Wednesday 11 December 2019

Only legal sanctions can change culture of church

HAS the Catholic Church met its match in our new Government? It's too early to say, but it certainly sounded as if a new era had dawned yesterday in the protecting of children from clerical sexual abuse.

We've heard a decade-and-a-half of shocking revelations about what Irish children have endured at the hands of Catholic priests. Every report from Ferns to Murphy would appear, at that time, to have been the straw that broke the camel's back. But then you'd hear that the bishops were up to their old tricks of obfuscation and refusal. The cat and mouse games simply continued. But as of yesterday it would seem that things are going to change.

Cabinet ministers Alan Shatter and Frances Fitzgerald made it clear that the old days of reports being published -- all and sundry expecting shock and horror, words of sympathy being expressed to the victims, and then words of assurance from the church authorities (which would subsequently prove to be empty) -- are over.

In fact, if you're to pick a minister to take on these guys it would be Shatter. It was clear from his tone yesterday that he's not in the mood for any more messing around from these men of the cloth, so many of whom still clearly believe they are above the law of the land.

It may be the best thing ever that we have a Justice Minister handling this issue who is neither a Catholic, nor a Protestant (who might be overly concerned about Catholic sensibilities) but someone of another religion. Jewish as it happens.

Mr Shatter said a lot yesterday that was very welcome, not least his plans to make it a criminal offence not to report the sexual abuse of a child or vulnerable adult.

But he also made that extremely important point, which sometimes gets lost in the mix, that sexual abuse is one of the greatest wrongs that can be done by one human being to another.

In fairness to Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald, she showed equal determination that change is on the way and that the days of voluntary compliance are over when it comes to child protection in Ireland.

The Cloyne Report means the church's hall of shame featuring priests and their abuse and rape of children requires yet another extension. Further space will be required if we have similar examinations of other dioceses, particularly Limerick and Raphoe.

Over years of journalistic coverage of clerical abuse, from Brendan Smyth, to Sean Fortune, to Ivan Payne, and others, and the bishops who were their superiors, you had to wonder about the most basic moral values of these men who had entered the religious life swearing an oath to God and pledging to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ.

When a paedophile abuses a child it is an abhorrent act. It is an utterly appalling act but it is also somewhat explainable given their proclivities, whether you think of those as a perversion, a sickness, a product of circumstance, or just simply evil.

We know that they will lie, cheat and bully in order to be able to continue to abuse and escape capture. They are without conscience and exceptionally difficult to "cure".

It's horrible to contemplate, but you know where you stand with abusers. A responsible society must do everything possible to stop them from achieving their aim of raping children.

For the bishops, you may argue, there is no such explanation, or condition, to explain their action, or lack thereof. There is, though, their twisted logic that it was and is, far more important to protect the institution of the church than to protect children.

AS with the reports that went before it, the Cloyne Report shows a remarkable consistency on the part of the church from the response on the ground right the way up to the Vatican. In fact, the report found the Vatican "entirely unhelpful" to any bishop who wanted to implement procedures for dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse in the Irish Catholic Church.

It may be consistent but it remains quite extraordinary, not least because of how contemporary it all is. We can't console ourselves that this all happened in the dark days of the 1950s because the cover-up was continuing as recently as 2009.

This is another report into clerical sexual abuse that does indeed shock and horrify everyone.

While the church has been consistent, it can also be said the State has been fairly so as well, in uttering many words, but falling short in terms of action or legislation, or putting it up to the church authorities.

As with a number of other key areas in Irish life, it is remarkable how few people have ended up in prison as a result of what has gone on regarding these scandals.

We will really descend to the element of farce if we end up having another such diocesan report without the church having been forced into change through the introduction of legislation.

That phrase "culture eats strategy for breakfast" perfectly sums up how we can have countless strategies for dealing with child abuse, but they are worthless until the Catholic Church is legally forced into a change of culture.

Irish Independent

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