Stretched to the Breaking Point

Catholic World News
February 4, 2003

Just before Desmond Connell was appointed Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland, while he was on retreat in Rome, an inscription on a building caught his eye. Taken from St John's gospel, it read: "In the world, you will have trouble."

He could hardly have imagined the extent to which that prediction would come true over the next 15 years--and the past year, 2002, was the worst.

In 2001, Archbishop Connell received the red hat, becoming the first Archbishop of Dublin to be made a cardinal in more than a century. But if he thought the honor would deflect the criticism, he couldn't have been more wrong.


The resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston on December 13 led to immediate calls for Cardinal Connell to stand down.

The Irish Times newspaper said Cardinal Law's resignation could generate pressure for the resignation of many senior US and other Church figures over their handling of the sex abuse crisis, "including Cardinal Desmond Connell of Dublin."

On the same day, the Irish Independent newspaper, in an editorial headed "One law for the cardinal," asked:

Can those who covered up crimes remain in authority? In the case of Cardinal Law, dissident Boston priests say no. In time, more calls for resignation are sure to follow, in other dioceses, in other countries. Like Law, Cardinal Connell had covered up years of shocking clerical sex abuse, said his critics. And he wasn't the first Irish prelate to do so.

Earlier in the year, Bishop Brendan Comiskey of the Diocese of Ferns in Wexford had resigned after admitting mistakes over the handling of complaints of sex abuse against curate Father Sean Fortune. The high-profile priest had killed himself while awaiting trial for a catalogue of abuse against youngsters in the rural parish of Fethard-on-Sea.

The extent of the abuse was revealed in a documentary broadcast by RTE, Ireland's national broadcaster. Following Bishop Comiskey's resignation, the Minister for Health called in a senior lawyer to investigate the Ferns abuse claims. He had hardly started his work when another Ferns scandal broke.


Msgr. Míceál Ledwith, former prominent theologian and a priest of Ferns, was publicly accused of sexually assaulting clerical students while president of the national seminary.

Msgr. Ledwith, who had become president of Maynooth College in 1985, had retired early in 1994 with a "personal professorship." There was gossip at the time about the reasons for his departure, but such matters were not spoken about in the Ireland of the early 1990s.

Then last year, in the new atmosphere of openness following the RTE revelations, Father Gerard McGinnity, a former senior dean at Maynooth, announced that clerical students had complained to him about Msgr. Ledwith's conduct. When he passed on the complaints to a bishop, he was persuaded to take a sabbatical year and was then posted to a rural Armagh parish, out of harm's way.

The former Primate of All Ireland, Cardinal Cahal Daly, the retired Archbishop of Tuam, Dr. Joseph Cassidy and two other bishops--all of whom had been trustees at Maynooth in 1983-84--denied in a letter to the Irish Times that seminarians had complained about Msgr. Ledwith. But the former Bishop of Galway, Dr. Eamonn Casey (who had resigned in the early 1990s after fathering a child by an American woman) is understood to have confirmed that there had been complaints of sexual impropriety by Ledwith toward junior seminarians during that period.

Eventually, the current president of Maynooth was forced to issue a statement on behalf of the trustees admitting that Msgr Ledwith had been accused of sexual abuse of a minor before his retirement. "He was informed of the allegation and denied it strenuously. The allegation was made known by his Bishop (Comiskey) to both the gardaí (police) and relevant health board," said the statement.

"Notwithstanding his denial, the trustees--in accordance with the statutes of the College--initiated a process of investigation to lead to a tribunal of inquiry. During the process, Msgr. Ledwith, through his legal team, continued to deny the allegation."

Eventually Ledwith reached a settlement with the complainant, who was paid off in late 1995, without admission of liability. The trustees said the settlement was funded "entirely by Msgr. Ledwith and without any assistance whatsoever from the Church or the College."

Pressure was put on Ledwith to resign, but in 1996, he told the college trustees he would only take early retirement if he was paid a pension. The trustees accepted the offer, and paid IR£77,000 (about $100,000) into a pension, plus six months' salary in lieu of notice. The cost of the deal was met by contributions from every diocese in Ireland--although Irelands Catholics were not told about this expenditure.

In mid-2000, a former student of the college made a further allegation of abuse which was also denied. Ledwith promised to make a statement last summer, but has so far failed to do so. He now lives in the state of Washington in the US, where he lectures on behalf of a New Age college run by a woman who claims she is possessed by the spirit of a prehistoric Cro-Magnon warrior!


In April, the Irish bishops held an extraordinary general meeting at Maynooth. At a news conference afterward, Cardinal Connell said that he had suffered "agonies" over "this thing," which had "devastated" his period of office. In a rare public show of feeling, he told journalists: "I am as human as any of you."

Two months later, the bishops announced they were setting up an inquiry into the handling of sex-abuse complaints.

The "Independent Catholic Church Commission on Child Sexual Abuse" was established jointly by the Irish Bishops Conference, the Conference of Religious of Ireland (CORI) ,and the Irish Missionary Union (IMU) to "establish the truth about the extent of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in Ireland, and the response of Church authorities to complaints of such abuse".

