Auditing Catholic Abuse: Why the Survivors Need Their Day in Court

On 30 November 2011 the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church (NBSCCC) publishedit has so far completed into the current practices for managing allegations of the sexual abuse of children by clergy of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

On 30 November 2011 the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church (NBSCCC) published six audits it has so far completed into the current practices for managing allegations of the sexual abuse of children by clergy of the Catholic Church in Ireland. With their account of current practices in Ardagh and Clonmacnois, Derry, Dromore, Kilmore, Raphoe, and Tuam, these six reports cover six of the twenty-six dioceses of the island of Ireland and none of the 182 other Catholic clerical bodies in Ireland (primarily religious orders). Since it has in hand invitations to visit and report from four more dioceses and two religious orders, by the end of the next six months the NBSCCC anticipates publishing six more reports and declares that its 'intention is to complete the overall task in two further years' (Summary Report, p, 4). This is not a statutory body but was set up by the Catholic Church itself and its work of inspection and publication relies upon the voluntary consent of dioceses and religious organizations. Unless the pace of invitation to audit and of agreement to publish pick up significantly, the NBSCCC anticipates completing its work when it has covered about one in six of the Catholic organizations in Ireland. It must also be suspected that it is good practice and not bad that invites inspection for as Ian Elliott (CEO of the NBSCCC) remarks in his Summary Report the six dioceses accepting this early review 'would be amongst a number who regularly consult with and draw upon the experience and expertise that lie within the National Office' and their bishops 'are amongst the most frequent attenders' at national training sessions on safeguarding children against sexual abuse (Summary Report, p, 4).

These six dioceses contain 240 of the 1,365 Catholic parishes in Ireland, have 444 of the 2,536 active diocesan priests in Ireland, and serve about one in seven of the Catholics in Ireland (Catholic Directory 2009, Dublin: Veritas). Over the period, 1975-2011, allegations of child sexual abuse have been made against 85 priests incardinated, or under the direction of the bishops, within these dioceses. This represents an average of one priest accused for every three parishes in these six dioceses. Of these 85 priests, 44 are now dead, 30 have left or been removed from ministry, and eleven have either retired or are still in ministry. From these 85 allegations, there have been only eight priests convicted.

For these six dioceses the audits find that current practice is good and getting better. Allegations are promptly reported to the police and social services, there is a developing practice of offering support to complainants and their families as well as to those accused, and the procedures recommended by the NBSCCC are generally supported and practiced. The audits do find some room for improvement. In several places they suggest that the Designated Person in each diocese who must receive complaints and confront the accused should probably be a lay person and not another priest to avoid putting priest in the invidious position of accusing a fellow priest. Few dioceses have yet instituted their own annual audit of their child safeguarding practices. In one diocese, Derry, there remain at least two priests who 'seem to be less than fully behind the diocesan safeguarding project' (Derry Review, p.17). In Raphoe, the reviewers found a Designated Person, responsible for handling complaints, who 'expressed a preference for learning the role through experience rather than reading through the guidelines' (Raphoe Review, p. 9). In Raphoe, too, the diocese sent some of the accused priests for psychological evaluation but then let the priests themselves retain ownership of the report that eventuated. In 'at least one serious case' Bishop Boyce from a wish to 'protect the family of [a] convicted priest from further trauma,' decided not to pursue laïcization, the removal the priest from ministry (Raphoe Reivew, p. 17).

Slightly stronger commentary is ventured when describing past practice, under previous bishops, as for Dromore where although the reviewers insist that they 'do not intend to dwell on the management practices of the former bishop but it should be noted that [...] we believe that in some instances the practice followed placed too much emphasis on maintaining the good name of the accused priest rather than ensuring the safety of children,' and even that in the past legal advice took precedence over attending to the needs of vulnerable children (Dromore Review, p.4).

