Old Reflexes

The Irish Church reels from a report of shoddy oversight in abuse cases that happened not long ago but recently.

The year 2009 was always going to be a difficult one for the Church in Ireland. A report on abuse suffered by children in Church-run correctional schools is due out later this year. Also expected soon is a report by the Judicial Commission investigating the handling of clerical sexual abuse in the Dublin archdiocese.

Neither will make for pleasant reading. The report on correctional schools is expected to catalogue a litany of allegations about abuse and inaction by religious superiors over a 40-year period.

Meanwhile, according to figures published by the Dublin archdiocese, more than 400 men and women are known to have suffered abuse by priests of the archdiocese. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, a straighttalking former Vatican diplomat, has described the figure as “staggering” and warned priests and faithful that the figure is “almost certainly not final.”

Events in the remote southwestern Diocese of Cloyne have added to the Church’s pain.

A report published last December prepared by the National Board for Safeguarding Children (NBSC), an independent body set up by the Church to monitor the implementation of child protection policies, found that policies in the diocese were seriously inadequate.

The report found that Bishop John Magee, a former private secretary to three popes (Paul VI, John Paul I and, for several years, Pope John Paul II), fostered a policy of “minimal” co-operation with the statutory authorities. The report found that “any meetings that were convened by the diocese, such as the Child Protection Management Committee, are apparently focused on the needs of the accused priest. There is no documentary evidence that the ongoing risk to vulnerable children was discussed or considered at any time by them.”

It also found that actions undertaken on behalf of the bishop were “inappropriately delayed and were minimal in content,” and, most damaging of all, that “children have been placed at risk of harm within the Diocese of Cloyne through the inability of that diocese to respond appropriately to the information that came to it regarding child protection concerns involving the clergy.”


David Quinn, director of the Iona Institute, told CWR: “What is most alarming in the case of Cloyne is the fact that the mishandling identified happened not in the 1970s or 1980s, or even in the 1990s, but in 2005, after Bishop Magee had adopted the Church’s robust guidelines, an attempt to deal comprehensively with the issue of abuse of children by priests and religious.”

“The reason the Cloyne report is so damaging is that it shows many of the old reflexes are still in place, especially the tendency to put the interests of priests ahead of those of the victims. The diocese handled these latest complaints more or less as they would have been handled in 1988, rather than 2008,” added Quinn.

For quiet newsrooms easing in to the Christmas period, the story proved to be a winner. The nightly news and daily newspapers were filled with survivors of abuse coming forward to express their outrage at Bishop Magee’s inaction. For his part, Magee insisted that he would not be resigning. In Dublin, Archbishop Martin barely concealed his anger when appearing on the nightly news and insisted that he would “go it alone” on child protection if his fellow bishops were found wanting.

It’s now more than 20 years since the Irish Bishops’ Conference (IBC) first began discussing clerical sexual abuse. The Church’s first reaction, now acknowledged by many to be wrong, was for every diocese to seek insurance against claims of sexual abuse. Since 1987 as many as 23 of the 26 Catholic dioceses in Ireland had insured themselves with “Church” and “General” insurance against such claims.

Insurance providers became concerned about their exposure to claims during the 1990s and sought to renegotiate terms with the Church. Money accrued by the Church as part of the subsequent deal was placed in a newly established trust set up to help dioceses defray costs arising from pre-1996 clerical child sex abuse.

The growing awareness among many Irish bishops that the sexual abuse of children by priests and religious extended to more than a couple of isolated cases led to a desire to introduce guidelines that would, the bishops hoped, ensure that this sort of abuse would not happen in the future. Or, in the event of such abuse, it would be handled properly and swiftly.

The initial guidelines, the so-called “Green Book” adopted in 1996, were shown to be inadequate when the then- Bishop of Ferns, Brendan Comiskey, was shown not to have acted properly when allegations of abuse by priests of that diocese were brought to his attention. In spring 2002, the crisis in the Ferns diocese culminated in Comiskey’s resignation and a crisis summit that saw angry survivors of abuse confronting, and in some instances manhandling, members of the bishops’ conference.

