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Resignation of Father Bill Bermingham, Child Protection Priest for Diocese of Cloyne

Church Must Hire Professionals To Investigate Abuse

Irish Times, July 03, 2010 by Breda O'Brien

It is unfair to expect priests and volunteers to handle highly complex abuse claims, writes BREDA O'BRIEN 

IN A recent Diocese of Cloyne case, a woman alleging abuse complained that notes of her case had been handed over to the priest against whom the allegations were made. She described this as being like another violation. Fr Bill Bermingham, the priest with responsibility for child protection, initially defended his actions before resigning.

It is dreadful that an abuse victim should find the experience of reporting so distressing. As he correctly said, given that in spite of his best intentions, Fr Bermingham’s actions had undermined victims’ confidence in the process of investigation, he had no choice but to resign.

However, there are a number of deeper issues highlighted by this case. For example, the woman declared the church’s position on child protection to be “an absolute farce”, because “someone can go and alert an accused person before they can be interviewed by the gardaí”. To view Fr Bermingham’s actions as though he were somehow tipping off the priest in question is an understandable but unfair interpretation.

There is a legal requirement to inform a person of an allegation. How and when to do so are complex questions. Kieran McGrath, an independent child welfare consultant, has written about how challenging it is to comply with apparently competing priorities. These include compliance with the child protection requirements of the State guidelines, Children First, while also co-ordinating with a possible Garda investigation and, at the same time, complying with what is referred to as the “Barr judgment”.

The Barr judgment refers to MQ v Robert Gleeson City of Dublin VEC & Francis Chance & the Eastern Health Board (EHB) (1997) High Court case. Briefly, the EHB became aware that a man, MQ, about whom they had concerns, was enrolled in a VEC childcare course. When the VEC was informed, it removed MQ from the course, but he sought a judicial review. The judicial review did not judge the merits or otherwise of the reasons for removing him, but looked at whether the principles of natural justice had been followed.

These principles include the right to be fully informed of allegations against you, to put your side of the story, to have access to advice and to appeal unfavourable decisions. Mr Justice Barr found that the VEC and the EHB had breached these principles, and MQ received £30,000 in compensation.

The judgment confirmed that even in cases where there may be significant concerns, the accused has the right to be informed of allegations against him or her. Removal from a course is serious, but an allegation against a caring professional has even more serious consequences. While an accused social worker may be “suspended without prejudice” from work, in the case of a priest, he will also possibly be asked to leave his house, his parish and his ministry while an investigation is carried out.

In the Cloyne case, the HSE and Garda were informed and the priest was removed from ministry the next day. It would be impossible and in breach of natural justice to put that in train without informing a person of the nature of the allegation. Not unnaturally, this requirement infuriates the Garda, whose preference would always be to be the ones who first confront the alleged abuser. However, informing the accused would not matter so much if there were not frequently significant delays before a Garda investigation commences.

Furthermore, the social services or the church will rarely be given an indication as to when the person will be interviewed by police. What are they to do about protecting children in the meantime?

It was still not correct to hand over the notes of the initial interview, particularly since the victim says she was unaware that they were part of a formal process. It cannot be emphasised enough that once a name is mentioned, the process automatically becomes formal, and the allegation must be reported quickly.

These situations are delicate and fraught with difficulties. You have to balance the rights of the alleged victim with the need to protect other children, and the right of the accused to be considered innocent until proven guilty.

Fr Bermingham made mistakes, but it is unfair to presume automatically that he did so in bad faith. Nor can cases simply be handed over to the HSE and the Garda completely. Where would that leave taking the priest out of ministry immediately, which neither the Garda nor the HSE can do? Not to mention that confidence in the HSE’s ability to deal with such cases speedily or well is at an all-time low.

Nor is there anything like proper co-ordination between the HSE and Garda and other statutory bodies, which has had serious and sometimes fatal consequences.

The church had to be dragged into taking child protection seriously, but now has something that the HSE does not – standards-based practice. In other words, it does not just have guidelines, but concrete national standards against which practice can be measured, and an independent body, the National Board for Safeguarding Children, to oversee the implementation of them.

