these issues, full compliance is some way off.
The importance of the work being done by the board was reflected by the immediate acceptance of its criticisms and recommendations by the four dioceses and the three religious congregations concerned. The fact that it took a review by this church-appointed body to ensure child protection guidelines are implemented is, however, a cause for concern. It is clear that remnants of a culture involving denial, cover-up and the administrative transfers of offenders still persist.
As on previous occasions, outpourings of remorse and apologies to victims have followed these reports. They deal with offences going back to 1975. In some dioceses, lessons have been learned and strict procedures introduced. In others, progress has been slow and achieved reluctantly.
There was little change from traditional responses to abuse within the three religious congregations reviewed and the inspectors recorded their shock and dismay. In one congregation it found “a complete disregard for victims”; in another, there was no awareness of the impact of child sexual abuse. All three have offered a new approach and a commitment to change.
Bishop of Clonfert John Kirby defended his handling of such matters on the grounds that he knew nothing about abuse and “it wasn’t an issue in the church in the 1990s”. Not so. As far back as 1987, the hierarchy took out insurance against anticipated legal actions and established a £10 million compensation fund. The review found a higher incidence of abuse allegations involving religious congregations than within the four dioceses. There is no comfort to be found there. On the basis of earlier figures, it would appear the incidence of priests abusing children follows a pretty regular and terrible pattern across all dioceses. Four years ago, the Murphy report criticised the manner in which the Garda processed complaints against clerics in Dublin. These documents show that allegations were made against 18 priests in Limerick - eight subsequently left the ministry - but there was not a single criminal conviction. Something is wrong there.
The National Board for Safeguarding Children has completed investigations into how 10 dioceses and three religious congregations have responded to allegations of child abuse and implemented best practice guidelines. It can conduct such reviews only if invited to do so. Sixteen dioceses and 159 religious orders remain to be assessed. Many of those may have blameless records and high standards of child protection. But, on the basis of what has been revealed so far, further distressing revelations are likely.