Tuesday 23 July 2019

Pope Francis’ visit to Ireland saw a spike in allegations of clerical abuse

Pope Francis at the Phoenix Park in Dublin.
Pope Francis at the Phoenix Park in Dublin.
Pope Francis. Picture: Gerry Mooney
Pope Francis spoke to the comedian about sexuality and humanity (Danny Lawson/PA)
Pope Francis at the Festival of Families in Croke Park. Photo: Tony Gavin

Sarah Mac Donald

POPE Francis’ visit to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families last August saw a spike in allegations of clerical abuse, the Catholic Church’s safeguarding watchdog has revealed.

On Tuesday, the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland (NBSCCCI) published its annual report, which showed 143 new allegations of abuse were received over the 12 months from March 2018.

That was a rise of approximately 6pc, from the 135 allegations received over the previous year.

However, there was an overall decrease - by 18.5pc - in allegations relating to child sexual abuse, down to 88 from 108 in the previous year. The type of abuse was not specified by the Church authority in 35 of the notifications, while 17 notifications concerned physical abuse of a child.

The NBSCCCI annual report said that while a fall-off in notifications is usual during the holiday months of the summer, nine allegations were made in August 2018; 18 in September; 18 in October and 18 more in November following the World Meeting of Families and the papal visit.

Ahead of Pope Francis’ arrival in Ireland, a US Grand Jury published its 900-page report on clerical sexual abuse in Pennsylvania at the end of July 2018 showing that 300 priests had abused up to 1,000 children. It sparked outrage and focused the media attention on the issue as Ireland prepared to welcome the pontiff.

According to the NBSCCCI, clerical abuse became “an overarching issue” for the week of the World Meeting of Families and “a key focus of the Pope’s schedule and addresses to the people of Ireland”. They added that it was probable that the increase in notifications was the result of people making reports to Church authorities motivated by the increased awareness of clerical child abuse.

“If we needed a reminder that complacency is misplaced and that we could let our guard down, we received it during the World Meeting of Families,” NBSCCCI CEO Teresa Devlin said.

Of the 143 allegations notified to the NBSCCCI over the past year, 82 (57pc) related to diocesan clergy, and 61 (43pc) related to members of religious congregations, including three from female congregations.

Ten of the 19 notifications made in June 2018 relate to a single diocese which was the subject of intense media coverage in the spring of that year. This led to a complete review of all cases within that diocese, as well as to a police investigation. A further 28 allegations were notified in a single batch including concerns not previously shared with the National Office.

The sharing of concerns is one of the challenges the NBSCCCI is grappling with under new GDPR rules.

According to the National Board, the Data Protection Act 2018 has affected the quality and amount of information that Church authorities notify to the National Office.

Under GDPR, someone against whom an allegation has been made but who has not been convicted cannot have information shared about them. According to the National Board, their allegations database consequently has gaps and it introduces the risk of double counting.

Independent.ie understands that the National Board is involved in ongoing discussions with the Data Protection Commissioner to address these issues which may require a change in legislation or additional statutory powers.

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