Time now for calm and rational debate on child abuse

 

ANALYSIS:There is too much at stake for confrontation with the Vatican to continue, writes STEPHEN COLLINS

THE EAGERLY awaited response of the Vatican to the scathing criticism made by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the Dáil last July following publication of the Cloyne report has left the Government in a quandary.

In his speech to the Dáil in July, Kenny voiced the deep anger of the Irish people at the failure of the Catholic Church to deal adequately with child abuse and he received widespread praise for taking such a strong line.

However, the detailed response from the Vatican makes clear that the Taoiseach was factually wrong to suggest that the Holy See “attempted to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign democratic republic as little as three years ago, not three decades ago”.

That suggestion, which was based on an assertion made in the Cloyne report, involved a misinterpretation of the Vatican’s response to a framework document on child sexual abuse produced by the Irish church.

The Vatican document also pointed the finger back at Ireland, in terms of both church and State, for the failure to adequately deal with the issue of child abuse over a number of decades.

Statements made to the Dáil in 1997 by Michael Noonan, who was then minister for health, and his junior minister Austin Currie, are quoted in the Vatican response. At that time both ministers explained why they had not introduced mandatory reporting of child abuse, and argued that the best interests of children were their paramount concern.

The Vatican was making the point in a not very subtle fashion that a senior member of the current Government shared precisely the same concerns about mandatory reporting as elements of the church at the time.

The Vatican statement also makes no bones about laying responsibility for the failure to deal with abuse at the door of the Irish bishops and clergy. The statement spells out in detail that there was nothing in canon law or church regulations that prevented priests or bishops from informing the State authorities about allegations of abuse made to them.

In his initial response to the Vatican statement Kenny said over the weekend that he did not regret his Dáil speech, while Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore maintained there were aspects of the statement that were “highly technical, highly legalistic, very much dancing on the head of a pin”. In fact it is a bit unfair to dismiss the Vatican document in such terms. The detailed rebuttal of a claim that the Holy See set out to frustrate an inquiry by the Irish State into child abuse is more than “dancing on the head of a pin.”

Kenny and Gilmore have no apology to make for venting the anger of the Irish people at the church’s failure to deal with abuse in the past but it is now time to move on and deal with the present and the future.

Both men now face the choice of whether to continue with a confrontational approach to the Vatican or to try to calm things down and engage in rational debate about the central issue which is how to deal with the issue of child abuse.

There is so much at stake, not just in terms of diplomatic relations between Ireland and the Vatican and the issue of child abuse, but there is also a range of practical issues that impinge directly on the welfare of the Irish people on issues such as education and health where long-term damaging consequences could arise from a continuing rift.

The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, expressed the hope that the Vatican response, which he described as measured, would be understood and would not become an occasion for further polemics. “Polemics really do very little for the protection of children and the support of survivors.”

There is too much at stake for polemics to take the place of debate. Kenny, Gilmore and the Government were right to make the Vatican aware of the anger felt at the way child abuse was dealt with by the church but now that the anger has been vented it is time to take a more considered approach.

For instance, the stated determination of Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald to make the seal of the confessional illegal is both pointless and gratuitously insulting to practising Catholics.

There is no suggestion in either the Cloyne report or the Murphy report that the seal of the confessional served to cover up a single case of child abuse.

The real problem was that the clergy did not respond adequately to information that was openly given to them about abuse by victims and their families.

Attempting to legislate on confession would bring the law into disrepute as it would be unenforceable.

It would also represent an arrogant abuse of power by the State not all that dissimilar to the abuse of power by an overweening and powerful Catholic Church in the past.