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Bitter Words for Church in Salute to Abuse-Probe Judge

Irish Independent, 24 August 2009 by John Cooney

IT was a far cry from that bleak May day when survivors of institutional abuse were not admitted to the long-awaited news conference in a Dublin hotel at which Mr Justice Sean Ryan published his damning report into systematic abuse of children by religious orders in State run institutions.

At the weekend, three months later, Judge Ryan stood side by side for a family photograph with representatives of survivors' groups and journalist Mary Raftery, whose documentary, 'Suffer Little Children', first alerted the public to the scale of child abuse in what was known as "Catholic Ireland".

The judiciary, the abused and the media came together in the Co Mayo market town of Ballina to receive special awards presented on behalf of the Humbert Summer School by its honorary president, John Hume, the peacemaker in Northern Ireland and Nobel Laureate.

Saturday on the banks of the rain-swollen River Moy was a day of remarkable salmon leaps in the torrential saga of state and media probing into what has become known as 'the Irish disease'.

In his first public appearance since his explosive findings were made public, Judge Ryan paid a moving tribute to "the courage and fortitude" of the abused, whose horrendous evidence about their experiences as children is now permanently recorded in the landmark report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, which he chaired. Judge Ryan did not hold back from giving full credit to the residents of State institutions for bringing to light "events which were shrouded in darkness for so long".

In turn, survivor Michael O'Brien, the former mayor of Clonmel who captured the nation's imagination by challenging the platitudes of Government minister Noel Dempsey on an unforgettable RTE 'Questions and Answers' programme, bowed to the good judge and thanked him "for the momentous work you and your team have done". But Mr O'Brien was only prepared to give conditional pardon to the religious congregations who locked up him and thousands of other children in penal institutions as serfs. He will forgive his oppressors only when he knows in his heart that "these people mean it when they say 'we are really, really sorry'."

"I do not want silly apologies. I want to see repentance," he said.

Showing moral courage by her attendance, but bringing with her no extra cash demanded by the Government and survivors to top up the meagre redress deal negotiated by former education minister Michael Woods, Sr Marianne O'Connor, secretary general of Cori, the Conference of religious of Ireland, said the Humbert School was "the first public forum to which religious have been invited since the publication of the Ryan".

There was no prize for the religious orders from the Humbert School. Only two of the local clergy were present. It was noted by many that the Bishop of Killala, John Fleming, away on pilgrimage to Lourdes, had not sent a special delegate to witness both the awards, and there was a series of scathing criticisms of the secrecy deployed by the Catholic hierarchy and their lack of direct engagement with the survivors.

The criticism came from Augustinian priest Fr Iggy O'Donovan and Fr Kevin Hegarty, two courageous priests who want the Irish Church to move out of its closed cloisters into the more participative church of the Second Vatican Council, in which bishops share decision-making with priests and laity in a national synod.

Fr Hegarty, exiled to the remotest parish in north Mayo for publishing articles on clerical child abuse in the mid-1990s, noted how today's bishops tried "to establish clear blue water between themselves and the religious congregations" in the wake of the Ryan Report.

"As they sought to sail away from the wreckage revealed in the Ryan Report, room on the Episcopal lifeboats was extremely limited," Fr Hegarty lamented, while Michael Kelly, deputy editor of the traditionally conservative 'Irish Catholic' newspaper, bemoaned that following Ryan the Irish Church now stood "in the gutter, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, humiliated, hopefully repentant".

Fr O'Donovan, who was reprimanded for concelebrating an Easter Sunday Mass in Drogheda three years ago with an Anglican rector, explained that he belonged to a Church which, as an institution, "rarely if ever admits to having been wrong or to having inflicted harm on people".

Most strikingly of all, Michael O'Brien accused the Irish bishops of not telling Pope Benedict the full scale of the Irish abuse crisis -- and he demanded that the Pope should meet two survivors to listen to their stories.

Rome, Maynooth and Cori needed to take seriously the alarm bells rung in Mayo this weekend, or their Church is moribund as far as the next generation is concerned, he said. However, while Rome, Cori and Maynooth continue to man the breached ramparts of their closed walls, the danger is that like the Church, the Cowen government will shrink from its financial responsibilities to abuse victims.

The unspoken hope of Maynooth and Government Buildings is that the survivors' group will divide and fight among themselves, and that the media and the public will weary of their plight.

John Cooney, the director of the Humbert School, is Religion Correspondent of the Irish Independent