Thursday 18 July 2019

Colum Kenny: The great and deliberate deception

Both the church and state had a hand in failing to provide support for children, writes Colum Kenny

FOREIGN Affairs Minister Eamon Gilmore (who publicly opposed the holding of a second Lisbon referendum while reportedly telling the US Embassy in private that he would support one) expects the Vatican's ambassador to account for his church's two-faced approach to child abuse.

And the Minister for Justice of a Government whose two most senior members made misleading promises about the future of Roscommon Hospital, last week condemned the "disingenuousness" of Bishop John Magee.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter won headlines last week by proposing new legislation that appears to promise that priests will be jailed if they fail to report abuse, even if they learn of it in a confessional. But the small print does not actually say that. As the person who asked him at his press conference if priests would be expected to break the seal of the confessional, I can say reports of its demise are premature.

In fact, his proposed new law allows those with a "reasonable excuse" not to report allegations of abuse, and those excuses explicitly include the situation where an abused person makes it known that he or she does not want the gardai to be told. Existing legal precedents also suggest that courts could find other "reasonable excuses" implicitly include those of lawyers, doctors, bishops or priests who believe they have a privileged relationship with a patient, client, priest or penitent.

And it emerged last week that officials of the State itself were less than fully forthcoming when it came to helping Judge Yvonne Murphy complete her report on the handling by church and state of suspicions of sexual abuse in the Catholic Diocese of Cloyne.

Buried in the body of the report (pages 88-89) are understated criticisms of the Department of Health and Children. The Department refused to hand over certain documents that included advice it received from the Attorney-General. Judge Murphy remarks on this refusal in her report that, "in contrast [to the Department], the Church authorities provided the Commission with its privileged documents and the Gardai and the HSE did not claim privilege over any documents".

She also found no evidence that the Department of Health and Children had carried out an "in-depth study of third- party abuse" which it was meant to have conducted as part of the process of reform.

Mr Shatter further revealed that he discovered when he took office that "no work" had been done to prepare the ground for certain legislation necessary to bring forward an effective proposal for a Constitutional referendum on children's rights. Such an amendment would be a clear indication of the priority being given by this State at last to the protection of children.

When I asked him why such a long-promised referendum could not take place on the same day as the forthcoming Presidential election and other referenda (on judges' pay etc.) he claimed that there was not enough time and that it cannot be held until 2012. Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald told me that she is putting in place 270 new social workers with appropriate management and support services. So the State itself is not entirely above reproach.

Yet there is no doubting the Irish Catholic Church has disgraced itself yet again. The hierarchy led the public to believe that appropriate mechanisms were in place to protect children. When those mechanisms were undermined from within and without Ireland, the bishops never qualified the impression that they had earlier created or warned their fellow Catholics that some bishops and their officials, with support from Rome, were defying the hierarchy's guidelines.

The behaviour of Bishop Magee has brought the child abuse scandal to a new level internationally. Dr Magee was formerly at the centre of power in Rome, being private secretary to Pope John Paul II. It is statistically likely that some abusers lurk in the Vatican undiscovered or undisclosed, as they did in Cloyne.

On repeated occasions, Dr Magee tightly embraced one vulnerable youth in Cloyne, kissing him on the forehead and allegedly saying that he was dreaming about him. This behaviour was deemed to have been inappropriate but not sexually abusive. It seems more than paternal.

Dr Magee also deliberately misled an inter-diocesan case management advisory committee about at least one abusing priest, relaying that abuser's denial of guilt which Dr Magee knew to be false.

While Archbishop Dermot Clifford last week described Dr Magee's "outright lie" as "indefensible", he immediately qualified this on RTE by adding a "possible excuse". Admitting that "I never asked him myself" (why not?), Dr Clifford suggested that Dr Magee "probably felt -- the report says that he felt -- that this [admission by the priest that he was guilty] was privileged information between him and the Vatican". But even if it was somehow privileged, Dr Magee's behaviour was "too cute" conceded Dr Clifford.

Dr Magee could have said nothing. When he proceeded to convey an unqualified denial of guilt by the priest to others he became party to a deliberate deception, engaging in the kind of "mental reservation" to which Cardinal Desmond Connell has also resorted. Such deception raises questions about why they are still priests, never mind members of the hierarchy.

Dr Magee failed to make himself available for interview last week. He left it to Dr Clifford to face the cameras. But bishops cut sad and unconvincing figures now, as they trot out yet more pathetic regrets instead of root and branch reform of the power structures of their church. Their Eucharistic Congress next year is an ill-conceived attempt to "move forward" by going back. Bishops as a body have been loyal to Rome, but let down the laity. They have left Irish Catholics in the lurch at a time when other pressures mean people need supportive social structures and something to believe in.

Belated political outcries about sex abuse divert attention from other kinds of abuse young people are suffering in Ireland. It is all very well to call for the expulsion of the papal nuncio, but it is the unpunished greed, criminality and recklessness of our political and professional classes that today blight family life. These have contributed to unemployment, while vital education, health and social services are being slashed.

A reformed and restructured Catholic Church might have provided critical and material support to those most affected by current social crises. Instead, emptying churches and a sense of betrayal are the legacy of decades of hierarchical incompetence. The failure of the Irish hierarchy has compounded a scandal that the Vatican made worse. But the Irish State also acted too little and too late, and its stuttering efforts finally to get things right are no more than what citizens of a modern state demand.

Sunday Independent

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