Apologizing ‘unreservedly’ to sex abuse victims, N Ireland diocese launches compensation fund

Kevin J. Jones By Kevin J. Jones for CNA

Archbishop Eamon Martin. Credit: Northern Ireland Office (CC BY 2.0).

Newry, Northern Ireland, Oct 1, 2021 / 17:16 pm (CNA).

In hopes of supporting dozens of victims of sex abuse by Catholic clergy and other representatives, the Diocese of Dromore has launched a redress fund to consider the claims of those who wish to avoid civil litigation.

The diocese said Sept. 29 it “apologizes unreservedly for the hurt and damage caused to victims and survivors of any priest or church representative acting under its authority.”

“The Diocese of Dromore finds such behavior towards children and vulnerable people abhorrent, inexcusable and indefensible,” it said. “The legacy of abuse is not time limited. The impact on victims and survivors is deeply personal and is carried differently by each one. The diocese seeks not to lose sight of the individuals involved, nor their personal journey, nor the hurt felt by those close to them, when referring to non-recent abuse.”

The diocese said the redress scheme aims to establish a “victim-centered” process to resolve “the on-going concerns of victims and survivors of abuse within the Diocese.”

The redress scheme will be “open to victims and survivors of child sexual abuse suffered at the hands of representatives of the Diocese; and it will seek to be comprehensive, practical and successful in achieving the healing that victims and survivors need.”

It portrayed the scheme as a way “to reduce the trauma and stress caused by participation in an adversarial legal process” and to ensure that the diocese’s “limited resources” go towards victims and survivors. The scheme is “less stressful, moves more quickly and prioritizes payments to the victims.”

Applications for redress will be open until Sept. 29, 2023.

In March 2018 Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Bishop John McAreavey of Dromore, who had asked to step down that month following media claims that the 69-year-old bishop mishandled an abuse report in the early 1990s. No successor has been appointed. The diocese’s apostolic administrator is Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh.

Martin has met with a number of victims and has considered the existing legal claims against the diocese. He now wants “to facilitate a resolution process to enable the provision of financial and other supports for survivors without undue further delay,” the diocese said. He will make himself available to meet with victims who wish to tell their story to him and to consider how to acknowledge their pain and assist them.

There are questions over whether the Dromore diocese could merge with a neighboring diocese, though Archbishop Martin said there had been no decisions on this. The diocese has about 40 priests serving some 90,000 Catholics in about 20 parishes.

As of 2018, twelve people had made allegations of abuse against Fr. Malachy Finnegan, who died in January 2002. All but two of the allegations emerged after his death and concern alleged incidents over a four-decade timespan.

Archbishop Martin said about 70 people had made complaints about abuse in the Dromore diocese over the last 35 years. BBC News recently reported that about 40 of these concern Finnegan. Attorney Kevin Winters said new complaints have been filed against the deceased priest with the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

The allegations against Finnegan concern his time as a teacher and then principal of St. Colman’s College, a grammar school for boys, from 1967 to 1987, and a later period when he was a parish priest in Clonduff/Hilltown in County Down, Northern Ireland.

In 1994, McAreavey was asked to investigate an allegation of abuse involving Finnegan by then-Bishop of Dromore Francis Brooks, who died in 2010. Critics said that McAreavey failed to act on the allegations that had been brought to his attention. McAreavey, who did not become bishop until 1999, has said that he believed Bishop Brooks had reported the allegation to the authorities.

Brooks did not report the abuse, but sent Finnegan to England for reputed treatment, the Irish News reports.

Finnegan was never prosecuted for abuse, but the allegations were investigated by the Church in Ireland’s National Board for Safeguarding Children starting in 2011, at McAreavey’s request.

A 2011 review of six dioceses’ handling of child sex abuse allegations found that dioceses’ responses were often inadequate, the Irish news site The Journal reports. Some 10 priests in the Dromore diocese were the subject of 35 allegations. None of the priests have been convicted of offenses against children, and some have died. The allegations were reported to state authorities, but not always promptly, the review said.

Paul Gilmore, an attorney now living in the U.S. who says he was abused by Finnegan, is pursuing a civil case against the diocese. He told the Irish News that the redress scheme is “a cynical exercise in damage limitation.”

“They’re concerned about their exposure in the wider civil justice system,” he said. “This is an attempt to limit that exposure in my view.” He criticized that the reparations cap of £80,000, about $107,000, which is lower than several settlements secured by some of the victims of Finnegan.

Gilmore was also critical of the compensation scheme’s total funds of £2.5 million, about $3.3 million. He saw the diocese as “part of a much wider organization.” In his view, the diocese and the Catholic Church “clearly not” should be regarded as separate entities.

Canonically and legally, however, the Diocese of Dromore is its own entity and had responsibility for supervising its clergy.

“I didn’t take my case to get compensation,” said Dermot Nagle, another victim of Finnegan. “I wanted the truth to be exposed, the full truth of what the Church knew and when.”

Nagle said he did not believe that claims for abuse should be limited or capped, adding, “I’m concerned that this is another attempt by the Church to close down this scandal in an economic way without any disclosure, without any admission of liability and without having to answer our questions on how this was allowed to happen publicly.”

Solicitor Claire McKeegan of Phoenix Law is representing most of Finnegan’s victims. She told the Irish News that most settlements have been “well into six figures,” including the highest-ever settlement for an abuse case in Northern Ireland.

Finnegan’s abuse left many victims “broken individuals who are unable, in most cases, to progress with life opportunities.” In her view, a redress scheme cannot provide victims “their day in court with full access to disclosure” as well as “apologies and admissions of liability.”

However, lawyer Kevin Winters, who also represents victims and survivors of abuse in the Dromore diocese, welcomed the proposal, BBC News reports. He said it was “long overdue” to launch a process to “address decades long unresolved sexual, mental and physical abuse perpetrated by priests and others.”

At the same time, he said many abuse survivors would “find it hard to sign up to a process which simply cannot deliver on explanations why perpetrators were able to systemically abuse children with impunity.” Winters added: “redress can form part of a process of closure for survivors but it won’t resolve the criminal culture of silence of many people who were in a position to do the right thing but didn’t.”

Similar redress schemes have been launched in the U.S. The New York archdiocese launched a reconciliation and compensation process in 2016 as an alternative process to civil litigation. As of 2019, it had paid a total of over $67 million to 338 victim-survivors through this process.

One victim who took part in the New York archdiocese process made the first known credible accusation of abuse against then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop emeritus of Washington. That accusation led to McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals and his dismissal from the clerical state.

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