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Bishops Lied and Covered Up

Irish Times, November 27, 2009

The report shows that what lies at the heart of the Catholic Church in Ireland is a profound and widespread corruption, perpetrated by liars, child sex abusers and those at the very top who covered up their crimes, writes MARY RAFTERY 

THERE IS one searing, indelible image to be found in the pages of the Dublin diocesan report on clerical child abuse. It is of Fr Noel Reynolds, who admitted sexually abusing dozens of children, towering over a small girl as he brutally inserts an object into her vagina and then her back passage.

That object is his crucifix.

The report details how this man was left as parish priest of Glendalough (and in charge of the local primary school) for almost three years after parents had complained about him to former archbishop of Dublin Desmond Connell during the 1990s.

In 1997, he was finally moved and appointed as chaplain to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire.

The report helpfully informs us that there were 94 children aged 18 or under as inpatients here. The hospital authorities were told nothing of Reynolds’s past or of suspicions that he was a child abuser.

This kind of callous disregard for the safety of children is found over and over again in the report. Bishops lied, cheated and covered up, almost as a matter of course, in a display of relentless cynicism spanning decades. Children were blithely sacrificed to protect priests, the institution and its assets. It is, consequently, difficult to avoid the conclusion that what lies at the heart of the Catholic Church (at least in Ireland) is a profound and widespread corruption.

The Dublin report divides the bulk of its analysis into chapters devoted to individual priest abusers. But reading through the stomach-churning details of their crimes, another parallel reality appears.

Behind almost each one of these paedophiles was at least one bishop (often more) who knew of the abuse, but failed to protect children.

Some of them, Pontius Pilate-like, washed their hands, merely reporting it up the line. Others actively protected the criminals in their midst by destroying files and withholding information. Their handling of complaints is variously described as “particularly bad”, “disastrous” and “catastrophic”.

Dermot Ryan stands out as the most callous of the Dublin archbishops. He failed properly to investigate complaints against at least six of the worst offending priests.

Kevin MacNamara was little better, but his tenure was considerably briefer, limiting some of the damage he did.

John Charles McQuaid is severely criticised in one case, but it was not within the commission’s remit to examine his reign in any significant detail. His response to the pornographic photos of two children taken by one of his priests is a damning indictment of the impact of priestly celibacy. He viewed the criminal act as an expression of “wonderment” by the priest at the nature of the female body.

And what of Desmond Connell, perhaps the most reviled of them all? A complex picture emerges of a man unsuited to the task facing him, attempting to deal with the enormous scale of abuse in the archdiocese, and ultimately failing. While he did, for instance, engage with the civil authorities, unlike his predecessors, he, nonetheless, continued to maintain secrecy over much of what the diocese knew of their child-abusing priests.

As for the many Dublin auxiliary bishops, two stand out as being particularly awful. There is arguably enough evidence in this report to send bishops James Kavanagh (now deceased) and Donal O’Mahony (retired) to prison for failing to report crimes. Or at least, there would be if there existed such an offence. Incredibly, there is none.

We certainly used to have one; called misprision of felony, it was conveniently dropped from the statute books in 1998 when the felony laws changed. The effect was that no priest, bishop, or indeed lay person, could be charged with failing to report criminal activity of which they were aware.

What a sigh of relief the bishops of Ireland must have breathed.

The report describes Bishop O’Mahony’s involvement in the cases of 13 priests from its sample of 46 under investigation. It mentions that he was aware of allegations against several more. His cover-up over his 21 years in office was extensive.

Bishop Kavanagh directly attempted to pervert the course of justice by seeking to influence one Garda investigation and by convincing a family to drop a complaint against another priest. He appears at various stages in a number of other cases, always failing to act to protect children.

Bishop Donal Murray of Limerick is also indicted as having handled a number of complaints badly. He will have very serious questions to answer over the coming days.

Recently retired bishop of Ossory Laurence Forristal equally stands condemned, which is all the more egregious as he was in charge of the archdiocese’s efforts during the 1990s to respond to the crisis and draw up child protection guidelines.

Bishops James Moriarty of Kildare and Leighlin, retired Bishop Brendan Comiskey and Auxiliary Bishop of Dublin Eamon Walsh also all knew of complaints of abuse at various stages.

A week before the broadcast in 2002 of RTÉ television’s Prime Time Cardinal Secrets (which led to the establishment of the Dublin commission), Cardinal Connell engaged in a pre-emptive strike. He had refused to appear on the programme. He chose instead to circulate each of his 200 parishes with a letter read out at every Mass that Sunday. In it, he apologised for the failures of the past, but blamed them on a lack of understanding within the church of paedophilia.

The commission is categorical in its refusal to accept this plea of ignorance as an excuse. It refers bluntly to the inconsistency between such claims and the decision in 1986 to take out an insurance policy to protect church assets from abuse victims.

At that time, we are told that the archdiocese knew of allegations of child sex abuse against 20 of its priests.

The report further notes the documented history of the church’s detailed awareness of paedophilia as both crime and sin spanning the past 2,000 years. The first reference dates from AD 153.

Finally, the report refers to the fact that archbishop Ryan displayed as early as 1981 a complete understanding of both the recidivist nature of paedophilia and of the devastating damage it caused to child victims.

There had been a consistent denial from church authorities that anyone knew anything about either of these key factors until very recently.

Perhaps most damning of all is the report’s findings as to the general body of priests in Dublin. While it gives credit to a small few who courageously pursued complaints, it adds that “the vast majority simply chose to turn a blind eye”.

What emerges most clearly from the report is that priests, bishops, archbishops and cardinals had the greatest difficulty in telling right from wrong, and crucially that their determination of what constituted wrongdoing was vastly different from that of the population at large.

This fact is worthy of reflection on the part of all those who remain connected to the church through its continuing and often central involvement in the provision of services such as education and health throughout the country.

In 2003, ex-governor of Oklahoma Frank Keating drew parallels between the behaviour of some US Catholic bishops and the Cosa Nostra. It drew a storm of protest, and he resigned from his position as chairman of the church-appointed oversight committee on child abuse.

However, it is not too far-fetched a comparison to the Irish church in the light of the three investigations into its behaviour we have had to date.

The organised, premeditated pattern of secrecy and concealment of crime is worthy of the world’s most notorious criminal fraternity.

Mary Raftery is a freelance journalist who, with reporter Mick Peelo, produced and directed the documentary Cardinal Secrets