This weekend, Pope Francis will visit Ireland. It’s the first visit by a pontiff in almost 40 years to one of the most Catholic countries in Europe. But it is a much-changed Ireland to which this Pope will arrive on Saturday morning.
Twice in the last three years, the people of the Republic of Ireland have rejected the political direction of the Catholic bishops – becoming the first country in the world to pass equal marriage by referendum and then, earlier this year, to liberalise abortion laws. This monumental loss of authority is attributable to one reason above all others: the clerical sex abuse scandal.
This week, Pope Francis published a letter of apology for the abuse that was addressed to the estimated 1.2billion Catholics worldwide.
Beyond asking the devoted faithful for “prayer and fasting” as penance for the sins of the Church, the letter was short on concrete ideas for stamping out abuse and holding the guilty to account. Abuse victims across Ireland have given their verdict on the Pope’s letter: too little, too late.
Nowhere was there more anger and frustration than in Northern Ireland. Coachloads of Catholic pilgrims will cross the Irish border this weekend to see and hear the Pope. But not everyone will be joining the party.
Thousands of Northern Ireland children have fallen victim to predator priests over the years.
More than 100 clerics in dioceses in Northern Ireland have been accused of child sex abuse from the mid-1970s onwards, according to reports by the Catholic Church’s own Safeguarding Board. Given that many victims typically feel unable to come forward, the real number of abusers is almost certainly much higher.
The Catholic Church operates on an all-Ireland basis. Indeed, it exploited the existence of the border to move countless paedophile priests to parishes in the neighbouring jurisdiction to evade justice, leaving them free to abuse again.
This was just one part of an established modus operandi, of both the abuser and those who covered up abuse and allowed it to continue:
- The priest is given a position of unique trust within the community, with access to children. In some cases, such appointments were made despite pre-existing allegations of child sexual abuse.
- The fear and deference which surround the priest and the Church means the child-victim is too afraid to cry for help. If abuse is disclosed to parents, the abuse is typically reported to the Church, rather than civil authorities.
- The paedophile priest is quietly moved, perhaps first to a Church-run centre in England for treatment, then back to another parish and another opportunity to abuse.
- With further abuse, the pattern repeats, with the priest possibly being moved across the border.
- When victims come forward to the Church, canon law rather than civil law is deployed, and strict secrecy is imposed.
- If victims pursue a civil law remedy, they may receive a cash settlement, combined – of course – with a confidentiality agreement.
- Victims are persuaded away from independent counselling, and instead encouraged to receive “pastoral care” from a priest or nun.
- And, ultimately, no-one tells the police. There is no trial, no justice, no reputational or significant financial loss.
When this pattern is repeated, time after time, it starts to look like a criminal conspiracy.
In the Republic of Ireland, there have been three government-established inquiries into clerical child sex abuse. The findings were damning. Widespread, endemic abuse by priests. Systemic cover-up by bishops.
Yet, despite the patterns of abuse apparently identical on both sides of the border, no public inquiry has been set up in Northern Ireland. Victims, supported by Amnesty International, have been calling for one for years. But their calls have fallen on the deaf ears of local politicians, whose focus has been elsewhere.
Now, with no devolved government in Northern Ireland for more than 18 months – and no sign of it returning – responsibility sits with Theresa May’s government.
The UK government is now the only government in Northern Ireland – and the only authority which can deliver for the Church’s victims.
Truth and justice for clerical child abuse victims in Northern Ireland is long overdue. Prime Minister Theresa May should act where Pope Francis has failed – with actions, rather than words.
Patrick Corrigan is Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International UK