Thursday 13 December 2018

Vatican high-flyer is stepping aside but still refuses to quit

As Bishop Magee clings to his title, it is clear the cleric has not yet faced up to his failings, writes Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Last night, Bishop John Magee announced what many believe to be the first step in the beginning of the end of his controversial tenure in Cloyne. He is to step aside from his duties as bishop to concentrate on what now promises to be a damaging commission of inquiry into the manner in which his diocese dealt with allegations of clerical sex abuse.

It wasn't the resignation that various child-protection agencies had demanded; but it was as much as can be hoped for from a bishop who has been accused of a lofty detachment from his flock.

Bishop Magee was a high-flyer perhaps more renowned for his mastery of ecclesiastical protocol and procedure than his pastoral talents. The son of a prosperous Newry dairy farmer, he was ordained in Rome in 1962 and began a rapid ascent to the higher echelons of the Vatican.

He was private secretary to three popes in succession, Paul VI, John Paul and John Paul II, accompanying the latter on his visit to Ireland in 1979. After that, he became Master of Pontifical Ceremonies, over-seeing the elaborate and meticulous rituals surrounding the Pope's affairs. One prelate told the Sunday Independent recently that the role suited him.

"There is enormous protocol. He would be in his element with that. He was very, very good at it," he said.

It was a surprise to his Irish colleagues, then, when this Vatican success story was dispatched back to Ireland as Bishop of Cloyne, a large rural diocese in Cork, in 1987.

Bishop Magee has spoken about the shame of clerical child abuse many times; he has acknowledged the need for the "truth to be told" and, indeed, for a church audit to establish an independent audit of diocesan files to discover the full truth about how complaints were dealt with it.

It is ironic, then, that Bishop Magee's current troubles stem from the failings of his own diocese, exposed in reports from the Catholic Church's National Board for Safeguarding Children and the Health Services Executive (HSE).

The hierarchy's newly formed child protection body, the National Board for Safeguarding Children, took an interest in Cloyne on foot of a complaint passed on to it from the Department of Health last year.

In short, a young man came to Bishop Magee in 2004 to complain that a priest had sexually abused him when he was a boy. He wasn't ready to name his abuser -- "Fr A" -- until the following year.

Four months passed before Bishop Magee confronted the priest, who admitted his guilt and resigned. Another two months passed before the diocese informed gardai, and only then at the victim's request. Even then, the diocese refused to name the priest to gardai. Giving the self-confessed abuser such protection was "normal practice" in the diocese, a report later found.

National Board for Child Protection chief executive Ian Elliot was unimpressed with the initial levels of co-operation offered by the diocese. When Mr Elliot first met Bishop Magee, he received only limited files on the case. When he learnt of complaints against another priest in the diocese, he demanded the files, and got them. Mr Elliot was also struck by the glaring absence of references to victims in the files, or to the need to protect vulnerable children.

He said it was clear from diocesan papers that the policy of the diocese was to give "minimal" information to gardai: there was an instruction that details of past complaints against one particular priest were not to be volunteered.

There was more. In 2007, the Diocese of Cloyne told the HSE that it had complied with church guidelines by informing gardai and health authorities of all complaints. The claims were false. In January, a HSE report on clerical sex abuse found that Cloyne had breached those guidelines.

Minister for Children Barry Andrews suggested the bishop should consider his position, and asked a commission of inquiry into clerical sex abuse in Dublin to investigate the diocese.

Among the cases that it may look at is that of a young girl who was abused by a priest. Her parents recalled the peculiar insensitivity of the bishop on Marian Finucane's RTE radio show in January.

The couple, known only as Gerard and Mary to protect their daughter's identity, recounted their meeting with Bishop Magee to get the priest "out of circulation".

"When we mentioned about [the priest], the number one reaction was: 'Are ye looking for money?' That was the very first time we met him, when we said why we were there. His first question was 'Are ye looking for money?'"

The priest, who was never charged, continues to be visible in the community, they said, attending local race meetings and other events.

"Who could trust our friend in Cobh now to do the right thing . . . His tenure is flawed," said Gerard.

His refusal to resign is a further signal that Bishop Magee has yet to acknowledge fully those failings.