Bishop says child fear has led to loss of altar servers
Some parishes in a Catholic diocese that was once described as "the most evil diocese in the world" following child sex abuse revelations now have no altar servers due to fears over the safety of young people.
The Ferns Report was published 10 years ago this month and the impact of that landmark document in the diocese is still being felt today.
It has led to an "atmosphere of suspicion" around interactions with children, said the Bishop of Ferns, Denis Brennan.
This has resulted in pilgrimages becoming adult-only affairs, altar servers becoming scarce, choirs no longer having many children and parish youth clubs dwindling.
Speaking to more than 250 people at a church conference on child protection in Trim, Co Meath last week, Bishop Brennan said Ferns, where the notorious paedophiles Fr Seán Fortune and Fr Jim Grennan served, now had a policy of "zero tolerance" on abuse.
Ferns was the first diocese in the world to be the subject of a state inquiry, accompanied by intense media publicity which culminated in Ferns being described as the "most evil diocese in the world", he explained.
In his address, 'Working with Children in our Parishes - a Ministry for Everyone', Bishop Brennan said this had resulted in "an atmosphere of suspicion and fear around our interaction with children".
"Any suggestion of children-focused activities triggered the 'what if' fear factor," he said.
Ten years down the road, the church in Ferns was beginning to realise the unintended consequences of this focus on "the mechanics of safeguarding".
"The main one is the reluctance of adults, lay and clerical, to involve themselves with children and young people. Some parishes no longer have altar servers. This is understandable but also regrettable," he said.
However, Marie Collins, a survivor of abuse by a priest in the archdiocese of Dublin and the only Irish member of the Vatican's Commission for the Protection of Minors, does not accept that having robust safeguarding protocols should prevent the church from interacting with or reaching out to young people.
Speaking from Rome, she told the Irish Independent: "Child-protection policies, properly implemented, should not curtail normal activities in the community for children or adults."
In his address, Bishop Brennan accepted that the safeguarding protocols were not an end in themselves but were a means to an end.
While these protocols sometimes give rise to fear on the part of volunteers and clergy working with children today, he emphasised that the church was now in a better place to engage again with young people "and to close the gap that has opened up in recent years between adults and children".