Four of these reports relate to audits carried out this year (Ardagh, April; Derry, July; Dromore June; Tuam, June) but two are from last year (Kilmore audit in June 2010, report dated August 2010; and Raphoe audit and report in August 2010). The last two are dioceses that had already been in the news on account of the abuse by priests of children there. Kilmore was the residence of Brendan Smyth. Smyth had a record of abuse from the 1950s to the 1980s. Official complaints to Catholic schools where Smyth would visit and abuse children called out of class to have private meetings with him date back to Belfast in the 1971 and after a period in the United States in the early 1980s where he abused altar boys in North Dakota, Smyth returned to Ireland and went back to the very same school in Belfast for visits that were the occasion for the abuse of girls (Chris Moore, Betrayal of trust: The Father Brendan Smyth affair and the Catholic Church, Dublin: Marino Books, 1995). The RUC began to investigate in 1990 and in March 1991 Smyth was interviewed in Belfast and nine charges were laid against him. At this point he went across the border to Holy Trinity Abbey in Kilnacrott, County Cavan, within the diocese of Kilmore, and lived there with his order, the Norbertines. In 1993, the UK Attorney General sent extradition warrants to the Dublin gardaí but officials within the office of the Irish Attorney General declined to execute them claiming to find the supporting documentation faulty. It took fifteen months for the audit of Kilmore diocese to be published.

The other diocese for which we know of delay in publication is Raphoe. This was the diocese in which Eugene Greene was a priest. In 1997 Greene accused one man of trying to blackmail him. When the many was arrested he told of his abuse at the hands of Greene, and over the next two years some 26 men came forward to tell not only of their abuse but also of their earlier failed attempts to get action, despite having told other priests of their abuse. In 1999 Greene pleaded guilty to 41 sample charges from a list of 115 and was given a sentence of twelve years. At the time, Seamus Hegarty, Bishop of Raphoe, insisted that the diocese had handled Green 'very professionally, very responsibly' (Martin Ridge, Breaking the silence: One garda's quest to find the truth, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 2008, p. 161). Publication of the report on Raphoe was delayed for fifteen months.

Now that we have the reports on these audits by the NBSCCC, we can ask how useful they are as a way of addressing the abuse of children in clerical settings. Let's begin with Raphoe and Kilmore. In Raphoe fourteen priests were accused and four were convicted, half the total number of convictions from this group of six parishes. The report offers some criticisms: that 'significant errors of judgment were made by successive bishops'; that the diocese should not allow priests to own the professional evaluations made of the risk that they pose to children; and that focusing on the 'presenting problems' of priests as, 'for example, alcohol abuse' occluded the crying need to attend to the vulnerable and injured children (Raphoe Review, p. 9). But there is nothing here about one central issue: what happened to the earlier warnings. Is there really no paper trail relating to the successive moves of Greene from place to place: to Africa, to Scotland, around Donegal. At a press conference the current bishop, Philip Boyce, said that it was 'extraordinary' but was nonetheless true that there was no paper trail relating to complaints against Greene and that the first he had heard of a letter from the father of one victim to a former bishop of Raphoe, Seamus Hegarty newly retired bishop of Derry, was when it was referenced in court at the trial of Greene (Bishop admits it was 'extraordinary' that no evidence of complaints against paedophile Eugene Greene, Donegal Daily, 31 November 2011). And what about the other three priests who were convicted? Their cases are counted but not discussed in the report. There is nothing in the report about the twenty victims of abuse who were paid a total of €1.1m in settlements that avoided cases proceeding to judgment in court (Greg Harkin, Diocese spent €1.6m on clerical abuse cases, Belfast Telegraph, 2 December 2011). One survivor of abuse in Raphoe, John O'Donnell was angry that the audit did not 'even bother to go and interview the survivors' while another, Martin Gallagher, remarked that '[t[here was no voice for the victim' (Bishop admits, Donegal Daily, 31 November 2011).

If there was no paper trail on Greene in Raphoe when one might have had every reason to expect one, paradoxically there would appear to be one for Smyth in Kilmore which is surprising in its own way. At the time of his trial and conviction Smyth was not incardinated in the diocese of Kilmore, that is he was resident with his religious order inside the diocese but was not under the authority of the local bishop and thus whereas his case is 'commented upon within the review [...] it is not included in the statistical analysis of cases' (Kilmore Report, p. 8). Yet before the legal actions he had been the focus of earlier complaints but despite this had seen '[h]is priestly functions continued to be renewed each year' (Kilmore Report, p. 9). In other words, he was repeatedly approved for ministry in the face of complaints. In addition to Smyth, the statistical table in the report shows that there was another priest convicted for offences against children. His case is not discussed at all.

