The stain of child abuse cannot ever be erased from the church

The Times/The Sunday Times [London, England]

November 20, 2022

By David Quinn

For a great deal of my time as a commentator and journalist, I have written and spoken about the clerical sex abuse scandals that have scarred the lives of thousands of victims and almost destroyed the Catholic church in Ireland, as well as the faith of many people not just in the institution, but in God also.

The first of the scandals had already broken when I wrote my first column for a national newspaper in 1994. Two years previously, the country had learnt of the late Bishop Eamonn Casey’s affair with Annie Murphy. Casey was very high profile, and it was the first big example of the hypocrisy of some of those who presented themselves as our moral leaders.

But the Casey scandal paled into insignificance compared with what was to come. In 1994, for example, the case of one of the most notorious of all the clerical sex abusers, namely Father Brendan Smyth, contributed to the fall of the Fianna Fail-Labour coalition government.

In 1996 RTE aired a documentary called Dear Daughter, about the late Christine Buckley and abuses that occurred in Goldenbridge orphanage.

This led to a cascade of further revelations about abuses in church-run institutions. The documentary series States of Fear, which RTE aired in 1999, prompted the setting up of the Ryan Commission which eventually produced a massive report on abuse in the country’s industrial schools, reform homes and orphanages.

Other statutory inquiries were conducted into the dioceses of Dublin, Ferns and Cloyne. The Cloyne report, published in 2011, led to the Irish government temporarily closing the Irish embassy to the Holy See. Since then, the reports of investigations into the Magdalene laundries and the mother and baby homes have been published.

We may now have a public inquiry into abuses at schools run by the Spiritan order, such as Blackrock College. There will be a debate about the matter in the Dail this week. Schools run by other orders might be added to the list.

Commissions of inquiry into abuses by priests and religious institutions have taken place in other countries. The same pattern emerges everywhere: vulnerable children were preyed on and abused by some of the adults who were supposed to be taking care of them. The crimes were covered up.

Similar abuses have been revealed in other organisations — for example, sporting bodies, the scouting movement, boarding schools, state-run care homes and so on. Last year in the United States, Boy Scouts of America announced a $2.7 billion (€2.6 billion) trust fund to compensate the 82,000 men who came forward to say they were sexually abused by troop leaders.

Here in Ireland, similar revelations about the scouting movement have come to light. A review of how the movement handled abuse allegations historically was led by the child protection expert Ian Elliott. It reported the same pattern of concealment that has made the Catholic church’s abuse scandals even worse in the public mind.

A total of 350 allegations against scout leaders have been made so far.

One of the most damning investigations into sex abuse by members of the Catholic church was produced in France last year. The head of the investigation was Jean-Marc Sauvé, former vice-president of the Council of State, which is the highest court in France for cases involving public administration.

Commenting on how the abuses affected his faith as a practising Catholic, Sauvé said: “My link to the church, my relationship to Scripture, my relationship to prayer are no longer the same. I rediscovered how the weight of my faith is in the word of God, in the Gospel.”

This sums up my own feelings as a practising Catholic better than I could myself. You can never look at the church the same way again. It is forever a tarnished relationship.

The recent interview on RTE with two victims of sexual abuse at Blackrock College has led to further coverage of abuse at church-run schools.

Some of the responses been understandable but others a lot less so. For example, writing in the Irish Examiner, the former Labour party adviser Fergus Finlay called for the shutting down of all 150 religious congregations in Ireland, describing them as “nothing more than vehicles for corruption and abuse”, an incredibly sweeping statement.

Such a move would be totally unconstitutional but, aside from that, it would put us in the same company, historically speaking, as the Soviet Union, Maoist China and North Korea.

Writing in The Irish Times on Wednesday, a Canadian academic put the spotlight on nuns again and blamed abuse of children at their hands on the rule of celibacy, which is an easy trope. Tellingly, he did not mention any studies which establish a strong causal link between celibacy and the sexual abuse of children.

Asked last week on RTE about the possibility of a public inquiry into Spiritan-run schools, Maeve Lewis of One in Four, a charity that helps victims of child sex abuse, said any investigation should be wider than this. She stated: “If there’s going to be an inquiry into the Spiritans, then it would have to include a lot of other organisations as well.”

In fact, extensive child protection audits of the country’s religious congregations and dioceses have already been conducted, but these seem to have been largely forgotten about.

They were carried out by the church’s National Board for Safeguarding Children, which was run for years by the aforementioned Ian Elliott, who is widely regarded as one of the best in the field of child protection.

The report on the Spiritans was produced ten years ago. It found multiple and terrible failings by the order in the past. Robust child protection systems are in place today.

The audit of the Spiritans was covered in the national media at the time, by which time a compensation fund was already in existence. It has paid out more than €5 million since 2004.

The congregation began the process of establishing a restorative justice programme last year at the behest of past pupils of Blackrock College and its junior school, Willow Park. It is victim-led. The programme was formally unveiled on Wednesday.

The Jesuits and the Vincentians have also been in the headlines. They were audited in 2015 and 2014 respectively.

Of course, these audits happened only following very heavy pressure from the media, society and the state. The failure by the church to put proper child protection systems in place long before is one of the great historical stains on its record, probably worse than past crimes such as the Inquisition. It will never be fully erased.

Up and down the country there are now thousands of people, most of them volunteers, working in parishes and other church settings who are trained in the best child safety procedures. They will have to remain in place for ever to ensure nothing like the sex abuse scandals ever happens again.