Irish Examiner, 2 April 2002 by Ryle Dwyer
While the cause of victims is helped in the short term by the deserved focus on their sufferings, media coverage arguably leads to more hysteria than healing.
The issue of child sexual abuse is so emotive and unsettling that we need 'time out' now the bishop has resigned. In our well-justified annoyance at the handling of child sexual abuse by church authorities, and our anxiety to ensure victims get justice, we mustn't be manipulated into a witch-hunt mentality.
Yesterday, Fine Gael MEP Avril Doyle spoke of the "huge anger" in Wexford as a result of the Comiskey affair. Both Doyle and Labour TD Brendan Howlin want a public inquiry into how the Church dealt with sex abuse in Ferns. But a public inquiry would be a bad idea.
It is beyond dispute that people are entitled to answers about how allegations were dealt with. But it is far from clear whether the kind of intense media coverage a public inquiry would entail would lead to clarity or confusion. A number of years ago a former child sexual abuse victim spoke to journalist Vincent Browne on his 98FM radio programme. The woman told Browne how she felt further exploited by the media whenever they dealt with the issue.
Why was this? Perhaps because journalists tend to fasten on to child sexual abuse as a transient source of scandal and news. They engage in lurid reporting before moving on to the next story of the day. But little is done to ensure a thoroughly balanced analysis of the problem. While the cause of victims is helped in the short term by the deserved focus on their sufferings, media coverage arguably leads to more hysteria than healing.
In fact, the only question that a public inquiry could realistically deal with was whether bishops broke the law by not reporting allegations to the gardaí prior to 1995. But there are a number of problems here.
One, if there is suspicion of legal wrongdoing by the bishops, why isn't it investigated by the gardaí in the normal way? Two, it isn't clear whether bishops had any legal, as distinct from moral, obligation to report allegations. Three, if there was such an obligation, we might just as easily have an inquiry into whether other institutions reported allegations to the gardaí. And why those reporting to the Church did not, in some cases, inform the gardaí themselves.
Media coverage of the existing tribunals of inquiry should be enough to convince us that, if there was a public inquiry into the Church's handling of child sexual abuse, we would be treated to a daily diet of allegations and hysteria. Only this time it would be worse. Because when it comes to coverage of Church issues the media's track record is so bad that nobody could guarantee that it wouldn't degenerate into a witch-hunt.
A few months ago RTÉ's Mary Raftery, who produced the States of Fear documentaries, went on radio to criticise the settlement made between the Government and the religious orders for compensating victims of abuse in the residential institutions. But Raftery went further, and suggested that the Church's current ownership of schools and hospitals should have been looked at. Here was a respected journalist, who had done us all a service by exposing child abuse, revealing a political agenda of her own and trying to undermine the present role of religious orders in education and healthcare.
It is ironic too that calls for a public inquiry are coming from the very people who tell us that Church and State should be separate. Because the failures of Church leaders in handling abuse claims are, at worse, moral not legal wrongs. It should not be forgotten either that these wrongs occurred prior to the implementation of new guidelines in spring 1996. In the current climate there is a danger this might be overlooked and that the Church would be unfairly accused of covering up child abuse in the present.
Of course, it is the Church's own failure to have its investigation of its own that has led to calls for a public inquiry. A number of years ago Bishop Willie Walsh suggested there was a "systemic problem" within the Church when it came to dealing with sex abuse allegations. He was, no doubt, reflecting on the perception that when people made complaints about priests, their concerns simply weren't heeded. This much is clear from the Ferns debacle. People complained about Sean Fortune, the bishop failed to take decisive action and the priest was ultimately foisted on other parishes and other communities where he was in a position to commit further abuse.
What the Church now needs to do is to act radically so as to restore the credibility which its leadership has lost among its own members. By hiding from the media over the past two weeks Brendan Comiskey caused immense public unease and undermined his own ministry. What could be worse than the inability of the bishop to be present on Holy Thursday or Good Friday, as the high-point of the Church year approached? Or that the mother of a child in the Ferns diocese didn't want Bishop Comiskey to confirm her child this year?
This indeed was a tragedy for Brendan Comiskey, and the many people who admire his courageous Christianity may even be tempted to blame the media for hunting him down for the mistakes of the past. But if the Church had conducted its own investigation in recent years, and given a warts and all account of its handling of child sexual abuse, perhaps this would never have happened.
Most of the facts are known. There were complaints about priests. Bishops failed to act properly. Further abuse occurred. Law suits are pending. What we need to find out now is why this happened, why allegations were handled so ineptly and whether this could ever happen again.
The Church itself is in the best position to commission a full report on what happened with child sexual abuse. It needs to be generous too. Even while it is settling compensation claims with victims it must find a way to tell them as much as possible about what was known in relation to their cases. And to apologise fully where its actions fell short of what is now considered acceptable.
The Church will need space to do this. It must settle its accounts with victims of child sexual abuse and with the wider society in order to preach and minister effectively. We don't know how long this will take. But the last thing we need is a public inquiry that becomes the vehicle for hysteria and hostility.