The Position of Bishop Magee

Irish Times
December 24, 2008

CHRISTMAS IS a time for goodwill. It is also a time for celebrating and renewing a society's commitment to children. Sadly, in the case of the Bishop of Cloyne, John Magee, these two imperatives are at odds with each other. Distasteful as it is to call for the resignation of a senior and distinguished churchman during one of the church's great festivals, Bishop Magee's position is not tenable.

His complete mishandling of two cases of alleged abuse by priests in his diocese is compounded by his apparent lack of understanding of the gravity of his failure. He is undoubtedly sincere in his stated wish to restore public confidence in the child protection procedures of his diocese. The most effective way for him to fulfil that wish is to leave office with grace and dignity, but also with due promptness.

The bishop's failings, as disclosed in the excellent report of the head of the church's own National Board for Safeguarding Children, Ian Elliott, are particularly egregious because they span the period in which child abuse scandals came to the fore and from which lessons were supposedly learned. The two cases examined by Mr Elliott are not small, isolated mistakes, but form a pattern of dreadful inaction over a period of more than a decade.

In one case, the bishop was first informed of allegations of abuse in 1995. Further complaints against the same priest emerged in 1996 and 1997. The priest continued to work as a career guidance teacher in a convent school until early 1998. Even after this date, he was allowed to wear full priestly garb. In 2006, another very serious allegation of sexual abuse of a young girl was made against him. A Garda inquiry began, but Mr Elliott concluded that "the policy of the diocese in their contacts with the gardaí was to give 'minimal' information. In particular, it is indicated that no information was to be volunteered in respect of any previous complaints involving this priest".

In the case of the other alleged abuser, whose role in the diocese involved frequent contact with teenagers, Mr Elliott noted that, throughout Bishop Magee's papers, "what are glaringly absent are any references to the need to protect vulnerable young people... Current risk to young people is not referred to at all". In both cases, the report found an overwhelming focus on the needs of the alleged abuser, rather than on those of the children of the diocese.

This attitude is utterly unacceptable. By refusing to remove alleged abusers from contact with children and to co-operate whole-heartedly with Garda inquiries, Bishop Magee failed in one of his most basic duties. By ignoring the admirable procedures put in place after the scandals of the 1990s, he raised serious doubts about what Archbishop Diarmuid Martin yesterday called "the coherence and consistency of approach" in the church as a whole. His apparent reluctance to publish Mr Elliott's report, which was completed last June and released only after considerable public and political pressure, suggests that he does not grasp the full import of that failure, even now. It is time for Bishop Magee to show moral leadership, accept responsibility and allow a successor to heal a most profound breach of trust.


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