Wednesday 20 March 2019

Irish children abused in a land of deference

Liz O'Donnell

IT IS difficult to overstate the importance of the Ferns Report. It is a landmark document in the context of child sexual abuse - abuse compounded in its gravity because the actors were members of the most trusted group in our society.

The victims suffered not only sexual, physical and psychological abuse, but also the betrayal and inaction of a church that placed the protection of the most vulnerable below the priority of protecting themselves.

I heard a chilling description of what these abusive clergy did to their victims as the equivalent of "eating their souls". Unlike other forms of ill-treatment, sexual abuse of children by priests, and the subsequent disbelief of their stories is uniquely destructive of the individual spirit. Given the scale and brutality as outlined in the Ferns Report, the capacity to heal and even forgive among some victims is awesome.

The report, however, is a landmark in another aspect. It will change forever the special relationship that has existed for many decades between church and state.

This cannot happen unless the old relationship ends: the unrelenting deference, which constituted relations between state and church. Only then can the State act as it should - objectively.

Nothing less is acceptable. If the church hierarchy were a cabinet, it would resign or be thrown out of office. But the church is neither democratic nor accountable.

Because the church in Ireland was the main interface with God, the Irish people and the State have shown deference personally and collectively over many decades. This is the root cause of society's failure to stop the church's systemic maladministration and dereliction of duty to protect children.

What happened in one diocese is a microcosm of the situation in all dioceses. There have been hundreds of crimes of clerical child abuse which went unpunished. Priests were transferred instead of being exposed. Priests with a propensity to offend were ordained. Bishops colluded in and covered up these matters.

The mighty church has fallen from grace because of its failure to protect children. The first response of the State must be to unequivocally state that the special relationship is no more and to take steps to demonstrate that disconnection between state and church. From now on, the State can deal with the church authorities in the same way as it would any other voluntary or state agency that provides services for children and families.

This means no longer accepting the good offices of an admittedly remorseful hierarchy, after the event. The track record is such that we cannot accept that the church will be truthful or capable of self-regulation. The late disclosure of files by the church to the Ferns Inquiry shows that the instinct for self-preservation and denial is still rife.

It also means no longer countenancing the unhealthy enmeshing of the church in the secular layers of our society, no more consultation on IVF, abortion services, stem cell research, or Ireland's support for family planning in the Third World; nor on contraception or supports for single mothers, on adoption, homosexuality, or civil marriage.

The cosy phone calls from All Hallows to Government Buildings must end.

This also means looking at the church's almost universal control of education. Our national school system was established 170 years ago and, despite the State paying the bulk of the building and running costs, the relevant church authorities privately own and control the vast majority of national schools. The bishops are patrons of 95 per cent of them (3,013).

The same institution that has been found so wanting, decides who is suitable to work in our children's schools. If our stated commitment to "taking all necessary action to protect children" is to be more than rhetoric, it is imperative that we address this issue.

Finance is also central to this issue. Central to the church's self-serving response over the years have been private financial settlements without liability, as well as confidentiality deals. If the State is carrying out audits in every diocese, investigations that could uncover scores of previously undisclosed abuse cases, they must also audit the church's wealth.

Given the nature and extent of its wrongdoing, the church should be obliged to open up its books. Such an audit is long overdue and should have taken place prior to the indemnity given to the religious orders. True to form, the church has already claimed ?100,000 for their legal costs for dealing with the Ferns Inquiry.

It is estimated that the church now faces a compensation bill of up to ?250m for clerical sex abuse resulting from existing claims and new cases set to emerge following the publication of the Ferns Report. On top of this is the ?128m already paid to victims in children's homes run by religious orders.

Meanwhile the cost to the State would be a blank cheque - the State covering every single lawsuit brought against the congregations for child abuse in reformatories and industrial schools. This is not to understate the share of responsibility the State had for some of the horrors that unfolded in those places. But in several cases the liability of the State has not been proven. So blanket indemnity was over-generous by the State. Why? All roads lead to the 'special relationship'.

The result was a bad deal for the State and a good deal for the religious orders. Initial estimates of the potential liability were in the region of ?250m. Three or four times that amount may prove closer to reality, in terms of liability to the taxpayer.

The special relationship has not served Ireland or its citizens well, and it did not serve the victims of abuse well. For example, the implication in the Ferns Report is that complaints of abuse made to the gardai were handled inadequately. Some complaints do not seem to have been recorded in any garda file or investigated in an appropriate manner, due, most probably, to a reluctance to investigate allegations against clergy.

Again the veil of deference descended. Progress has been made between the garda and the church, and this must continue.

Legislation alone will not suffice. The law must operate in a context of cool detachment. Victims, family members, friends, politicians, gardai and judges must not be deterred from speaking out and acting. I welcome the Government's intention to allow for barring orders against people, including priests, who are a risk to children and to introduce a new criminal offence of failing to protect children from injury or sexual abuse.

There is also the failure to prosecute cases. For many years, I have been baffled by the non-prosecution of child abuse cases even when validated by the Health Boards.

In some cases it was because of delay. Frequently the accused would seek to stop the prosecution on the grounds that delay in prosecution prejudiced the defendant's right to a fair trial. This device was successfully used by the notorious child rapist George Gibney, who escaped prosecution and is now living abroad. Many abusers have availed of this.

We must change the law to state that delay alone cannot be used to stop prosecution in child abuse allegations. Delay is part and parcel of child abuse. Many victims will only disclose when they are safe or adult.

The enmeshed relationship between church and state has been characteristic of Irish life since the foundation of the state. One recalls de Valera's drafts of Bunreacht na hEireann being edited, page by page, by the hierarchy.

One recalls also the many battles, mostly lost, between state and church. The pregnant women isolated and condemned from pulpits, banished to Magdalene laundries; the sweetheart deal for residential abuse; the non-extradition of Brendan Smyth; the millions paid out in private financial settlements by the Archdiocese of Dublin and perhaps others; the abortion referenda.

I recall my own mauling when as a Minister, in July 2001, I criticised the church authorities for transferring paedophile priests rather than exposing them for prosecution. Many of them went on to play leading roles in the abuse scandals in the US.

And what about the secrecy about money, the hiring of top lawyers, the hardball played on the church's behalf? And it still goes on. Witness the deafening silence of the Vatican on the Ferns Report.

It is time for the State to part company with the church. As a faith organisation it must look to rebuild - if it can - its relationship with its flock. But to follow my own logic, those are religious matters - not matters for the State.

This is an edited extract of Liz O'Donnell's speech to the Dail, a speech which she prefaced with supportive comments for priests who have "done no wrong", who, she said deserve our sympathy at this time

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss