Seanad debates

Thursday, 10 November 2005

12:00 pm

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)

I am grateful to Senator Henry for sharing time with me. This is not a pleasant occasion or one on which anybody should gloat. While nobody relishes the distress of a great institution such as the Roman Catholic Church, it is important that matters such as those addressed in the Ferns Report be exposed. I express my sympathy on this occasion to the many decent priests and members of religious orders and to the few good and decent bishops, including Bishop Willie Walsh, a remarkable and saintly man, Bishop Eamonn Walsh in Ferns who appears to be doing a good job, and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of the Dublin diocese, a decent, honourable and fair man.

The Ferns Report is devastating. The kinds of comments being made and the attitude shown by the Roman Catholic Church demonstrate that the church has not changed — let us be honest in this regard — and that the issue goes to the top of its hierarchical structure, which the report examines. It gives me no great pleasure to cite as an example the late Pope John Paul II who, following the departure of Cardinal Groer of Vienna from his position as a result of a series of accusations of molestation of seminarians which later proved to be correct, wrote a letter to the Cardinal to console him while maintaining a stony silence towards the victims. The current Pope is sheltering a person — he enjoys diplomatic immunity in the Vatican — who established a seminary in Mexico and is wanted by the authorities there. Events such as these indicate where the source of the trouble lies.

If one examines the appointments made in the Catholic Church over the past 25 years, one finds that people were appointed to senior positions on the basis of their rigid orthodoxy in doctrinal matters and their reactionary attitudes towards modern developments in the understanding of human sexuality. While no church has ever told the truth about human sexuality, the worst offender in this regard is the Roman Catholic Church.

It is important that this Chamber highlight two of the conclusions reached in the report, both of which I will cite. On page 22, the report states: "The Expert Group was unanimous in its view that homosexuality is not a factor in increasing the risk to children". This is not what the church is saying. It is trying to dislodge everything by organising a witch-hunt against gay people, including in seminaries in the United States. The second conclusion is made on page 36, which states: "The Expert Group was unanimous in its view that the vow of celibacy contributed to the problem of child sexual abuse in the Church".

I honour Deputy O'Donnell for her courageous speech in the Dáil yesterday and regret that she was subjected to sniping partisan attacks from other parties, including the Labour Party, which should know better. The Deputy made an important statement. Both Houses have a responsibility in this matter. It has been stated that the Catholic Church does not have a special position in Ireland and is neither above the law or exempt from its provisions. That is most definitely not the case because the Houses recently passed legislation giving the church exempt status. Will the Minister of State please ask his colleagues to re-examine this issue, particularly in regard to the equality legislation, on which the various churches approached the Government and were granted exemptions from its operation? As a result of this decision, decent people like me can be fired from their jobs by the managers of schools — priests — simply on the basis of their sexual orientation. This is not tolerable and I am no longer prepared to be part of a group whose citizenship is defined as second class.

I find it astonishing that while people such as me are considered unfit to teach children, others who serially molest children in the most nauseating way escaped punishment, although their crimes were known. Senator Henry is correct on this matter as I also heard the Vincent Browne programme last night. At least Father Twomey was being honest when he stated his belief that the bishops did not consider child sexual abuse a crime. How extraordinary. On what planet were the bishops living?

I was also astonished to read Father Twomey's article in The Irish Times and have written a letter to the newspaper examining his piece because he appears to argue that Vatican II and liberal and progressive priests and theologians were responsible for child abuse. If one looks at those involved in these cases one will not find one progressive or liberal theologian among them.

I do not wish to go through all the cases, but they are horrendous. Boys left bleeding went to their mothers too ashamed to explain what had happened, after which they committed suicide; it is awful. One priest, when hearing a young girl's catechism, stuck his tongue in her ear and fiddled with her. I wonder whether those people believed in God at all. Even if I had that impulse, I would be terrified to act upon it, and I regard it as a blasphemy against everything that Christianity or any other religion would hold dear. It is a very painful matter.

I never realised that I had encountered Fr. Sean Fortune. However, I recently saw a clip from a programme on which I had appeared —"Prime Time" or some such thing. I was attempting to make a dignified case for changes to the criminal law on homosexual behaviour but was vehemently abused by a person in a Roman collar who, with a smirk on his face, did his very best to put me back in my box. It was Fr. Sean Fortune, who at that very time was routinely attacking children.

We must address this. I say again to the Minister that he should examine the equality legislation. We have surely gone beyond the time when decent people like me cannot be teachers. It is, of course, a question of behaviour. If someone displayed a gay rights poster or tried to talk to unprepared young children about such complicated issues, that would be wrong, and those responsible would deserve to be reprimanded and disciplined. However, that should not happen merely because of people's lifestyles.

Among what I found most shocking, which clearly contradicts the notion that the hierarchies were unaware of the abuse, is the fact that, in 1984 in the United States, there was the case of Fr. Gilbert Gauthe in Lafayette, Louisiana, which received a great deal of publicity. A committee was established by the church and produced a document entitled, The Problem of Sexual Molestation by Roman Catholic Clergy, Meeting the Problem in a Comprehensive and Responsible Manner. The first matter on the agenda was to take out insurance. I find it morally devastating that the response to the knowledge that children were routinely being attacked was to protect material assets. That does not seem to me a very spiritual way of handling the matter.

In the executive summary of the Ferns Report, the authors refer to Bishop Herlihy, saying that he penalised a priest in respect of whom an allegation had been made by transferring him to a different post or diocese. I would not call that penalising him, I would call it rewarding him. We now know that when people were found to be at this evil work, they were transferred to a place where they happily went to play again, doing exactly the same thing.


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