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Emer O'Kelly: An obstinate church remains in darkness

When I was about 12, I was sitting on a crowded bus not paying too much attention, when a voice said: "Sorry, excuse me." It was a pleasant looking man wearing a dog collar.

He was gesturing to my skirt which was spread a bit wide. "Sorry, Father," I apologised and tucked it in. "That's okay," he said. "I just didn't want to crush it." Then, as he sat down, he smiled and said, "Actually, it's Rector." And he buried himself in his newspaper.

Back home, I was repeating my embarrassment at my assumption. A friend of my mother's was there, a retired hospital matron who had spent her working life in England.

She nodded knowingly, "Of course," she said through pursed lips. "Up to no good. A priest would have sat somewhere else." The old bag is long dead, but I can't help wondering how she would have dealt with the scandals in the Catholic Church which have destroyed thousands of lives. Sadly, I think I know.

Every time some ghastly crime or series of crimes of child rape and molestation by clergy has been revealed in the past 20 and more years, people like her have determinedly turned up for 10am Mass the following morning, and two Masses on a Sunday, to show solidarity with the criminals who had been uncovered. Had there been a culture of television door-stepping in her day, that woman would have said what we've all heard so often: "It's a witch-hunt; a minority so small that it doesn't even feature."

They were church members (sadly, most of them women) who had never tried to comfort a child crying for fear of the dark. Such childhood fears, if these people had children, were nonsense, to be treated with the contempt they deserved.

"Say your prayers, and go to sleep." And the door closed. There was no comfort other than the church. And when the nightmares were about what the church's ministers on Earth had done? If children revealed those dark deeds, they were beaten, accused of lies, called names like "the spawn of the devil".

There have been reports compiled with solemn deliberation and with what should be the awesome authority of the legal system on which the country relies to avoid sinking into anarchy (Ryan, Murphy).

The reports have evoked outrage that has quickly died away when the subjects of the report have expressed "deep sorrow" and added the rider that "things are different now".

Now we know about the damage, they say, now we have protocols which will be followed and will ensure the safety of the nation's precious children. Solemn promises of amendment, which even the most outraged and despairing members of the church decide to believe.

Until the next time.

And last week we had another next time; another set of apologies, another set of fingers pointing to all-encompassing protocols which will ensure the safety of children.

Except that these audits of how the abuse of children was handled by church authorities in three religious orders and four dioceses from the Seventies to as late as the Nineties, and in one case as late as last year, show that the church is still in the spiritual dark as to how its authority figures have damaged children. The audits were carried out by a team led by Ian Elliott, the CEO of the church's own Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church, and were aimed at setting people's minds at rest by highlighting how the church has put protection and reparation above its own tattered reputation.

And many people, weary of the scandals in their church, suspended judgement, or even relaxed in their minds, believing that at last the church would be proved to have accepted its responsibilities.

Instead, Elliott's auditors found yet another litany of failures that included the authorities who run some of our supposedly most prestigious boys' schools. They found that even after the church introduced an apparently binding protocol in the Nineties that undertook to report allegations of abuse to the civil authorities, such reporting was dilatory, delayed, and sometimes did not happen. Indeed the numbers of failures involved could lead an observer to suppose that the whole protocol issue might even be another blind to protect church authorities.

There was much outrage expressed last week concerning remarks (made after the audits were published) by the Bishop of Clonfert, John Kirby. He personally moved two priests from parish to parish in the Nineties to protect them . . . and the church. And he claimed that he didn't then realise the "sinister and recidivist nature" of child abuse, and that to him it represented a "friendship that crossed the boundary line".

At the most lenient end of the scale, it could be said that the man is an idiot.

But he was only saying what many of his brother bishops have said in less damaging words in the past. The church authorities have been culpably obstinate in refusing to take on board the seriousness of its crimes, and have had to be dragged screaming into taking even limited action against them.

And they still have not, individually or collectively, given a satisfactory answer to their failures in criminal law: their constant pleading of ignorance takes no account of the fact that the sexual molestation of children is a serious crime.

That John Kirby, who like most of his brother bishops holds a doctorate in moral theology, could say what he said calls into question the kind of man who was and is called to the Catholic priesthood. And it calls into question the thinking of men who advance to leading positions of authority in the church.

A shaken Ian Elliott was interviewed widely during the week concerning his audits. He was honourably frank in his horror and disappointment. But little attention was paid to one item in his report, in which he said that we must "beware of damage to priests who are forced to step down while being investigated after allegations of abuse have been made against them". And the report pointed to the cases of three priests reinstated after such allegations were found to be untrue.

That, according to the Elliott report, "highlights whether it's just and fair to force suspension".

Even Ian Elliott, after all he found: let's be just and fair to the priests under suspicion. John Kirby thought he was being just and fair to priests when he moved them round in the Nineties.

Sunday Independent