It is not surprising that this process of audit proves unsatisfactory to the victims of abuse. In the first place, the reports are only published with the approval of the bishops and thus must be written in language and within terms of reference the bishops accept. Secondly, this is an audit of immediate danger and not of past harm: '[t]he concentration on current risk is paramount' (Summary Report, p, 3). Finally, as a non-statutory body the NBSCCC is constrained by the provisions of the Data Protection Act and in reviewing case files the officers of the National Board act as data processors for the individual bishops and 'must ensure that the identification of any individual whose personal data has been reviewed within the process should not be made' (Summary Report, p, 2). The focus then is on generalities, on the future not the past, and on writing reports that bishops will consent to see published. The audit of current procedures for safeguarding children is never going to be an adequate way of admitting to past crimes however much it may contribute to reducing future risk.

This manner of proceeding is not satisfactory to many priests who feel it leaves the stain of accusation upon all those men accused and removed from ministry without adequate opportunity to defend themselves:

We would like to draw attention to one statistic that has been revealed by the report. In all, allegations were made against 85 priests. Eight of those were convicted of a criminal offence. In some other cases a settlement was made with the alleged victim. But that still leaves a substantial number of priests against whom no inappropriate behaviour was criminally or civilly established. But what we can say for certain is that each of these was immediately removed from ministry, most in a public way that brought shame and disgrace on them and on their families, and often caused great upset in their parish communities (Statement from the Association of Catholic Priests: Dec. 1st).

Yet the past decade has seen a steady diminution of the likelihood of allegations ever being tested in court. In Ireland, the issue of child abuse in clerical settings has been directed away from the courts. In the first place, the question of child abuse in clerical settings has been reconfigured as the sexual abuse of children by priests or members of religious orders. The glare of this heinous crime has blinded people to two other dimensions of abuse. First, as Bruce Arnold and James Smith have argued, the unjust incarceration of people within institutions run by religious orders, be they industrial schools, reformatories, or Magdalen asylums, has yet to be acknowledged and compensated for as the state crime it was for in very many cases it was a quasi-judicial process that consigned children and women to these bastilles (Bruce Arnold, The Irish Gulag: How the state betrayed its innocent children, Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 2009; James M. Smith, Ireland's Magdalen laundries and the nation's architecture of containment, Notre Dame IN, University of Notre Dame Press, 2007). Second, within many church-run schools, there was a regime of neglect, hunger, and sadistic cruelty of which sexual abuse was only one part. All these institutions were run by the Church but funded and inspected by the State. These crimes took place, as a recent Amnesty report makes clear, as an open secret and those outside them shuddered to think of these loveless and abusive institutions (Carole Holohan, In plain sight: Responding to the Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne Reports, Dublin, Amnesty International Ireland, 2011). By focusing only upon sexual abuse we ignore the state's responsibility for the improper incarceration of so many and their inadequate protection thereafter. Not enough matters have retained criminal salience over the past decade.

Turning now to the appalling sexual abuse of children by priests and religious both within and beyond such institutions, the State and Church have again colluded in keeping them away from the courts. In the first place, in order to manage the likely damages claims against the state for the institutions it funded and was responsible for, the inquiries into the sexual abuse of children were developed to short-circuit multiple court cases. Instead, there were inquiries which were to establish in general terms the reality of child sexual abuse. Given that what became the Ryan Report was managed by the Department of Education, it was relatively easy to keep the attention upon abusive priests, nuns, and brothers and not upon the state's systematic crimes of committing the children to unjust incarceration and then their further crimes in omitting to conduct the oversight to which it was in law obliged. In the second place, and as compensation for taking the heat, the Catholic Church was, in return for a relatively modest financial contribution, indemnified against future claims for damages, which were decided upon in a relatively modest and cash-limited fashion by a Residential Institutions Redress Board. While this arrangement saved survivors from the trauma of a public and adversarial court appearance, it gave them much less than they would have got in court and returned them to a silence now reinforced by legal sanctions for disclosure.

This pattern of out-of-court settlements is followed also for many of the cases that arise outside the institutions. Dioceses settle and thus avoid the attention of a court case. It may also mean that the accused will argue that they have had no chance to defend themselves while the survivors' stories will never be collected into any general assessment of the contours of the abuse. The current audits do not report on the number or cost of out-of-court settlements. Silence has been bought and denial is facilitated. These current audits can only do good in their advocacy of the prompt reporting of allegations of child abuse to police and social services, in their publicity of the remorse of the leaders and members of the Catholic Church for the cruel neglect of children who had earlier cried out for a hearing, and in making routine structures in each parish for the vetting of folk with responsibility for children. But these audits are inadequate as a way of confronting the contours of past abuse, or of reckoning the crimes of the Irish state, or of giving survivors proper acknowledgement of the harm done to them. The survivors need their day in court.


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