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Silence on Child Abuse is Bleeding the Church

Irish Times, 30 March, 2002 by Breda O'Brien

Sean Fortune used to come in to where I worked as a video producer. I never had to deal with him directly, and I had no idea he was a child abuser. Yet I found him so repellent that if I saw the bizarre figure in sunglasses and black flapping soutane arriving I sometimes ran into the toilets to avoid him.

It rapidly became clear to others and to me that he was a pathological liar, a con artist and quite possibly seriously mentally ill. He forged certificates and made ludicrous claims about his so-called communications courses. When confronted, he would lie and bamboozle and bully.

Years later when I heard he had been accused of child abuse I was filled with horror on behalf of his victims, but I was not surprised. It fitted with his manipulative desire to control and dominate.

On this Easter Saturday I really wanted to write something which might touch on some spiritual questions, such as why recent surveys tell us that we have become a nation of happy hedonists.

But all I could think about was Sean Fortune, and all I could feel was baffled depression tinged with anger at the evasiveness displayed by church leaders. Ordinary Catholics are asking whether there is anybody in the hierarchical church who realises the implications of this failure to come to terms with child sexual abuse. The church is slowly bleeding to death. The advice of the lawyers will make very little sense in empty churches.

Regular readers will realise that I could hardly be termed a church basher. In the past I have come vigorously to the defence of those in religious orders who I judged to be treated unfairly.

I have been critical of the tendency of the media to act like a kangaroo court and to fail to distinguish between those in industrial schools who sweated and struggled to humanise conditions for children and the minority who committed appalling abuses.

I hope what follows will be read in the light of that record. Church structures are fundamentally flawed because of a lack of accountability.

Priests who go off the rails know that there are very few sanctions in canon law. Many diocesan priests are not technically employees in any sense. They file their tax returns as self-employed people.

The relationship of the bishop to the priest is so unlike that of a conventional employer and employee, that the bishop is basically dependent on the goodwill of the priest to co-operate if there is a problem.

Under canon law, a curate can appeal to Rome if his bishop seeks to move him, and that appeal will be slow. Meanwhile, the curate remains where he is, and there is nothing a bishop can do.

If the bishop wishes to take more drastic steps, such as temporary removal of the right to function as a priest, he must have proof, and not just allegations of wrongdoing. The bishop has moral authority over his priests, but if one of them laughs in his face that moral authority is useless. The conventional wisdom is that the church fudges issues such as child abuse in order to hold on to power. In reality, those with any intelligence in the church are terrified by the fact that when it comes to such vital questions, they are virtually powerless.

Archbishop Sean Brady and Cardinal Connell have no authority whatsoever over their brother bishops. Each bishop is accountable only to Rome. The bishops are written about as if they have a strong fraternal and collegial identity. In reality "the bishops" exist for about 10 days a year, at their conference meetings. Then they go back to their own little islands, where initiatives are implemented or not according to the ability or interests of the individual bishops. To add to the disarray, each religious order is also effectively independent, although they have a stronger collective identity through the Conference of Religious in Ireland. The bishops are decent, hard-working men in thankless roles, but the system militates against any kind of effective action in a dilemma which affects the whole church. Each bishop is thrown back on relying on legal advice once a situation escalates into a crisis. Legal advice is very predictable. Say nothing.

I regret that Brendan Comiskey has maintained silence this week. The media in the main have served a valuable role in highlighting abuse. That does not mean I am naive enough to believe he will get a completely fair hearing from the media. That is no reason not to present his side of the story, to admit candidly where he was wrong and defend what he did right.

Silence is a disaster. Ordinary bewildered Catholics are left wondering why their leaders are saying nothing, and with the uneasy feeling that the only reason must be guilt. It is also a disaster for the falsely accused priest, and they do exist.

Sean Fortune exploited the weaknesses of the system. If he had known that all allegations against him would be investigated by an impartial inquiry team comprising lay people, it might have put a stop to his actions far faster.

Despite my intense dislike for him, I could see that there was a pathetic, panting eagerness to be liked in him. If he had been helped very early on, young lives might not have been blighted, old people might not have been swindled, and people's deep faith might not have been exploited to line Sean Fortune's pocket.

Knee-jerk calls for Brendan Comiskey's head will solve nothing. The deeper structural problems need to be addressed. There have been suggestions of a State tribunal, but the church needs to put its own house in order and to be seen to be doing so, not to be forced into it by the State. It is not too late to set up some kind of forum of reputable lay people to look at the diocese of Ferns and at how the rest of the church is living up to the excellent guidelines on child abuse which exist on paper.

The church is one of the few voices which promotes reflection and moral values. It is being silenced by scandals. Easter is a good time to begin to once more find a credible voice.