One Child's Triumph Against the Odds
The true scale of child abuse perpetrated by Catholic clergy in Ireland has still to be established. It may never be fully discovered given the passage of years and the fact that many victims and perpetrators have died. But unearthing the facts has also been held up by the determined resistance of the Irish Catholic church and, until very recently, the reluctance of the Irish state to intervene.
Allegations of child abuse began to surface in the 1980s. The allegations went back as far as the 1930s. As old examples of abuse began to emerge, more contemporary examples also came into the open. Slowly, the volume of abuse allegations grew, and documentaries began to appear on Irish television stations, each prompting yet more victims to come forward for the first time. So, only slowly, the true picture is beginning to emerge revealing the fate of the tens of thousands of Irish children who have spent time in Catholic-run orphanages, hospitals or schools.
The Irish Catholic church’s instinctive response, as allegations began to surface, has been one of an orchestrated cover-up. Conventionally, as allegations surfaced in relation to any one particular individual, he (most allegations have been about priests) would be quietly moved to another parish, where the abuse would, of course, resume. The church also insisted that the issue be kept within its own confines, and that the matter be kept well away from the criminal law.
The church’s next response was the attempt to buy silence. In 2002, the church agreed to pay compensation to the victims of abuse, setting aside 128 million euros for the purpose. Each payment came with the same condition – that the victim would agree never to sue the church and the names of perpetrators would be remain secret.
While some victims reluctantly accepted these terms, others persisted in bringing cases to the courts, thereby challenging the church’s assertion that this was purely an internal matter and not the state’s business. The first prosecutions came in the 1990s but they remained very few in number. The government at the time gave little encouragement to those seeking to take the legal route to resolving these matters.
Eventually, lengthy, independent investigations got under way, both eventually reporting in 2009. The exhaustive Ryan report – running to over 2,000 pages – interviewed over 2,000 victims. It concluded that abuse had been “endemic” throughout the Irish Catholic church since the 1930s. However, the report did not name any perpetrators, in part because the Christian Brothers sought injunctions against publication under Ireland’s right to privacy laws.
The church responded to the Ryan report by asking for forgiveness, expressing its sadness and calling for prayers to be said on behalf of the sufferers.
Published in the same year, the Murphy report was confined specifically to an investigation of child abuse allegations in the archdiocese of Dublin. It concluded that,”the Dublin archdiocese’s preoccupations in dealing with cases of child sex abuse were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the church and the preservation of its assets.” There was no evidence that either the punishment of perpetrators or the interests of the victims should feature as priorities.
Before becoming Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger held the office of Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. In that post, he was charged by Pope John Paul II to tackle the then growing abuse scandal within the church. Ratzinger’s first action was to write to all bishops reminding them of their duty under church law not to reveal the details of any allegations and to ensure that investigations were done within the church and not by any external authority.
Later, as Pope, Ratzinger issued in 2010 a Pastoral Letter which apologised for the abuse within the Irish Catholic church, but which did not make any response at all to any of the criticisms contained in either the Ryan or Murphy reports, nor did it call for the resignations of any offenders still within Orders. Later in 2010, the Pope announced that he was establishing a committee to carry out an investigation into child abuse within the church. The committee is entirely made of senior Catholic clergy.
Pressure on the Irish state to intervene in the scandal has grown steadily. A statement by the government, pointing out that all evidence of child abuse should be handed to the legal authorities was subsequently described by the Catholic church merely as a ‘guideline.’ Angered by that response, the government declared in July 2011 that it now intends to introduce legislation that will force clerics to put allegations and evidence into the hands of the civil authorities, or face stiff jail sentences. Such a law, if eventually introduced, would represent the first significant assertion in Ireland of the civil laws’ supremacy over canon law.
What in the end may well prove stronger than the church’s policy of secrecy, cover-up and hush money, and stronger even than the authority of the Vatican itself, will be the growing tide of evidence from those who, as children, looked to the church for much needed love and support, only to find exploitation and abuse.