Irish Church devastated following abuse report

It was thorough, painstaking, balanced and meticulous — and all the more devastating for that fact. In its report released last month, the Murphy Commission’s investigation of the Dublin, Ireland, archdiocese’s mishandling of clerical sex abuse allegations over many decades revealed a culture of denial, arrogance and shocking blindness to the effect of abuse of minors. Coming on top of the painful Ryan Commission’s report in May into physical abuse at Ireland’s Church-run reform schools, Catholics in Ireland have spent the second half of 2009 in one long Lent.

From the 1960s through the 1980s, none of the four archbishops of Dublin reported abuse that was brought to their attention, nor dealt with it using the Church’s own procedures.“

The Dublin archdiocese’s preoccupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid-1990s, were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church and the preservation of its assets,” the report calmly concludes.

Calculated cover-up

“All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities. The archdiocese did not implement its own canon law rules and did its best to avoid any application of the law of the state,” it said.

The report cuts off the usual escape valves of rationalization. This was a calculated cover-up by the Church made possible by a deliberate abdication of state responsibility. The documentation available to the inquiry, and the decision in 1986 to protect Church assets from abuse victims by taking out an insurance policy, gives lie to the claims there was not enough knowledge of what was going on, or that the Church hierarchy “was on a learning curve.”

The Commission’s aim was simply to review how abuse complaints were dealt with. It’s real sting lies in the careful documentation of how easily it could have been avoided. The 720-page report pointedly asked why Church leaders in the Dublin archdiocese, home to a quarter of Ireland’s 4 million Catholics, did not inform public authorities about a single abuse complaint against a priest until 1995. Yet from the early 1970s until that time, four archbishops compiled confidential files on more than 100 parish priests who had sexually abused children since 1940. Not one of them was prosecuted under canon or civil law; most were shuffled between therapeutic institutions and religious orders, or sent on missions. The actions taken by their bishops and superiors were consistently woeful or self-interested.

It was not just the Church that failed to act. The complicity of public officials, too, went deep. Rather than take action on the allegations, social deference to the Church meant that, with some honorable exceptions, the Gardai — Ireland’s police force — either brushed the matter under the carpet or reported the accusations to the Church, trusting bishops to act on them.

This was not such a foolish idea: Canon law — both the 1917 Code, and the revised one of 1983 — demands that a bishop investigate following an allegation and, if true, expel the abuser from the priesthood, a public act of repudiation of the abuser which reflects the gravity of the offense.

But the report documents a “collapse of respect for canon law in archdiocesan circles. ... Offenders were neither prosecuted nor made accountable within the Church.”

Only two canonical trials took place in the 30-year period under investigation, both in the 1990s and in the teeth of the opposition of one of the most powerful canonists in the archdiocese who “actually considered that the penal aspects of that law should rarely be invoked.” Msgr. Gerard Sheehy, the report adds later, “rejected the view that the archdiocese had any responsibility to report child sexual abuse to state authorities. He thought the Church’s internal processes should be used, but, in fact, he was totally opposed to the use of the Church penal process.”

Like the earlier Ryan report, which was written from the point of view of a very different age, Murphy documents a culture, especially among the bishops, of astonishing aloofness and lack of accountability which seem impossible now.

Bishops in sackcloth

The man appointed to Dublin to respond to the crisis, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, has energetically sought to present the opposite attitude, offering himself constantly to the media, promising transparency, criticizing the arrogance of his predecessors and announcing structural reform. His long Vatican and international career have left him untainted by the allegations, and he has a mandate from the pope to restore the Church’s standing. For now that means matching the indignation of the report, and publicly demanding that the bishops named in the report make themselves accountable for their actions.

Following a Dec. 11 visit to Pope Benedict XVI, he said the pontiff planned a major pastoral letter to Irish Catholics, which could include measures for “a very significant reorganization of the Church in Ireland.” Archbishop Martin has publicly called for Bishop Donal Murray of Limerick to consider his position after the report named his cover-up of a pedophile priest as “inexcusable” and said the auxiliary bishops named “will clarify their positions and respond appropriately.”

Archbishop Martin, meanwhile, has written to retired Dublin Auxiliary Bishop Dermot O’Mahony, asking him not to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation in the coming year and not to be part of the diocesan administration “in any way” while the report is being studied.

But beyond demanding that those responsible account for their actions, and hinting at restructuring, there is little more the Church can do to prevent the same mistakes happening again. For years it has had child-protection guidelines stricter than any comparable secular organization; the culture of deference to the Church has long since disappeared; and for all the media that are calling for bishops to sit in sackcloth and ashes, they have long since been forced to face the consequences of their arrogance and sense of unaccountability.

The Irish Church, which only decades ago seemed impregnable in its dominance of society, has fallen further, and harder, than almost any other local Church with the exception of Boston, an archdiocese with which it has shared historic links and the same scandal-averse culture of denial.

The pope’s pastoral letter, when it is released, will be one of the hardest he has had to write, for it will necessarily involve a repudiation of the attitudes of senior Churchmen. But it could also mark a turning point in this decade’s dark story of clerical sex abuse and the failures of the Church to deal with it, by introducing new measures of episcopal accountability, both to Rome and to society.

In the meantime, it falls to Archbishop Martin to attempt to show, by his own actions and words, how strongly today’s bishops repudiate the culture exposed by Murphy, and to ask Catholics to give their Church a second chance.

“I say especially to young people: Do not abandon the Church. Your Church lies in the future,” he told a recent congregation. “You will provide something special so that the arrogance of the past can be replaced.”

Austen Ivereigh writes from England.