Email Us My Blog





Shooting At Shadows
Sunday Tribune, 16 May 2010

Sketchy on detail but heavy with suggestion, Diarmuid Martin's address on sex abuse last week succeeded in undermining his internal critics. But who were the 'strong forces' referred to?

News Investigations Correspondent John Downes reports

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin: 'I am surprised at the manner in which church academics and church publicists can today calmly act as pundits... as if they were totally extraneous to the scandal'

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin: 'I am surprised at the manner in which church academics and church publicists can today calmly act as pundits... as if they were totally extraneous to the scandal'

Make no mistake, this was a verbal hand grenade launched with impeccable precision. When Archbishop Diarmuid Martin got up to deliver his address to a meeting of the Order of the Knights of Columbanus in Dublin last Monday night, his words were designed to create an impact far beyond the room in which they were delivered.

"There are still strong forces which would prefer that the truth did not emerge," he said. "I am surprised at the manner in which church academics and church publicists can today calmly act as pundits on the roots of the sexual abuse scandals in the church as if they were totally extraneous to the scandal."

Speaking of his belief that there were "signs of subconscious denial on the part of many about the extent of the abuse which occurred within the church of Jesus Christ in Ireland and how it was covered up", he added that there were "worrying signs that despite solid regulations and norms these are not being followed with the rigour required".

The inquest started immediately.

Who were these strong forces? All manner of names were speculated about, to the annoyance of many. For Iona Institute director and religious commentator David Quinn, the very fact that Martin was so unspecific in his references was a matter of real frustration.

David Quinn: 'personally annoyed'

All week, he said, he had been receiving calls from people asking him if he believed that he was one of the "pundit publicists" referred to by Martin. For the record, he does not.

"I've been asked a few times was it me, was I one of them. And I'm personally annoyed at that. Because that statement is so vague and nonspecific, it has people chasing off in all directions," he said.

"He was talking about people who were not extraneous to the scandals, which presumably on the face of it means people who are giving out about how the church handled things, when actually they knew at some level about the scandals in the past. So he's talking about people who would have worked inside the church... He wasn't talking about me."

He believes that Martin's speech would have been a positive contribution "if there were actually specific strong forces that need to be weakened, and he made it possible for people to follow the trail to those strong forces. But because it is simply not possible to follow the trail anywhere, except everywhere, it becomes unhelpful... And also it actually does a great disservice to people who are doing their damnedest to improve the church's child protection procedures."

Conservative religious commentator Senator Ronan Mullen said Martin's address was a "very significant speech" which deserved a "very wide readership".

But Mullen, who was a spokesman for the Dublin archdiocese during Cardinal Desmond Connell's tenure, said he had no evidence of the "strong forces" to which Martin referred.

Similarly to Quinn (and indeed to at least one of Martin's fellow bishops), he would like Martin to elaborate further on his concerns.

"It would be hugely damaging for the church if there were people in the church who did not want the full truth about sex abuse to come out," he said.

He has not wondered if he was among the "pundit publicists" Martin spoke about.

"God, no. I became a press officer at a time when the diocese had already taken on and publicly proclaimed its duty of reporting all cases to the police and civil authorities," he said. "I think Diarmuid knows me well enough… I very much support the work that he is trying to do."

During his speech, Martin also made a pointed reference to criticism of his archdiocese's media strategy following the publication of the Murphy report, noting that some had claimed it was "catastrophic".

"My answer is that what the Murphy report narrated was catastrophic... You cannot soundbite your way out of a catastrophe," he said.

Eddie Shaw, a former spokesman for Cardinal Connell who is a director of public relations with Carr communications, used the same phrase – "catastrophic" – when describing the archdiocese's communications strategy in the wake of the Murphy report during an interview with RTé's Marian Finucane late last year.

Shaw told the Sunday Tribune it was a "reasonable conclusion" to suggest that Martin was referring to him in this part of the speech.

But he argued strongly that communication should not be confused with public relations, and stood over his criticisms.

"I can understand that there is a difference of opinion on what it is 'crisis communications' is about in a situation like this. And I absolutely agree it is not about soundbites. In fact it is the complete opposite," he said.

"People need to know more than just the Murphy report. So, for example, they need to know that predominantly, this is an issue that is in the past, and has to be dealt with as an issue for the past.

"What I mean by that is if one were to ask and to get an answer to the question how many new abusers within the Dublin diocese have been reported in, say, the last 10 years or the last six years, that would at least give people a sense of understanding that this behaviour and the discovering of it is substantially in the past .

"I want to be very clear about this. I'm not talking about new cases of survivors of abuse coming forward as people who were abused by those who were already known. I'm speaking about new cases of proven abusers.

"[But] that needs to be told in a way that has not been told up to now. And my guess is that the reason it hasn't been told is there is a fear that it will be seen as seeking to in some way defend or explain.

"But it is not defending and it is not explaining. It is simply providing the lay faithful with a context in which they can come to understand the scale of what happened, when it happened, and if it was covered up and how different things are now."

Central to Martin's speech was his implication that abuse is still being covered up by some within the church.

Step forward Ian Elliott, director of the church's own National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church.

Ian Elliot: 'the archbishop's knowledge exceeds mine'

If anyone should know about issues of concealment, it is surely Elliott, whose explosive report into the diocese of Cloyne ultimately led to the resignation of its then bishop, John Magee,when it was eventually published in December 2008.

Asked whether he shared Martin's concerns, and who he thinks Martin was referring to in his allusion to "strong forces", Elliott said that to answer all of those questions "would involve speculation on my part which I would be reluctant to engage in".

However, Elliott, who is a Northern Irish Presbyterian, did acknowledge that the "archbishop's knowledge and understanding of the Catholic church far exceeds mine. I do not know specifically what he was referring to. However, I can say that I am not aware of widespread non-compliance with the standards issued last year. If anyone has a concern about any part of the church not following the agreed standards then let my office know and we will address it."

At another point in last Monday's address, Martin spoke of how he felt personally "disheartened and discouraged" about the lack of willingness in the Catholic church to begin "what is going to be a painful path of renewal".

It was a characteristically frank and open message, from a man who has been subjected to huge criticism from within his own church since the launch of the Murphy report.

In this context, it could be argued that, far from being a misjudgement, Martin's decision not to name names was a deliberate and calculated move aimed at undermining his many internal critics.

For if you fail to specify who these shadowy forces are, they could be anyone.