| 16.3°C Dublin

Maurice Hayes: Canon law has as much validity as golf club rules


At a time when bishops and churchmen were protesting their commitment to the new regime, the whole thing was being rubbished by the Vatican

At a time when bishops and churchmen were protesting their commitment to the new regime, the whole thing was being rubbished by the Vatican

At a time when bishops and churchmen were protesting their commitment to the new regime, the whole thing was being rubbished by the Vatican

'Cloyne Report: Confirmation that Church structures have been proved to be effective'

That is a headline you would search long and hard for in the Irish papers and fail to find -- yet it is the quite remarkable claim made by Cardinal Sean Brady in a television interview.

It can only amplify the cry of pain of the parent of a deceased victim of clerical child abuse in the diocese of Cloyne: "They still don't get it."

Equally, the 'bad apple' defence trotted out by institutions in denial of systemic failure and culpability falls flat against the cry of the same father on radio: "But what were all the good guys doing?"

Maintaining a 'stony silence', it seems in the words of the report. Another example, if one were needed, of the truism that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

The greater horror of the report, as the ministers have so robustly pointed out, is that it is contemporaneous.

It is not dealing with historic abuse by long-dead clerics, or ill-treatment in institutions which have long been closed.

The report discloses that 13 years after the introduction of a scheme for the protection of children, it was not being implemented in the diocese of Cloyne, and we have only the word of the church authorities, based on a box-ticking self-audit, that the position is better in other dioceses.

However the most disturbing, even scandalous, aspect of the whole affair is the attitude of the Vatican and the Papal Nuncio.

At a time when bishops and churchmen were protesting their commitment to the new regime (and one accepts that most of them did so in good faith, if without full understanding of the issues involved) the whole thing was being rubbished by the Vatican as ineffective and doubtful in canon law -- a mere 'study document'.

It was, as the report has stated, a charter for the clerical backwoodsmen and a direct challenge to the civil authorities.

It is this, more than anything, that convinces that the church cannot be trusted to heal itself, and that correction and enforcement of standards must be put on a statutory basis.

It is time, too, for the State to assert that in an elective democracy, canon law has no more validity than the rules of a golf-club (and some of them are dodgy enough).

Not for the first time Ms Justice Murphy has done the State, the children -- and, if they only knew it, the church -- a very great service.

She may even have convinced Alan Shatter that such judges are worth every euro we pay them.

That she has completed her task so expeditiously and reported in such unequivocal terms reflects the practice she has had in dealing with the Dublin diocese and her ability to detect and counter clerical evasion and obstruction.

What we find is the same dreary pattern of the abuse of children, dereliction of duty by those charged with their protection, cover-up and loss of records, the criminal law ignored in deference to canon law and the interests of the institution elevated above those of the children.

Of all the abuses of power, the greatest is to protect the institution at the expense of the vulnerable children it is meant to serve.

The bishops had the odd practice of producing two reports on the same incident -- one for the record and the other for Rome, which flies in the face of every rule of corporate governance, and the "pastoral care" approach that was adopted in place of proper investigation seemed to provide only for the pastors, leaving the sheep to go hang.

It would be heroic to assume that Cloyne was the only diocese with problems, or where implementation of the guidelines was patchy.

The so-called audits are well behind schedule and are based on self-assessment with poor validation, Archbishop Martin's reforming zeal has been met with hostility in Dublin and more widely, and the much-vaunted papal visitations to four dioceses seem to have sunk without trace.

The national board, despite the heroic presence of Ian Elliott, is an agency of the church, without powers of discovery or enforcement, and ultimate power lies in the hands of traditionalists steeped in a culture which sees nothing wrong in extracting oaths of secrecy from abused children.

In the circumstances, the strength of the responses from Alan Shatter and Frances Fitzgerald is to be welcomed.

Public opinion requires no less than that the child protection guidelines be made statutory with criminal sanctions, and that they be enforced and effectively policed.

However, ministers may find that legislation is the easy bit. Laws without enforcement are worse than useless, and enforcement requires an inspectorate with manpower and resources.

Both are in short supply when there are cuts in public expenditure and social workers are being laid off, but this is the challenge that the ministers must meet.

In a long career of evading responsibility for the care of children, Bishop John Magee's last shameful dereliction of duty has been his failure to face the public, his priests and in particular the victims and their parents.

There is inscribed on a plinth in Comber, the dying cry of a general in some forgotten colonial war as he tries to rally the depleted but still gallant South Down Militia. It says: "One more shot for the honour of Down." He would not have got it from John Magee.

Irish Independent