Church Needs to Learn from Its Past Mistakes

By David Quinn
Irish Independent

December 22, 2008

The diocese handled these complaints more or less as they would have in 1988

The Bishop of Cloyne, John Magee, can consider himself a very lucky man that the economy and the banking scandals are deflecting public attention away from his appalling management of two clerical sex abuse allegations recently brought to his attention.

Were it not for this fact, the pressure on him to resign would be almost irresistible. As it is, the pressure was sufficient to force him to make public a report into his handling of the two allegations conducted by the Church's National Board for Safeguarding Children (NBSC). The report makes for extremely damning reading. It catalogues how the diocese failed to cooperate properly with the board.

It states that the diocese accepts "that 'lacunae' existed in their child protection policies and practice", and it recognises "the need to ensure that all information relating to an allegation of abuse is conveyed to the appropriate authorities fully and in a timely way", and that this "has not happened in these two cases".

This is devastating. But there is more. The report says: "Any meetings that were convened by the diocese, such as the Child Protection Management Committee, are apparently focused on the needs of the accused priest. There is no documentary evidence that the ongoing risk to vulnerable children was discussed or considered at any time by them."

It says that actions undertaken on behalf of the bishop were "inappropriately delayed and were minimal in content", and, most damning of all, that "children have been placed at risk of harm within the Diocese of Cloyne through the inability of that diocese to respond appropriately to the information that came to it regarding child protection concerns involving the clergy".

Based on this report, it is no wonder that Labour TD Sean Sherlock has said that Bishop Magee must seriously consider his position.

In the next few months two reports dealing with abuse by the clergy are to be published. One is the inquiry into abuse in the Dublin archdiocese, while the second is the investigation of the Ryan Commission into abuse that occurred in industrial schools and other children's homes.

These reports will remind the public once again of the scandals which have done such immense harm to the standing of the Catholic Church in Irish society.

In response to those scandals, the Church has put in place very strict child protection procedures overseen nationally by the NBSC, which is headed by Ian Elliott, a Northern Presbyterian. The office is independent of the Church.

The existence of this office, and others like it at diocesan level, has allowed the Church to say it has learned its lesson and that the old way of responding to allegations of abuse belongs to the past.

That response was characterised by an over-reliance on the advice of lawyers, a tendency to protect the accused priest rather than the victim, a desire to protect the reputation of the Church, and an over-reliance on the advice of therapists who would often declare a clerical sex offender 'cured', at which point he would be put back into ministry, only to abuse yet more young people.

But the procedures are only as good as those who implement them and a lot depends on who has been appointed at diocesan level, and how determined the bishop is to see that procedures are properly adhered to. If they are not properly implemented, they might as well not exist.

The reason the Cloyne report is so damaging is that it shows many of the old reflexes are still in place, especially the tendency to put the interests of priests ahead of those of the victims. The diocese handled these latest complaints more or less as they would have been handled in 1988, rather than 2008.

Bishop John Magee probably believes that the two priests accused of child abuse are innocent. That is beside the point. The purpose of the current procedures is to ensure that allegations of abuse are properly dealt with. The process must be allowed to take its course whether it results in a finding against the accused priest(s) or not.

Now people will wonder how serious the Church has really become about child abuse and whether it has really learned anything from the past. The answer is that some parts of it have, for example the Dublin archdiocese, while other parts have not, for example Cloyne diocese, although it now says it has finally learnt it lesson.

The one bright spot to emerge from all this is that the national child protection office has shown that it really is independent and that it is willing to get tough, even with bishops. That does go some considerable way towards restoring confidence.

But what would restore even more confidence is the certain knowledge that senior Church leaders will resign when it has been shown that they have not properly followed the new child protection procedures.

In the light of the Cloyne report, Bishop Magee should remain in office only if he can provide far more convincing reasons for doing so than he has given to date.



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