This inquiry needs to be given more time
THANKS in part to RTE's 'Prime Time' special, 'Cardinal Secrets', in October 2002 and to the response of the Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, to that programme, the Commission of Investigation into the handling of allegations of child sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin is almost ready to start its work.
This is a very welcome, though long overdue, response to a decade of revelations of abuse by priests and cover-up by the Archdiocese of Dublin.
This Commission of Inquiry has its legislative basis in the Commissions of Investigation Act, 2004, and its terms of reference as just published by the Government are as follows:
1) To select a representative sample of complaints or allegations of clerical child sexual abuse made to the Archdiocesan and other authorities from January 1975 to May 2004 against clergy operating under the aegis of the Archdiocese of Dublin.
2) To examine and report on the nature of the response to those sample complaints or allegations on the part of the authorities, including whether there is any evidence of attempts on the part of those authorities to obstruct, prevent or interfere with the investigation of such complaints.
3) In the case of complaints or allegations being examined, to examine and report also on the nature of the response to any other complaints or allegations made against the person, including any such complaints or allegations made before January 1975.
4) To select a representative sample of cases when the Archdiocesan and other church and public and state authorities had knowledge of, or strong and clear suspicion of or reasonable concern regarding, sexual abuse involving clergy in the Archdiocese of Dublin.
5) To establish the response of the Archdiocesan and other church and public and state authorities to those sample cases.
6) To establish the levels of communication that prevailed between the Archdiocesan and the other church authorities and public and state authorities with regard to those sample complaints.
7) To examine the position in the diocese following a notification from the Minister for Health and Children that a Catholic diocese in the State may not have established the structures or may not be operating satisfactorily the procedures set out in the Report of the Irish Catholic Bishops' Advisory Committee on Child Sexual Abuse by Priests and Religious.
8) To examine the position in the diocese following a notification from the Minister for Health and Children that a Catholic diocese in the State may not be implementing satisfactorily the recommendations of the Ferns Report.
9) The commission shall conclude its investigation and submit a full and final written report to the Minister for Justice, setting out the facts established by it. The minister shall cause the report to be published as soon as possible after it is submitted to him.
These terms of reference are comprehensive and strong and the statutory powers of the Commissions of Investigation Act provide the commission with all it needs to see that no one is allowed to obstruct its work.
The commission will not investigate how every allegation made against every priest has been handled by either church, public or state authorities. Paragraph 1 requires the Commission to select a representative sample of complaints or allegations of clerical child sexual abuse.
Those of us - Colm O'Gorman, Marie Collins, Deirdre Fitzpatrick and myself - who have worked with Minister McDowell and his departmental officials have been assured that anyone wishing to make an initial statement to the commission with regard to an allegation or allegations made between January 1975 and May 2004 will be welcome to do so.
The statements may be made in writing or through the commission's legal representatives. Along with these statements, the commission will also have access to any church, public or state authorities' files as it requires.
Having a broad initial view of all allegations brought to its attention it will then select a representative sample for further investigation.
Like the Ferns inquiry, this commission is not just investigating how allegations against priests were handled by the Catholic Archdiocese but by other public and state authorities, too.
Paragraph 3 in the terms of reference is very important. It means that if the commission is investigating the response to an allegation made against a priest after January 1975 it should also examine the response to any other allegations made against the same priest, even if those allegations were made prior to January 1975, thus allowing the commission to be informed about any allegations.
However, it is most regrettable that Mr McDowell has insisted on putting an 18-month time frame on the commission's work.
It is true that the Act requires him to set a date by which the final report must be submitted, but this does not prohibit him from including in the terms of reference a commitment to extend the commission's time frame if it needs more time.
It is not for the minister or his officials to determine how long the commission will need to do its work.
I have listened to Mr McDowell and his officials tell us over the last three years how long it would take them to get the Commission of Investigations Bill through the Oireachtas, how long it would take them to draft terms of reference, how long it would take them to secure resources for this commission from the Department of Finance, how long it would take them to find a chairperson and other staff, how long it would take them to secure accommodation from the OPW, and on every occasion they got it wrong.
If they can't determine accurately how long it will take to do their own jobs, how well placed are they to say how long the commission will need to do its job?
They have not met any of their own timeframes in setting up this Commission yet they are inappropriately confident in determining how much time is needed for the Commission to do its work. We do not know what the political landscape will look like in 18 months time and it is less than satisfactory that this Commission is not guaranteed all the time may need to do its work.
In the Ferns Inquiry terms of reference it states very clearly that in the event of the inquiry not producing a final report within 12 months, it will publish an interim report and indicate a date for the Inquiry's final report. Very clearly the Inquiry was left to determine for itself how long it considered it needed to complete its work and it is a great pity that the minister and his officials did not learn from the Ferns experience despite promising to do so all the way through.
Now we are left to hope that the timeframe does not in any way limit the effectiveness of the inquiry and, given that what we are ultimately about is enhancing standards of child protection in this country, it is unfortunate that this loophole has been left in place.
Andrew Madden is Author of Altar Boy, A Story of Life After Abuse.