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Colm O'Gorman, Breda O'Brien and False Allegations

Time the Church Engaged Young People Again
Irish Times 1st April, 2006 by Breda O'Brien

People of a certain age can remember exactly where they were when they heard John F. Kennedy had been shot. It is a relief to be able to say that it was before my time. In fact, it is a relief to be able to say that any event, including the Great Famine, was before my time. Having children who ask you things like, "Did they have electricity when you were young?" does that to you.

However, I do have a very clear memory of where I was when Pope John Paul died, almost exactly a year ago. I was in the garden in the dark, emptying the litter from the rabbit hutch into the compost bin, when my son came flying out to me, with the news that RTÉ wanted me to come in straight away to be a panellist on a radio programme.

The hours flew by as presenter Seán O'Rourke and producer Bernadette O'Sullivan seamlessly interwove interviews from around the world. I had very little to do except sit back and be thankful that I had the good fortune to have a ringside seat.

While I don't remember JFK's assassination, being able to remember both John Paul's visit to Ireland and his death with equal clarity does mark me as being of a certain vintage. In fact, my husband and I met first because we were involved in an initiative for young people begun in the heady days after the papal visit. As Gerard Gallagher has pointed out in his book Are we losing the young church?  , the church had many people who invested considerable time and energy during the 1980s to what was called "youth ministry". Mind you, there was no grand plan. It was all a bit hit-and-miss, but it had an impact on the lives of a significant minority of young people.

It is difficult to see where young people with similar interests would find support today. It is just one of the casualties of the abuse scandals, that the church has backed off from involvement in this area.

There are lots of other casualties. The relationship between bishops and their priests is also severely damaged. The bishops feel caught between a rock and hard place. They were excoriated for operating a system that seemed to prefer preserving the institution from scandal to protecting children.

Now that they are rigorously implementing child protection policies, their priests feel betrayed because even the slightest whiff of scandal will see them being asked to "step aside" from ministry. Unlike other professions, this will result in maximum publicity, not least because of the editorial decisions of major media organisations.

Although Colm O'Gorman said recently that "no evidence of any kind has been presented to suggest that false allegations are being made or the rights of those accused are being abused," there are several cases in the public domain of false allegations.

They include cases of attempted blackmail of priests where threats were made that allegations of abuse would be made if money was not forthcoming.

Nora Wall was not a priest, but it is difficult to believe that she would have been the first woman in Ireland to be convicted of rape and the first given a life sentence for it if the accusation had not dated from the time she spent in religious life.

Priests do not trust their bishops to deal fairly with them, and the gulf is widening, with considerable bitterness on both sides. I have some sympathy for the bishops, because they cannot win. They feel the only way to regain credibility is to be seen to implement child protection policies rigorously.

The State's Children First  document sets out the parameters for all organisations working with children. It says that all "reasonable grounds for concern" must be reported to civil authorities.

These civil guidelines oblige organisations working with children to appoint a designated person to report to civil authorities. The church has decided that the designated person must be a lay person professionally qualified in child protection.

Suppose an accusation was made about someone dating back to an alleged incident that took place in Ireland in 1982. If it could be proven that the priest in question spent the years between 1978 and 1985 completely away from Ireland on the missions in Peru, presumably that would not constitute "reasonable grounds for concern."

However, the message being hammered home by victim lobby groups is that internal investigations are irrelevant, and that all allegations must be reported to civil authorities.

While feeling some sympathy for bishops, I feel tremendous sympathy for priests. The actions of a minority of priests have tarnished them all.

Incidentally, Colm O'Gorman objects to such "minimising language." However, the Ferns report states that "third-party abuse" which would include clergy "represents only a small fraction of the abuse happening in Irish society. Yet almost all attention is focused on sexual abuse of children by clergy, with no attempt to tackle systemically the reasons behind other abuse. The fact is, that for the safety of children, anyone against whom a credible allegation is made must step aside. However, the publicity generated is entirely another matter.

I do not wish to minimise either the impact on victims, or those living in dread of a false allegation, but the energy consumed in this issue has meant that there is a huge vacuum in Irish society in relation to matters of faith. It might be well to remember that Pope John Paul's successor, Pope Benedict, did not choose politics, or philosophy, or scandals as a topic for his first encyclical, but instead chose "God is love."

As a staunch defender of young people, I mean them no disrespect when I say they are the most religiously illiterate generation this island has seen in centuries.

It is difficult to make a mature decision to accept or reject something about which you know very little in the first place.

A mediating presence is needed to deal with the hurt and anger felt by priests, and to facilitate dialogue with bishops. The church needs to get back to doing what it is meant to do, which is to spread the Christian message that Pope John Paul modelled, both in his life and the manner of his dying.