Saturday 25 October 2014

Long history of State's failure to act on child abuse

CONOR CRUISE O'BRIEN

Published 13/01/2001 | 00:11

I have been reading with some care the current number of Studies, featuring 'Scandals in the Church: the Irish Response'. 'Scandals in the Church' consists of an Editorial followed by six articles, all interesting but of uneven merit.

The impressive Editorial sets out the reasons which led the Editor to devote so much attention to the painful subject.

Having considered the argument that the problem may have been exaggerated, the Editorial goes on: "However, what has angered people as much as the sexual abuse itself is the manner in which the Bishops and religious superiors dealt with the issue and their attitudes towards the activity itself that seemed to take no cognizance of the damage that physical and sexual abuse inflicted on the victim. It was as if the abuser was the person who sustained damage because he sinned by indulging in illicit sexual pleasure. This theology did not help the Church to respond adequately to the situation as it paid too much attention to the impact of sin on the sinner and too little to the damage done to the person sinned against."

As it happens, the page opposite this hard-hitting Editorial is occupied by a list of Patrons of Studies. The list is headed by the name of the Most Reverend Dr Desmond O'Connell, Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland. No doubt the Primate will read this issue of Studies with particularly close attention.

The articles that follow are all thoughtful and worth reading. Some of them-notably the first in order, 'Speaking of Scandal' by John Dardis S.J. seemed to me more preoccupied with damage limitation for the Church in the media than with issues of substance. But this must have had to do with Father Dardis's professional role which has been that of Communications Director of the Dublin Archdiocese since 1995. On January 1st last he became European Regional Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service. I imagine his new role may well be more congenial to him than his old role was. I hope this may be the case. Damage-limitation on behalf of the Catholic Church in Ireland, over sex abuse by priests, over the last five years must have been weary work.

By far the most important article in the series is the last on this subject, 'The Suppression of the Carrigan Report: A Historical Perspective on Child Abuse'. This reveals, for the first time to the general public, momentous information about child abuse which was made known at the time to two Governments, never published by one of them and deliberately suppressed by the second, with the silent acquiescence of the first, and of a Committee of the Dail.

More than seventy years ago, on June 17th, 1930, a Committee was appointed by the Cosgrave-led Government to consider if the Criminal Law Amendment Acts of 1880 and 1885 required amendment. The Committee was headed by William Carrigan K.C. and the membership was distinguished and well-balanced.

The Carrigan Committee reported on 20th August, 1931. Its most startling finding, based on the evidence of the Commissioner of the Civic Guard, was as follows: "That there was an alarming amount of sexual crime increasing yearly, a feature of which was the large number of cases of criminal interference with girls and children from 16 years downwards, including many cases of children under 10 years. That the police estimated that not 15pc of such cases were prosecuted."

The Report also pointed to the fact that procedures were protracted and put 'a strain upon the child under which not infrequently she or he breaks down and the prosecution fails or must be abandoned.'

The Carrigan Report was circulated to the [Cosgrave] Government on 2nd December, 1931. However, the Report was accompanied by a memorandum from the Department of Justice to the effect that 'it might not be wise to give currency to the damaging allegations made in Carrigan regarding the standard of morality in the country'. The Department of Justice strongly advised against the publication of the Carrigan Report. Shortly after this, the Cosgrave Government fell without having reached any substantive decision on the matter.

In the new Government, headed by Eamon de Valera, James Geoghegan was appointed Minister for Justice. He renewed his predecessor's objections and was even more cutting in his comments on Carrigan. Where Carrigan had argued that the state of the law in Great Britain conferred protection on 'young reprobates' the Minister for Justice countered: "The wording of this remark casts doubts on the judicial temper of the authors. The defenders of the proviso might say 'it confers a measure of protection on unsophisticated young men against the wiles of designing hussies'. Either remark is vituperative and unhelpful. The parties may be "reprobates" or "hussies" or both, but it is certain that the blame is not invariably on one side."

Without reaching any substantive decision on publication or non-publication of Carrigan, the Fianna Fail Government set up an all-party Committee to consider on a 'strictly confidential' basis what action should be taken in the light of Carrigan. No action was ever taken.

Finola Kennedy's article concludes with the words: "Tantalising questions present themselves about the way in which the Corrigan Report was dealt with by de Valera (and indeed Cosgrave - CCO'B), his Ministers and by key civil servants both regarding the decision not to publish, and the decision not to follow its recommendations.

To pose just one specific question if Corrigan had been debated in public would public awareness of the prevalence of child sexual abuse have ensured that the relevant authorities took appropriate action? If , as Bentham said, "publicity is the soul of justice" perhaps the answer to that question is in the affirmative.

Amen to that. In fact, it was the conviction in Northern Ireland of a Catholic priest, Brendan Smyth, found guilty of sexual abuse, that led to a great upsurge in the Republic of indignation at sexual abuse of children and a multitude of subsequent prosecutions and convictions. Without the conviction in Northern Ireland, would the authorities in the Republic ever have moved against sex-abusers? There is reason to doubt that they would.

Even after Brendan Smyth's conviction in Northern Ireland, and later his release and return to the Republic, the Department of Justice was very slow to consider the case against him. It was only because of revulsion among the public that is among voters that politicians successfully pressed for his trial, and that a spate of other successful prosecutions followed.

So Bentham was right after all when he said "publicity is the soul of justice." But in this case there was a lapse of about half a century before the misdeeds noted by the Carrigan Committee began at last to be pursued and punished.

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