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Report highlights fury at society's silence over clerical child-abuse

AN ambitious study of the clerical child-abuse scandals in Ireland by Amnesty International suggests that people are as angry with society as they are the State over the institutional abuse of children.

The study, commissioned by Amnesty International Ireland, finds that while 83 per cent of those polled are angry with the State, marginally more, at 84 per cent, are "angry that wider society didn't do more". More than half found the subject of the Ryan Report on institutional child abuse too overwhelming to know what to think, while one-third said they didn't know what the report said.

The national poll is part of an extensive research study commissioned by Amnesty to establish the reasons why clerical child abuse was allowed to continue unchecked for so long in Ireland.

The silence of so many Irish people emerges as a key factor, according to Amnesty's executive director Colm O'Gorman, and the poll findings suggest the public acknowledges this.

The 100,000-word document, called 'In Plain Sight', will be launched by Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald tomorrow. It includes significant new research by social historian Dr Carole Holohan based on the four inquiries into clerical sex abuse -- Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne. It will also set out how children's human rights were violated under international law.

But the apparent complicity of wider Irish society in allowing clerical and institutional abuse of children to continue for so long is expected to be one of the study's more controversial findings.

"The reports [on clerical abuse] reveal really serious failures at every level of Irish society; failures of law, of policy, of politics, of religious organisations," said Mr O'Gorman. "But they also reveal that these failures were only possible because so many of us either stayed silent or were silenced. The kind of society we are is one of our creation,

and if we are to change it for the better we must be prepared to learn from our past failures."

Amnesty's study reminds us that many of the factors are still with us -- such as a lack of accountability in State bodies responsible for child protection, and the failure of the justice system to bring to book those who knew what was going on.

Pearse Mehigan, a solicitor and contributor to the Amnesty study, says the failure to prosecute abusers, and those who facilitated and covered up the crimes, continues to be "one of the great failings of our justice system".

Mehigan, who acts for the advocacy group for clerical abuse victims, One in Four, reminds us that a law was passed in 1997 that makes it an offence to "impede the prosecution" of someone accused of an "arrestable offence". "Failure to report to the statutory authorities and the use of mental reservation to conceal crimes and information should surely result in prosecutions," he says. Yet no member of the Catholic Church or its hierarchy has been charged with this offence.

"If the criminal justice system fails to prosecute criminality on the grand scale revealed in the various reports into clerical child abuse goes unaddressed, then an environment of impunity will continue to exist," says Mehigan.

He calls for a review of the Office of Director of Public Prosecutions to establish the "number of complaints, if any, it received over the years concerning members of the clergy and the religious . . ."

Every single one of those files "should be re-opened and examined as to the reasons why individuals were not prosecuted.

"The DPP's right not to have to give a reason for decisions not to prosecute ought to be overlooked in the interests

of human rights accountability to ascertaining whether or not there were political machinations in force behind the decision-making process".

As for victims of clerical abuse who struggled to be believed, it wasn't so long ago when Andrew Madden heard parishioners praise the very priest who had sexually abused him as an altar boy. Madden, another contributor to the Amnesty report, was the first victim of clerical sex abuse to go public in 1995.

After his abuser, Fr Ivan Payne, was identified by RTE, parishioners in Sutton -- where the priest remained for 14 years after Madden's initial complaint -- were disbelieving. An elderly parishioner in Sutton told the Irish Independent: "I can't believe he did this, he was the best of priests. He married, christened and buried people and since he left he's been back to do weddings because he was so well-liked."

A 16-year-old girl said vague rumours about the priest had been circulating since the previous year: "But I don't think anyone believed them and I still find it hard to believe now." What astounded Andrew Madden was the "lack of anger at the Catholic Church from the people in Sutton for sending them a priest who had previously admitted the sexual abuse of a child".

The four reports on clerical sex abuse, one more shocking than the next, reported on crimes of the past. "The focus cannot be purely on the past, as if these reports have no relevance for Irish society now," said Mr O'Gorman. "We must consider the degree to which they reveal vital truths about the nature of our society today. The past can only become history once we have addressed it, learnt from it and made the changes necessary to ensure that we do not repeat mistakes and wrongdoing. We haven't done that yet."

Amnesty plans to hold a symposium on the findings of 'In Plain Sight' in the coming months.

Sunday Independent