That crisis summit at Maynooth, Ireland’s national seminary, led to a new era in the Church’s attitude to child protection. It also ushered in a new era of state supervision of the Church’s commitment to child protection and the mishandling of allegations of abuse in the past.

“Our Children: Our Church” introduced mandatory reporting of allegations of abuse made against any Church personnel. The document was seen as a comprehensive attempt to deal decisively with the issue of child abuse. Catholics around the country breathed a collective sigh of relief that their Church was responding in a proportionate way.

The government too, it seems, accepted that the Church had learned a tough lesson. Referring to the crisis in 2004, then-Prime Minister Bertie Ahern called for more balanced journalistic coverage of the Church. “Any blanket portrayal of the Church as a negative force in our society…is not only misleading, but also inherently dangerous,” Ahern said.


In one fell swoop, Bishop Magee— once tipped to become the archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All-Ireland— has set the Church back by more than a decade. “The fact that a bishop who has spent hundreds of hours over more than 15 years with his fellow bishops thrashing out first-class child protection guidelines can act in such a reckless fashion is barely believable,” said David Quinn.

The Irish bishops were in Rome in October 2006 for their ad limina visit. On the last day of that visit, Bishop Magee filed in to the Consistory Hall in the Apostolic Palace with his fellow bishops to hear Pope Benedict speak in the strongest possible terms about the abuse of children by priests and religious. Meanwhile, back home in Cloyne, a policy of “minimal” co-operation with the Gardai and other statutory authorities was, according to the NBSC report, the stated policy of Bishop Magee. In fact, the NBSC report found that the diocesan policy was “that no information was to be volunteered in respect of any previous complaints” about a priest.

Magee has undermined the sincere and considerable efforts of many of his episcopal colleagues. Maureen Lynott, a senior adviser to the Irish government on child protection, told CWR that the bishops have adopted “all the correct policies that will make the Church the safest possible environment for children and vulnerable adults…. The problem is the guidelines are only as good as those who are implementing them.”

According to Paul Keenan, a Dublin religious affairs writer, “the fact that one bishop, John Magee, saw fit to ignore the guidelines raises the possibility that other bishops or religious superiors may be acting in a similar fashion.”

In the aftermath of the Cloyne report, Primate of All-Ireland Cardinal Sean Brady requested from all bishops a written assurance that they are compliant with existing guidelines. Questions, however, remain about the status of Church law and of “Our Children: Our Church.”

In late 2005, the guidelines were sent to the Vatican for consideration. Within weeks it was clear the guidelines had met with difficulties in Rome. It was reported that the Vatican was withholding the vital approval that would make the document binding on every bishop and religious superior. Almost a year later, in October 2006, the bishops admitted after their ad limina visit to Rome that the document’s guidelines had still not received the Vatican’s approval.

When contacted by CWR, Ireland’s Catholic Communications Office was unable to answer questions about the current status of the document. If, as it appears, the document has still not received Rome’s approval, the bishops need to address the Vatican’s concerns immediately. “Without the recognitio the document remains a voluntary charter that allows Church leaders the leeway to act as they wish regardless of the guidelines,” said Keenan.

“The Cloyne debacle has dealt a bodyblow to the Church’s efforts to win back public confidence. [Magee] has also embarrassed his colleagues on the bishops’ conference, most notably Cardinal Sean Brady and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who have gone to great lengths to ensure that the Church can have credibility around child protection,” adds Keenan.

A review of every diocese, religious congregation, and missionary society, as proposed by Cardinal Brady, is now being undertaken in a bid to restore public confidence. But inevitable public anger at the forthcoming Ryan Commission and Dublin Commission reports is sure to cast the Irish Church in a dark light again.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Michael Kelly 29 Articles
Michael Kelly is editor of the Irish Catholic, Ireland's best-selling religious newspaper.