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Lack of Church Action Led to More Child Abuse

COMMENT by Breda O'Brien

Irish Times, October 19, 2002

Just when you think you cannot be sickened any more than you already are by the realities of clerical sex abuse, along comes a programme like Prime Time's "Cardinal Secrets" and sets you reeling with shock once again. In an additional twist of the knife, many of these priests seemed to have targeted the children of staunch Catholics, perhaps because such parents would be the last to suspect that the seemingly kindly local priest was harming their children. The betrayal felt by these parents radiated from the screen.

The Catholic Church handled things so badly in many of the cases that far more children were abused and damaged than might have been if prompt action had been taken. There was a shambolic level of mismanagement. Files were not kept, or if they were, no attempt was made to inform an incoming archbishop of cases in the past. Complaints were not acted upon, to the pained bewilderment of faithful parishioners.

The irony is that society was never more in need of the kind of values which the church represents, but its ability to argue passionately for those values has been fatally weakened. The church is signally failing to communicate the process of reform which is well under way. In fact, so rigorous is the new process that there are real fears among priests that they will be removed from ministry on relatively trivial grounds and left in limbo for a year or more while an allegation is investigated. Yet, because the degree of reform is not being adequately communicated, even committed Catholics are beginning to despair.

Ironically, the church has been handicapped by one of its core values, that of forgiveness. The whole emphasis in the code of canon law is on the possibility of redemption, that a person is not wholly defined by one failure, and so admissions made in confidence are kept that way. This, of course, was exploited by child abusers, who twisted these provisions in order to go on abusing.

The church needs to think through very carefully the role of canon law in the future. If a priest abuses a child, he has forfeited the right to be heard in confidence. If an old lady was found badly beaten in the porch of a church and a priest with blood on his hands admitted to doing it, I doubt there would be an issue about calling the Garda. If a priest admits to anyone in authority in the church that he has harmed a child, the information should be given immediately to the gardaí. This has to happen, or other children will be in danger of being terrified, molested, raped and buggered. Submission to the processes and penalties of civil society are a vital part of any process of treatment.

The church cannot defend what it terms the "internal forum", the understanding that admissions made in confidence can be kept that way. The first and most compelling reason is that it endangers children. The second is that there are people motivated by political ideology who believe the church must be removed from every position of influence, particularly schools and hospitals. Every time the church defends the right to confidentiality of an abuser, such people rub their hands in glee, seeing it as another step to achieving their goals.

ALTHOUGH the archdiocese has asserted there were errors of fact in the Prime Time programme, it must be accepted that its general tenor is accurate. Appalling mistakes were made with devastating consequences. What the programme-makers did not take sufficient care to do was delineate clearly that these cases ranged from the 1960s to the present day, and involved not one but three past archbishops. Even the title of the programme gave the false impression that all the faults of 40 years of church history could be laid at Cardinal Connell's door.

He has humbly acknowledged the very real and damaging mistakes he has made, and it is unfair to blame him for others' failings. I have always believed it was an inexplicable decision, tantamount to an act of cruelty, to pluck Desmond Connell from obscure academia to make him archbishop. However, he has shouldered his cross with resignation and done much unacknowledged good work. He is weak on the interpersonal area. He comes across badly on television, and if there is an unfortunate turn of phrase to be found, he will find it.

These failings, so damning in the media age, manage to obscure the deep personal integrity of the man, and the way in which he has been devastated by the acts committed by his fellow priests. Baying for his blood may satisfy some desire for revenge, but it will not necessarily advance the cause of child protection. The easy thing would be to go; the courageous thing is to stay and continue to spearhead the reforms he has already instigated.

Similarly, undermining the independent Hussey investigation does nothing to ensure that priests will not offend again. I believe people do not realise the radical nature of this investigation, and that episcopal resignations will almost certainly follow when Judge Hussey reports. Why would the church undertake such a damaging exercise? Because it realises there can be no healing and no credibility until all the flaws are exposed and a structure put in place, which will ensure the protection of children. State investigations should not be ruled out, particularly where there were failings by the State. But it is wrong to suggest that Judge Hussey will somehow be compromised or unable to achieve deep and radical reform.

In the meantime, the institutional church needs actively to seek those who have been hurt, to reach out to victims instead of passively waiting for them to come to it. They could start with John Brennan, the ex-garda who said he and his family had endured 20 years of isolation because they had caused an abusing priest to be moved. Until someone in authority gets into a car to go to him, and other people like him, to hear their story and to apologise, it is difficult to see how trust in the church can be restored.