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How RTE brought politics into sex abuse

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Mairia Cahill. Photo: Tom Burke

Mairia Cahill. Photo: Tom Burke

Mairia Cahill. Photo: Tom Burke

Audrey Carvill's interview with Mairia Cahill on Morning Ireland last Thursday concluded with a question which insinuated that Mairia was being used by the other political parties to attack Sinn Fein. While Mairia answered strongly, the question was then repeated in even more blunt and unsympathetic terms.

In the past, victims of abuse by church institutions were never confronted by RTE on air in this way. It was never put to them that they were being used by political parties or anybody else. The completely opposite approach was taken, of facilitating and encouraging them to speak out. RTE did everything possible, notably through the work of the late Mary Raftery, to encourage victims to come forward and tell their stories.

Just as in the case of clerical child sex abuse, there are indications that many, many others have suffered abuse at the hands of the same kind of people who abused Mairia Cahill. The Morning Ireland interview effectively told them "if, having being abused, you come forward, your alleged helpers will also use/abuse you".

This will be particularly distressing for victims thinking of speaking out, because having trust in anyone afterwards is perhaps the biggest single issue for those who have suffered serious abuse.

The main political parties, and notably Enda Kenny since becoming Taoiseach, have consistently been as strong in their criticism of the Catholic Church as they now are in criticising Sinn Fein.

I have heard an argument that Mairia Cahill is a strong personality and should be able to withstand robust questioning. Nobody who has suffered abuse is ever 'strong' on what is their weakest link. It is a tribute to Mairia that now, after so many years, she finally feels able to confront her abuse and abusers.

RTE coverage, for whatever reason, is in danger of portraying the Mairia Cahill case as a political rather than an abuse issue. Being a political party is not a reason to demand exemption from abuse scrutiny. Many Church leaders also attempted to deflect investigation by claiming a parallel form of immunity based on Canon Law. RTE, quite correctly, declined to accept that argument.

At the Commission on Child Abuse hearings, an immediate task of the religious congregations and their legal teams was to assemble great detail on events, dates and people in their congregations who were associated with allegations. This was necessary to both fully understand, learn to accept and respond appropriately.

It is inconceivable that the Sinn Fein leadership is not by now finalising an identical process and confirming the minute detail on the individuals concerned and the steps taken, or not, to deal with abuse. Any Sinn Fein spokesperson who says otherwise is mirroring exactly those church leaders who attempted to disassociate themselves or feign innocence when confronted on specific abuse allegations.

Speaking on the need to address challenges around integrity earlier this month, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said: "Ethics is not an ideology which we trot out . . . I was stunned on the occasion of the scandals of child sexual abuse to encounter what I came to call the 'baking the cake culture'. 'I only put in the sugar' and 'he only put in the flour', but neither of us have any responsibility for the cake."

Obfuscation on the abuse issue by many church leaders, while pretending a 'business as usual' approach on other matters, served to quickly undermine the church's authority in Irish society. Continued pretence that wrongdoing and cover-ups on abuse is someone else's cake, while, for instance, displaying a gross overreaction in the Dail last week on the water tax issue, will have the same ultimate impact on the credibility of Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein and its leadership do deserve considerable credit for leading their movement through the peace process, in face of both internal and external challenges. The first real test of the continued move to democracy, however, for the many dedicated people who have joined and work for Sinn Fein, is to now accept responsibility for 'the cake'. From the Government's perspective, to remove any further risk of confusing the political with the abuse issue, it would be useful to now appoint someone like Justices Sean Ryan or Mary Laffoy, who chaired the Commission on Child Abuse at different stages, to take the investigation further.

It would be the best way to deal fairly and sympathetically with individual victims and provide an opportunity for the public to know what was or was not done in the wake of the abuse. Were there cover-ups and kangaroo courts? Were abusers moved to Louth, Cork or Phibsboro? If so, where are they now?

An independent investigation of this type would be heard on a confidential basis. It would facilitate a coming forward both by people who were abused and those who have information on abusers. The template is already in situ.

The Minister for Justice could have a report on her desk within 12 months.

John Gallagher is a media consultant and advised a number of religious congregations on addressing issues during the Commission on Child Abuse hearings.

Sunday Independent