In contrast, as Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan highlighted, in the HSE there is wildly inconsistent practice, a lack of scrutiny and a failure of inter-agency collaboration. Does that mean everything is well in the church? No. But tangible progress has been made. It is unfair for the media to shrilly denounce Fr Bermingham and others like him. He was not professionally trained to deal with these incredibly complex situations.

A number of non-church professionals to whom I spoke about Fr Bermingham expressed sympathy for him, as someone sincere who appeared to take his role seriously and had no intention to do harm.

He should never have been in the position. The church can no longer rely only on good people like Fr Bermingham and other volunteers. It must now employ independent child-safeguarding professionals to investigate child abuse cases.

It has the standards-based practice. Now it needs as many fully trained professionals as are necessary to implement them. Not to employ professionals is unfair not only to victims, but to the many priests and volunteers who are trying to bring about change, and who feel desperately vulnerable as the situation stands.


Cloyne Child Protection Cleric Resigns

Irish Times, Sun, Jun 27, 2010 by Kilian Doyle and Barry Roche

The priest with responsibility for ensuring child protection in the diocese of Cloyne has resigned from his post over his handling of an allegation of a clerical sex abuse.

Fr Bill Bermingham was criticised for making allegations of sexual abuse by a woman available to a priest whom she accused over abusing her as a young girl in the 1980s.

Fr Bermingham defended his role on Friday night, saying he believed his actions in making unsigned notes of an interview with the complainant available to the accused priest were consistent with church and State guidelines in the area.

“When I furnished this record, this was not in any way connected to the Garda investigation or to a pending Garda interview with the accused priest. Indeed, I did not know at the time when the gardaí intended to interview the accused priest in connection with the complaint.”

Fr Bermingham was strongly criticised by the complainant last night for seeking to defend his handling of the matter. “I’m nearly beside myself with anger – the abuse I went through as a teenager was disgusting and appalling, but this is just the final insult,” she said. “The way I’ve been treated by the church in the way they’ve handled this makes me feel as I’ve been violated again.”

In a statement yesterday afternoon, Archbishop Dermot Clifford, Apostolic Administrator in the Diocese of Cloyne, confirmed Fr Bermingham had resigned from his position.

“I wish to thank Fr Bermingham for the unstinting and selfless commitment which he has given to this role on behalf of the diocese during a very painful period,” Dr Clifford said. “I have been witness to the integrity of Father Bermingham’s motivation in seeking to rebuild trust with people who have been harmed by priests of the diocese and, to help in their healing. The safeguarding of children in Church ministry has been his consistent priority and concern.

He said Fr John McCarthy will act on a temporary basis in the role.

Fr Birmingham yesterday apologised for the distress he had caused to the woman.

“It is vital that any person occupying the role of designated officer/delegate within the church should have the complete confidence of victims of child sexual abuse and of persons wishing to report abuse. This is an absolute value,” he said in a statement. “My handling of this particular case has, despite my best intentions, served to undermine that confidence.”

The woman said she had been put in touch with Fr Bermingham after she contacted the church’s helpline Faoiseamh. She agreed to meet him with her husband and another complainant at the Nano Nagle Centre in Killavullen, north Cork, in June 2009.

“This was my first time in 30 years talking about this abuse and I said explicitly at the outset that it was simply an introductory meeting and he said he was just jotting down some notes for his own use.”

She said she was astonished when a few weeks later she received a letter from Fr Bermingham, in which he included a copy of his notes and asked her to confirm with her signature they were a correct recording of her allegations.

“It completely sickened me because I made it absolutely clear to him that I was making no formal statement. I didn’t reply and he never made any contact with me about them and then he went and presented his notes as my formal statement. It’s unbelievable ”

However, she was informed last February by gardaí that Fr Bermingham had confirmed to them he had forwarded the allegation to the accused priest after they became suspicious when they interviewed the priest and found he was aware of many of the details.