What precisely gives the Cloyne committee a shield of immunity? Look no further than the state

By Justine McCarthy
Sunday Tribune
January 11, 2009

The vicious epistle fired off from Cloyne in an attempt to quash the Elliott report should be made compulsory reading for every citizen. Nestling among the legalistic menaces, the invocation of canon law and the twisted inference that professional advisers have been using their tormented clients to pursue their own agenda against the church, a light is inadvertently shone on our society's fundamental insult to victims of child sexual abuse.

The letter, reproduced in the Irish Times last week, was addressed to Aidan Canavan, chairman of the church's National Board for Safeguarding Children, in the names of the 10 members of the Limerick/Cloyne interdiocesan case-management committee; three of them priests and two nuns. In lay parlance, it threatened to sue the pants off the board if it dared publish Elliott's report, typifying the church's disposition that saving its own skin is paramount to saving the skin of innocent children.

This is the same committee whose fitness to do the job of protecting children from sexual predators is baldly questioned by Elliott, but such doubts make no dent in their perception of themselves as all-round champions. And what, precisely, gives them this shield of immunity? Look no further than the state.

Dealing with the case of Father B – who continues to swan around his locality 14 years after the first of a series of complaints was made against him – the committee argues that the priest has denied any wrongdoing and is strenuously contesting High Court proceedings against him (as is Cloyne diocese, despite Bishop John Magee's yuletide mea culpa). Then comes the hammer-blow argument: "The [Elliott] report inexplicably omitted to state that in his case he was investigated three times by the gardaí and on each occasion the DPP failed to prosecute."

This is not the first time the DPP's decision not to press charges has been used to exonerate an accused child molester. It happens frequently because, most of the time, the DPP returns the investigation files on child sexual abuse to the gardaí marked "no prosecution". This failure by the state is the worst hurt inflicted on someone trying to come to terms with childhood abuse because an acknowledgment by others of what was done to them is essential for recovery. Again and again, you hear abuse survivors say vindication, not money, is their reason for taking civil actions when the DPP has blocked their access to the criminal courts.

As a society, however, we insist on quantifying their suffering in terms of hard cash. Isn't it perverse, for instance, that criminal charges (the tiny minority that make it to court) are tried in the Circuit Court while civil proceedings for damages are heard in the High Court? We can only suspect the DPP feels obliged to operate on the same principle; weighing up the chances of securing a conviction as against the monetary cost of mounting a prosecution that might fail. Even justice has its price.

There are obvious difficulties specific to the prosecution of child sexual abuse cases. Primarily, there is an absence of physical evidence and of eyewitnesses. Mostly, it is presumed the "antiquity" of the events alleged makes a prosecution too problematic to pursue. Nobody ever knows the real reason because the DPP does not explain. In one case I know of, after the two gardaí bearing the "no charges" news had left her home, a young woman who was raped as a child walked to a nearby field and hung herself from a tree with her scarf.

This is the invisible human tragedy. As a community, we cannot let it go on. We could follow the example of Northern Ireland, where the DPP is emboldened to press charges by his obligation to consider the public interest in all his decisions.

Here in the republic we cannot even stir ourselves to organise a referendum for a constitutional amendment to strengthen children's rights. Oh, we're all gung-ho when we get the whiff of a bishop's head on a plate but, the rest of the time, do we really care? If we did, we would eradicate the excuses the state provides for turning a blind eye.









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