Secrecy Continues If the Report Is Not Published, Writes Maeve Lewis

One in Four

December 19, 2008

Once again we have awoken to news of yet another chapter in the saga of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.

Minister for Youth and Children Barry Andrews, has refused to publish a report by the Church’s National Board for safeguarding Children regarding the way in which allegations of sexual abuse by priests in the Diocese of Cloyne have been handled. Under intense public pressure he later agreed to publish a second, more recent report by the HSE. What are we to think?

Since the mid-1990s, Irish people have been shocked by revelations of widespread clerical sexual abuse. It has been very difficult to accept that Church authorities have been responsible in many cases for covering up allegations, allowing abuse of children to continue. There are well documented instances where bishops and priests acted to protect the church rather than vulnerable children.

The publication of the Ferns Report in 2005 seemed to signal a new era of openness in the Church. The report made devastating reading, describing the sexual abuse of children by at least 21 priest, and the failure of two bishops to take appropriate action.

It found that: Bishops placed the interests of the Church ahead of children whose protection and safety should at all times be a priority.”

However, the recommendations of the report gave clear guidelines to Church authorities as to how allegations of abuse should be handled in the future. This included reporting of allegations to the civil authorities, and the establishment of Inter Agency Review Groups between the Church, the HSE and the gardai in each diocese. The Ferns Report appeared to promise the past mistakes would not be repeated.

Concerns regarding the handling of allegations of sexual abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese led to the setting up of a commission of inquiry which is due to report to the Government in early 2009. Again this would seem to indicate that the Catholic Church is openly admitting to failure in the past, and finding new ways to respond to sexual offenders within the priesthood.

And at the time of the publication of the Ferns Report, the Church seemed to embrace its recommendations. Detailed child protection guidelines, Our Children. Our Church, were published in 2005. They have recently been withdrawn, and new protocalls are promised for 2009.

One of the problems facing the Church authorities is that many of the allegations that are brought to their attention are historic in nature, referring to incidents that took place many years before. It is often very hard to investigate such allegations, and even more difficult to produce the quality of evidence required for a criminal conviction.

Nonetheless, some dioceses have put in place clear procedures which are activated when a new case emerges. In these diocese, a person making a disclosure can be assured of being met respectfully and compassionately by diocesan personnel. The allegation is passed on to the civil authorities as a matter of course and the priest against whom the allegation has been investigated.

In other dioceses however. This is not the case. At One in four we regularly meet people who are met with suspicion when they attempt to disclose their experiences to the Church authorities, and where a legalistic, adversarial response seems to be the default position. When we consider the courage that is required to make a disclosure of sexual abuse, this is simply unacceptable.

Sexual abuse in childhood is probably the most under-reported crime. If we are serious about child protection, every effort should be made to facilitate victims to disclose. The Ferns Report recommended “the creation of an open informed environment that will encourage a willingness to report promptly inappropriate sexual behaviour towards children “

Instead, in the case of Cloyne, we are again left with suspicion and fear as to how allegations were handled. This will certainly act as a deterrent t people who experienced sexual abuse coming forward. It also leaves us wondering if priests who are a risk to children are still in ministry in the diocese.

At the core of this issue is the lack of a consistent, transparent response to allegations of sexual violence across all the Catholic dioceses. Each bishop is autonomous, and has the discretion to interpret Catholic church policy as he sees fit. As a result, a person who has been sexually abused cannot be confident that a disclosure will be men in an appropriate way, and that an affective intervention will be made.

Despite all of the recommendations of the Ferns Report , and the positive response of some dioceses, it is clear that the church is incapable of monitoring its own child protection procedures robustly. It is time that the state intervened and insisted on an annual public audit of compliance across each diocese.

The refusal to open to public scrutiny the events in the Diocese of Cloyne can only undermine confidence in our child protection, every effort procedures. It will continue the culture of secrecy in which sexual abuse flourished.

Minster, publish the original report. It is the only thing to do.

Maeve Lewis is chief executive of One in Four



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