The commission chairman, retired district court judge Gillian Hussey, appointed a social worker, lawyer, psychologist, retired police officer, former senator, childcare worker, and forensic scientist to aid her investigation. The commission planned to investigate all 26 dioceses and every Catholic institution on the island of Ireland, including Northern Ireland. It was to produce an interim report by February 28, 2003 and a final report by February 29, 2004.

The bishops insisted that that the commission was completely independent and that every relevant piece of evidence would be provided by the Church authorities. But victims of clerical sex abuse pointed out that the commission had no powers to compel cooperation and was dependent on the cooperation of the bishops. They said the Church should not be allowed to investigate itself and called on the government to set up an independent tribunal of inquiry to investigate the treatment of sex abuse victims by priests and religious.

Cardinal Connell dismissed the fears, saying: Such doubt seems to rest principally on the fact that the commission has been established by Church authorities - the bishops' conference, CORI and the IMU. For this reason, it is seen as the Church investigating itself. He responded:

This is mistaken. Once established, the commission was given complete independence, with freedom to decide on its own membership and to amend its terms of reference in whatever way it deemed appropriate. Judge Hussey has chosen her fellow commissioners solely on the basis of their professional expertise, not of their allegiance to the Catholic Church.

The diocese will cooperate fully with any body of inquiry set up by an appropriate authority. But we remain convinced that Judge Hussey's commission, genuinely independent and capable of operating throughout the 32 counties of Ireland, is fully equipped to carry out such a task.

But the fears of the critics were borne out in October, when another RTÉ documentary, Cardinal Secrets, reported that many complaints of notorious clerical sex abuse had been overlooked or ignored by Church officials. Some clergy had been moved on to new jobs working with children where they abused again.


In a statement after the program, Cardinal Connell said: "I deeply regret the mistakes I have made in seeking to come to grips with the problem. In many instances we did not act with the necessary speed and decisiveness. For these failures we ask for forgiveness.

I am only too well aware, however, that repetitions of such sentiments on my part at this stage may serve little purpose. What is needed, once and for all, is a thorough, independent and fully professional investigation of what has happened.

Establishing the truth as unambiguously and as objectively as possible is the essential first step in moving beyond this shameful issue. This is pre-eminently in the interests of those who have been the victims of abuse. But it is also in the best interests of society at large and of the Church itself. On the basis of such an investigation, we must be willing to learn whatever lessons emerge and face whatever the consequences may be.

Cardinal Connell said that, since 1995, the names of all priests of the diocese of Dublin against whom allegations had been made of child sexual abuse--and the names of those who had made formal allegations--had been passed on to the police, except where the diocese was aware that a complaint had already been made to the police.

"This policy, which includes allegations made both in the past and in the present, has been consistently upheld since then," said the cardinal. "The policy of the diocese is that reporting to the gardaí is so central that the diocese will not receive any formal complaint unless that complaint can be reported to the gardaí."

But Cardinal Connell conceded that it had not always been so. He admitted that parish priest Father Noel Reynolds had been appointed chaplain to a hospital in 1997, despite complaints in 1995 about his inappropriate behavior with children. Father Reynolds, who later admitted that he had abused 100 children, has since died from Alzheimer's disease.

"We fully accept that we should have informed the hospital authorities about the concerns raised at the time of his appointment," said Cardinal Connell. "The first complaint of child sexual abuse was made against Father Reynolds in 1998. He was then removed from ministry. "

In the case of Father Patrick Hughes, Cardinal Connell said that when he wrote a letter of reference for the priest to work in San Diego, California, in 1988, he did not know about a previous abuse complaint dating back to 1974. "We fully acknowledge that the failure to have such a record was a serious deficiency," said the cardinal.

When a solicitor for the victim wrote to the Dublin archdiocese in 1995, Father Hughes was recalled from the United States. He made a private settlement of IR£56,000 ($73,000) with the victim--funded by himself, according to the archdiocese.

In the case of convicted child molester Father Ivan Payne, Cardinal Connell denied promoting him to the Dublin Regional Marriage Tribunal. The appointment was made in 1985, three years before he became archbishop, he said. Father Payne was a member of the Dublin Regional Marriage Tribunal until he was suspended in 1995. Another priest who was a member of the same tribunal is also facing allegations of child sex abuse and was suspended last May.

Father Payne was jailed for six years in 1998 for abusing altar boys and patients in Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children. He was released from jail last autumn after serving four-and-a-half years. It is estimated that his crimes have so far cost the Dublin archdiocese $400,000 in compensation and legal fees.

Cardinal Connell had lent the pedophile priest money to compensate his victims, but later told TV reporter that "diocesan funds are in no way used" for such purposes. A colleague explained:

When he said that in 1995, it was true, as diocesan policy had changed. The Payne case didn't even occur to him, as this question came at the end of an interview on a different matter. I think it's one of the biggest crosses he has had to bear, that reasonable people think Cardinal Connell told a fib.


