Confidentiality issue has yet to be resolved

By Patsy McGarry
Irish Times
October 24, 2002

Patsy McGarry assesses the approach being taken by the Catholic Church to inquiries into clerical sex abuse allegations

The Minister for Justice, Mr McDowell, will be standing - as did his party's founder - "by the Republic" when it comes to the "rights" or writ of canon law. But what of the bishops? We know Bishop Willie Walsh will do so too, but what of the others?

It emerged late last year that the Vatican circulated every diocesan bishop in the church the previous June with instructions that where there were complaints about clerical child sex abuse, these were to be referred to Rome. Whether a tribunal would be set up would be decided there, as would whether that tribunal would be based in Rome or locally.

The document was accompanied by a letter, in Latin as was the document, stipulating that what was contained was secret. Nowhere in its instructions on how complaints were to be handled was there any reference to informing the civil authorities.

When the contents of the document and letter emerged, there was alarm in some ecclesiastical/civil circles. However the Catholic Primate, Archbishop Seán Brady, said it remained the policy of the Irish bishops that the civil authorities be informed immediately should such complaints came to their attention, as outlined in the bishops' guidelines of January 1996.

But there remain indications that in practice some bishops have problems when it comes to a clash on the matter between the laws of the church - canon law - and the laws of the state.

The "recommended" reporting policy from the 1996 guidelines is unequivocal. In "all instances" where there are complaints of such abuse it should be reported "without delay" to "the senior ranking police officer for the area". This is the case where there is even "suspicion" of such abuse. And where confidentiality is sought by people making complaints, "undertakings of absolute confidentiality should not be given but rather the information should be expressly received within the terms of this reporting policy and on the basis that only only those who need to know will be told."

It seems clear that Monsignor Maurice Dooley would have little truck with such recommendations, for instance.

His candid clarity on the matter in interviews over recent days has been refreshing in that it makes explicit, and for the first time in this years-old debate, what is really going on in the minds of many senior church figures where dealing with the handling of clerical child sex abuse is concerned.

He would also be aware of the implied direction in canon law 2816 to avoid keeping files on such cases - to avoid "discovery" by civil authorities. Was this why, for instance, there were no records of 1974 complaints of abuse against Father Patrick Hughes in the archives of the Dublin archdiocese, so allowing Cardinal Connell give him a reference in 1988?

Mrs Marie Collins recalled yesterday how, when she pointed out to Cardinal Connell in December 1996 that he was acting in breach of the bishops' guidelines, published in January that year, in his handling of her complaints about abuse by Father Paul McGennis, he responded that they were just guidelines and that they had no status in canon or civil law.

Similarly, there are suggestions he ignored the guidelines in his removing of Father Noel Reynolds from Glendalough in 1997.

In his letter, read at all Masses in Dublin on the weekend of October 5th/6th last, Dr Connell said of the Hussey Commission that he was "confident that whatever requirements of confidentiality may exist will be respected in the process".

Responding to an article on this in The Irish Times last week, a spokesman wrote: "The cardinal has stated clearly that all information in his possession will be made available to the commission, that he will respond fully to any and every question the commission may wish to put to him and that it will have his complete co-operation.

"It was from this clear statement of intent that the cardinal said he 'was confident that whatever requirements of confidentiality may exist will be respected in the process'," (in his October 5th/6th letter), he said.

Even in his statement last night Cardinal Connell admitted there remained "genuine concerns" over the issue of confidentiality where access to church documents were concerned.

But it was his "absolute determination" that Judge Gillian Hussey would be final arbiter on this matter where the church's audit into such matters was concerned. But what of a State inquiry/investigation? Who would be the final arbiter in that case? He did not say.






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