Abuse Reports Trigger Unwelcome Feeling of Deja Vu

By Patsy Mcgarry
Irish Times
December 1, 2011

READING SOME of the National Board for Safeguarding Children (NBSC) reports on child protection practices in six Catholic dioceses yesterday was to experience an unwelcome sense of deja vu. It was like being back in November 2009 when the Murphy report was published and we were told the handling of clerical child sex abuse allegations in the Dublin archdiocese was governed by a simple, fundamental, unforgettable principle – protection of the institution (church) uber alles.

“The commission has no doubt,” Murphy said, “that clerical child sexual abuse was covered up by the Archdiocese of Dublin and other church authorities over much of the period covered by the commission’s remit (from January 1st, 1975 to April 30th, 2004)”.

And, most damning of all: “The welfare of children, which should have been the first priority, was not even a factor to be considered in the early stages. . . . . Instead the focus was on the avoidance of scandal and the preservation of the good name, status and assets of the institution and of what the institution (church) regarded as its most important members – the priests.”

To their great credit this was acknowledged by the bishops themselves at their first meeting after the publication of the Murphy report, on December 9th, 2009. Their statement said: “We are shamed by the extent to which child sexual abuse was covered up in the Archdiocese of Dublin and recognise that this indicates a culture that was widespread in the church. The avoidance of scandal, the preservation of the reputations of individuals and of the church, took precedence over the safety and welfare of children. This should never have happened and must never be allowed to happen again. We humbly ask for forgiveness.” That phrase “was widespread in the church” has intrigued many since, for its frankness and use of the past tense.

Yesterday’s reports underline the accuracy of those observations two years ago, nowhere more so than in that for the Raphoe diocese.

The diocese has been a focus of much angst down the years over the issue of the sexual abuse of children by priests. One of Ireland’s most notorious abuser priests had free rein there from 1970 to 1982. Donegal native Fr Eugene Greene, a missionary priest with the Kiltegan Fathers, returned from Nigeria in 1965 but served in Raphoe from 1970. He was curate in Gweedore, Killybegs, Lettermacaward, Gorthahork (where between 1976 and 1981 he abused 16 boys), Glenties, Kilmacrennan and his native Annagry.

In all he abused 26 children, for which he was sentenced to 12 years in 2000 on a sample 41 charges out of approximately 100.

Bishop Seamus Hegarty, bishop of Raphoe from 1982 to 1994, has said he was unaware while bishop there of any allegations of sexual abuse against Fr Greene. Bishop Hegarty, who became Bishop of Derry in 1994, resigned last week for health reasons.

Yesterday’s NBSC report on Raphoe, covering the period from January 1st, 1975, concluded it was “clear that significant errors of judgment were made by successive bishops when responding to child abuse allegations that emerged within this diocese. Too much emphasis was placed on the situation of the accused priest and too little on the needs of their complainants.”

The “successive bishops” included Bishop Anthony McFeely, succeeded by Bishop Hegarty in 1982, and Bishop Philip Boyce, who became bishop in 1995.

It was “a matter of great regret to Bishop Boyce”, the report continued, “that his focus on victims’ needs was not greater in the past, and he now acknowledges that he has a very different appreciation of his safeguarding responsibilities as to when he first came into office”.

Bishop Boyce now joins the growing ranks of “wounded healers” among Ireland’s Catholic bishops. On St Patrick’s Day of last year it was a phrase used by the Catholic primate, Cardinal Sean Brady, to describe himself in a sermon. It followed reports that in 1975 he conducted an investigation into allegations by two teenage boys that they had been abused by Fr Brendan Smyth.

Then a canon lawyer in Kilmore diocese, the cardinal believed the teenagers, who were sworn to secrecy. He reported his conclusions to the Bishop of Kilmore, Francis McKiernan, and Smyth was not allowed minister in the diocese again. The civil authorities were told nothing and Smyth continued his abuse of children elsewhere for a further 18 years.

Responding to this disclosure on St Patrick’s Day 2010, Cardinal Brady said: “There is true freedom in humbly acknowledging – like the wounded healers Peter and Patrick – the full truth of our sinfulness.” He apologised “to all those who feel I have let them down. Looking back I am ashamed that I have not always upheld the values that I profess and believe in.”

He then took time out to reflect on whether he should resign, deciding against. No doubt, in line with that RTE spokesman of more recent weeks, he too concluded: “It is very difficult for a rolled head to learn anything.”

It would also appear to be the view of the NBSC where Bishop Boyce is concerned. They commended him “on his willingness to learn the painful lessons of the past and to apply them to the current practice in the diocese”.

Where others of the six dioceses reviewed are concerned, the board’s findings on the past record on child protection reflect the “widespread culture” pattern in the church, while current practices are found to be generally satisfactory.

The Archbishop of Tuam, Michael Neary, is praised, as is Bishop Colm O’Reilly of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, and Bishop John McAreavey of Dromore, for their implementation of child protection practices and their concern for abuse victims.

As for Derry diocese? It has no bishop to answer for the past. Bishop Hegarty resigned last week and his predecessor, Bishop Edward Daly, resigned in 1994.

The shining star of yesterday’s six reports was Kilmore diocese and its bishop Leo O’Reilly. Although it is where Brendan Smyth and his Norbertine order were based – in Co Cavan, and where Cardinal Brady conducted his 1975 canonical investigation – today, according to the board’s report, child protection practice there “is of a consistently high standard”.

“In many respects, the Diocese of Kilmore may be viewed as a model of best practice within the church in this critical area.

“To a significant extent, this is seen as a consequence of the personal commitment and diligence of Bishop O’Reilly, who demonstrated a willingness to lead others and to address safeguarding concerns when they arose. For this he should be commended.”

Credit where it is due.


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