Seanad debates

Thursday, 10 November 2005

12:00 pm

John Minihan (Progressive Democrats)

I welcome the Minister of State to the House for this important debate. During a series of statements such as this, striking a balance is difficult. On the one hand, we have all the selfless and significant work done by the church in Ireland over the centuries. On the other, we have the most awful treatment of vulnerable children at the hands of some members of the clergy and a failure on the part of the institutional church to deal with it. To appear to concentrate or focus on either element can be construed as, deliberately or otherwise, underestimating the importance of the other. In the few minutes available to speakers, it is difficult adequately to address the two.

However, we must not forget that we are speaking about what happened in Ferns. The report reveals more than 100 allegations of child sexual abuse made between 1962 and 2002 against 21 priests. I need not recount the horrific details therein. However, the stories behind those numbers are as awful as they are criminal. Difficult as it is to read them, as a society we are a great deal better for their having been revealed.

In that regard, we must commend the Government for establishing the inquiry in 2003. More importantly, we owe a great debt of gratitude to the retired Supreme Court judge, Mr. Justice Francis D. Murphy, and to Dr. Helen Buckley and Dr. Laraine Joyce. Their work, particularly the non-statutory inquiry, has been outstanding. I was glad to hear that victim representative groups, for example, the One in Four organisation, have welcomed the report. Such groups have not always universally welcomed action taken to uncover past events and it is testimony to the work of Mr. Justice Murphy and his team that those who need to be served feel so served by the report.

The accounts of what happened to victims of clerical abuse form the dark heart of the report. What can we say to them, and how can we begin to address their needs and what they have been through? We cannot do so. However, they can at least know this much now: we hear their stories, believe them, and commit ourselves to doing all we can to prevent this ever happening again. Abuse is a singularly awful phenomenon, and its effect is devastating for all involved. Why do women not report domestic violence or, if they do, later withdraw their complaints? Why do we see reaction by a family as a unit to terrible destructive acts? We know that it is the wrong thing to do and often the unit knows that it is wrong. However, society has failed people and victims suffer.

I spoke of the difficulty of striking a balance. However, I feel strongly about my next point, which should be taken in a broad context. I am personally inclined to overreact to abuse when dealing with those who abuse others.

I have, however, great sympathy for the many good priests who have now themselves become victims of the church's action and inaction because they perceive the hierarchy has failed them.

It is particularly difficult to analyse such terrible abuse when it comes to the church, an organisation so trusted, respected and revered in Irish society. We must remember, as must the church, that it is subject to the law of the land. When I was in the Army, I was subject to military law but that never took precedence over State law and the same applies to Canon Law. There must be no ambiguity on this point.

I have a deep respect for the clergy. I was educated at the Farranferris diocesan college in Cork, a sister college to St. Peter's in Ferns. While I boarded there for five years, I was not aware of any impropriety. I have nothing but gratitude for the priests and would never undervalue the work of the men and women who educated me and many others by attacking the institutions of the church.

Having said that, the fact that a church in 1987 took out insurance to protect the financial assets of individual dioceses and seemingly took no preventative action to curtail or preclude what was happening is deeply disturbing. As a result, the betrayal of the trust given by people to the church must have some consequences as we look to the future. While we should not throw out the baby with the bath water, the special relationship that existed between the Catholic Church and the State must be looked at now in an objective and unemotional manner. We must work towards a point of appropriate connections between the State, professionals competent in these awful areas and the church. There must be a newly defined and constituted act of partnership between these three groups. The clergy, bishops and church do not comprehend the complex issues surrounding clerical abuse. Part of the problem in the past is that the bishops felt they were capable of dealing with that abuse but they were wrong. The move from protecting offending priests means embracing a partnership approach and working with professional partners, specialists in dealing with abuse and abusers.

The State in many instances was no better equipped or no more effective at dealing with abuse and allegations of abuse in the past. Nevertheless, the findings of the 2003 working group on child protection, chaired by management consultant, Ms Maureen Lynott, spelled out what is needed. This debate must be issue driven and must not revolve around individuals or individual cases. We must adopt a professional approach. It is unhealthy and unacceptable for a church to make its own decisions in these matters. In the past it engaged in a process in a state of fear of exposure and repercussions. Compounding the church's inability to deal with this awful phenomenon were organisational deficiencies. Many people believe that Archbishop Brady is the CEO of the church in this country. That is not the case, each bishop is supreme in his own diocese, answering only to Rome. This is a structural deficiency, an organisational flaw that would not bear up in any other sector. The church must address this problem.

We must move forward and ensure a better, safer future for children. This will depend on education, awareness and support. Moving forward does not mean ignoring the past but learning from it. How do we, as a society, learn from this experience? Abuse warps families, communities and organisations. Education, awareness and support must permeate all of these, not just to deal with and prevent abuse but as a means of preventing the destructive repercussions of abuse — addiction to alcohol or drugs, depression and suicide. Abuse is a terrible phenomenon so thoroughly destructive that it is impossible to deal with all the facets in a way that does them justice in a few minutes.

We must remain balanced. We must look forward while acknowledging and learning from the past. There are major repercussions for the church, State and society. It is easy for us to criticise the church for what it did and failed to do but can we honestly do that and ignore what the State and society did or failed to do? If we want honesty in looking at the past, we must equally have honesty and truth in the present and future.

It is easy to say that we should remove the church's authority from our schools. This may or may not be appropriate, but in saying so, let us be honest and acknowledge that for many years, it suited the State and society to stand back and have no responsibility in the provision of school management. The State delegated its responsibility for years in the education, health and welfare of the less fortunate in society.

We should all hang our heads in shame when looking back — the church, the State and society. We did not listen, care or intervene. The State and society are not exonerated in this report and must bear some guilt.


No comments

Log in or join to post a public comment.