Overall, more than 20 Catholic priests, brothers, and nuns have been convicted of sexually abusing children in Ireland in the past 10 years. The Dublin archdiocese has settled 26 civil claims and a further 26 claims are outstanding.

But the abuse was not confined to Dublin. The scandal reached into dioceses all over the country.

Bishop Philip Boyce of Raphoe denied a BBC television claim that he had been told in 1995 about child sexual allegations against Father Eugene Greene whose pedophile activities went undetected for 35 years. Father Green remained in active ministry until 1998. The 73-year-old priest was sentenced to 12 years' imprisonment in 2000 on charges of sexual assault against 26 children in Donegal between 1965 and 1982.

"I was ordained bishop in October 1995," said Boyce. "Some time later I was made aware of rumors about Father Greene. Despite my personal inquiries&I was first made aware of a child sexual abuse allegation against Father Greene in 1998 by the gardaí."

Bishop Boyce confirmed that a number of allegations had recently been made about four other priests and the police had been informed.

The Bishop of Derry, Dr. Seamus Hegarty, said abuse had occurred in homes, schools, and churches. "We all have reason to be shocked, shamed, and repelled by the abuse of children. This is a cause of the gravest regret and remorse for all of us as we try to come to terms with the breach of trust with children especially placed in priests," he said.

The Bishop of Limerick, Dr. Donal Murray, issued a statement concerning his role in the case of Father Thomas Naughton who had been the subject of complaints about his "involvement with altar boys."

These concerns "did not refer to any specific activities or individual altar boys," said the bishop. "It is a matter of the greatest regret to me that I did not manage at that time to get to the root of the problem. It is the policy of the diocese to co-operate fully with the civil authorities."

In Cork city, Father James McSweeney told worshippers at St. Oliver's church that he was sickened by the lack of leadership shown by the Church authorities. He was greeted with applause when he told parishioners: "Instead of being open, honest, and upfront, Cardinal Connell and the Church authorities in Dublin have done the exact opposite."

Victims of child abuse staged silent protests outside cathedrals in Dublin, Galway, Cork, Limerick, and Armagh in November. They handed out leaflets to the faithful arriving for Mass, urging them to consider whether they should contribute to church collections which could be used to pay for a luxury apartment for the recently released Father Ivan Payne, or on legal expenses for the convicted religious Brother James Kelly, who had been released after serving just three years of a record 36-year sentence.

Kelly (76), otherwise known as Brother Ambrose, was jailed in 1999 for sexually abusing boys in his care in the 1950s and 1960s in Galway and at the Lota children's home in Glanmire, Cork. He was released into the care of his order, the Brothers of Charity, to be taken to an unidentified institution where he is to receive therapy and counseling.


Cases like Brother Kelly's led the Irish government to pass legislation in November setting up the Residential Institutions Redress Board to compensate victims of abuse in industrial schools, reformatories, and other institutions subject to state regulation or inspection.

The religious orders agreed to a deal whereby they would give the government a limited amount of cash and land in exchange for immunity from further suits. Critics said the religious orders--which are fast disappearing in Ireland--had got off too lightly.

On November 20, the Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, met representatives of the Conference of Bishops (excluding Connell) at their request to discuss issues arising in relation to clerical sexual abuse. Later, he told the Dáil (the Irish Parliament) that he intended to establish a non-tribunal-type inquiry with statutory powers into allegations of child sex abuse by clerics. The inquiry would focus on the "systemic" aspect of child sex abuse; it would not be an attempt to investigate every single allegation as that process could take years and many people on all sides wanted "closure."

On December 20, Hussey announced that her commission had decided not to pursue its review. "We have advised the Church authorities that, as the proposed national inquiry would appear to cover largely the same ground, & it would not make sense from the commission's perspective to continue as originally envisaged," she said. A Church spokesman responded: "We accept and understand their decision."

The sex-abuse scandal has had a devastating effect on Irish Catholics. In early November, a national poll commissioned by the Bishops' Committee on Child Protection showed that more than 3 out of 4 people believed the Catholic Church's response to the sexual abuse of children by priests was inadequate. Only 42 per cent of those questioned believed that the Church would safeguard children entrusted to its care, and around 94 per cent believed the Church had been damaged as a result of clerical sex abuse. More than a third (36 per cent) said such abuse had negatively affected their religious practice, including Mass attendance and prayer.

The Irish Times, in an editorial, expressed the views of many. "Despite the sickening succession of scandals, the Church authorities have seemed incapable of putting the protection of children before the protection of the institution. Cardinal Connell's weak response to the revelations and the apparent willingness of others to hide behind a smokescreen of canon law have stretched public trust beyond breaking point.

The government cannot leave the task of imposing accountability to a Church-appointed inquiry, however well motivated. Neither can it be left to any form of private, non-statutory inquiry, lacking powers of compellability. Only a public statutory inquiry will suffice. There is but one set of laws, the laws of the state, to which all citizens owe their allegiance in a democracy.






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