Seanad debates

Thursday, 10 November 2005

12:00 pm

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)

I apologise because I must leave after I speak, as the Joint Committee on Health and Children, of which I am a member, is meeting for a presentation by the MRSA and Families group. The Ferns Report is truly shocking. Unfortunately, every institution of the State is seen to fail miserably in it — the Department of Education and Science to some extent, the old health boards, the church authorities, the political establishment and even the Garda. Nobody can look on the Ferns Report with any sense of joy or pride, as every group involved has serious questions to answer.

It is important to put on record that clerical sexual abuse accounts for a minority of sexual abuse overall. Most sexual abuse occurs within families or within a wider family circle. The impression should not be given that such abuse only takes place in churches or specifically by the Roman Catholic Church. We should all ask, while acknowledging that these events occurred, whether such acts are still occurring or will occur in the future. What steps are being taken to ensure that people do not have to wait so long to report such events and receive proper treatment when, rather than if, similar events occur in future?

Recently I was asked on radio if I thought the report would be the end of the matter, and I replied that it definitely would not be. As long as there are human beings, there is a danger of such cases arising. The challenge for parliamentarians is to ask how to deal with these matters when, rather than if, they arise. Will we really learn from the Ferns Report? The recent inquiry into the Dublin archdiocese will make even more grim reading.

The arrogance of the church authorities is breathtaking. When people reported the abuse to the relevant church authorities, be they the bishop or vicar general, they were dismissed, despite an act of bravery that none of us can imagine. I read in The Irish Times yesterday a report of a lady abused by a priest in Dublin. When she informed the relevant church authority, she was forgiven for tempting the priest initially and told to forget about the incident.

I heard an interview recently with a teacher from the Ferns diocese whose school manager was Fr. James Grennan. The interview restored my faith in human nature, which could come into question on reading the Ferns Report. The teacher emerged well in the report from what was a difficult situation. It is easy for us now to argue that his actions were correct, but he may have taken a different action, or inaction, at the time. The children in his class presented him with devastating news and his challenge was to react to it. His position was compromised as his boss was the priest abusing the children.

Deputy John Gormley yesterday spoke in the Dáil about the issue of separating church and State in schools. As a former primary teacher I agree with his statement. I have severe reservations about the church still playing an active role in primary schools. We are in a multicultural society, and even when I taught three or four years ago there were children from many different religious backgrounds in my classes. One of my pupils was a Jehovah's Witness and when I taught religious education she was sent to the library to read, although she was free to stay in the class if she wished. There were insurance implications for this case. In future, if a child from a different religious background leaves the class when religious studies are being taught, for example, and an accident occurs, there may be an interesting court case regarding who is responsible for the child in question.

I have reservations about children automatically being confirmed at 12 years of age. This is a difficult sacrament to understand and a child should not receive it just because of his or her age; if a person is 12 years of age and ready, he or she should receive it. This is equally true if a person is 20 years old or 25 years old before he or she feels ready.

The church should be moving away from a hands-on approach in primary schools. We must allow for the fact that we are a multicultural society. I am not advocating that the church has no role in schools as its role is needed. Were it not for the church, lands and buildings would not have been available to us in many cases. However, we must move on. Many priests are so stretched in terms of workload that they do not have any time to put into schools and have opted out of becoming chairmen on boards of management.

Priests should not automatically be the chairmen of boards of management. It is often the case now that priests decline this position because they do not want the responsibility and the position is being given to parents or teachers. This is healthy. Otherwise, there would be a clear conflict of interests, such as occurred in Ferns, where unfortunate allegations of sexual abuse against a parish priest, a man who happened to be the board of management's chairperson, were proved true. In theory, when there is a problem in a school, one should go to the board of management but how could one do so if the person complained about is its chairperson? We must be cognisant of this and take appropriate steps.

I once attended an interview for a job, which I thankfully did not get as I honestly did not want it. I answered questions put to me and an old parish priest who was a member of the board asked me about my views on a recent statement by the Pope about the Catholic ethos. I resented that question as I was going for a job in a school not a seminary. If I could get across a Christian ethos in my classroom, I was not doing a bad job. If I had wanted to become a priest I would have gone to a seminary or elsewhere. There was much arrogance on the part of priests in the past when they arrived at schools and barged into classrooms to ask children questions without knocking on doors or checking with teachers. This practice is on the way out but priests must realise that the days of their having significant power are over.

Many priests are doing fantastic work but a handful have unfortunately given the priesthood a bad name. The church authorities have serious questions to answer and I am unconvinced that they will take on board all of the issues raised by the Ferns Report. The inquiry into the Dublin archdiocese revealed that Fr. Ivan Payne received £30,000 from the then archbishop, Cardinal Desmond Connell. When RTE was about to publish a story on money from the archdiocese being used to pay off a victim, the archbishop's reaction was to threaten to sue RTE. He subsequently pulled out of this action but he strikes me as not being in a position to listen and learn.

The church authorities have much to learn from this episode, in which there seems to have been a systemic failure. They have let down the ordinary, hardworking and decent priests who do good work in parishes and with families at times that are invariably difficult. They are not getting the acknowledgement they deserve. It is very easy to be critical of priests but I feel sorry for them as people only approach them when they want something. One rarely hears of someone calling into a priest to see whether he is okay. They are usually called upon at times of bereavements, funerals, weddings or christenings but are forgotten after the event. They have very lonely lives. As a practising Catholic, I would have no problem in priests being allowed the option to marry. From what I hear of problems in the church, this is only the tip of the iceberg. There will be more stories similar to that of Bishop Eamonn Casey, stories of priests having relationships with people, which would contravene Canon Law. However, most ordinary people would be quite happy for priests to have relationships if those involved were consenting adults.

The church must face up to significant issues. It has fallen from a very high moral position in society and will eat humble pie in the coming months and years. This is a pity as we are witnessing a large decline in the number of people going to mass and holding to the Christian faith, which is not good for society. I am a member of the Sub-Committee on High Levels of Suicide in Irish Society and there is a clear indication that, as faith in Ireland has diminished, suicide rates have increased. I will not link the two but faith is a factor and it is important that society has a faith. This news is turning people away from the church, which is not necessarily good. The church should come clean and take the appropriate steps to ensure that we will have a healthy church in the State. It should not bury its head in the sand.

Does the Minister of State have any information on instances of sexual abuse in other churches or religions in the State? This is not just applicable to the Roman Catholic Church. Other religions have grown significantly in the State. Recently, the Taoiseach reported an Islamic school to the Minister for Education and Science for teaching too much religion and not concentrating enough on the rest of the curriculum. Are procedures in place to monitor the rise in new religions to ensure this does not happen therein and that we are not here in ten years making the same statements about them?

The Minister of State's speech was quite good and his background as a barrister was evident. Concerning specific timeframes, the Minister of State spoke about new legislation being introduced on foot of the Ferns Report and an undertaking to carry out an in-depth study of the Health Service Executive's powers followed by legislative proposals as required. Will this be one month, six months, a year or two years away? Guidelines were previously issued but it is the implementation of guidelines that is difficult. Guidelines on child safety were introduced in the mid-1980s but we find ourselves debating this issue in 2005, which clearly proves the guidelines did not work. Changes to the Protections for Persons Reporting Child Abuse Act 1998 and the Sex Offenders Act 2001 have been recommended but they have still not been made. The Minister of State referred to a number of amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill 2004 but we need to establish a clear timeframe in respect of when they will be debated and new legislation will be published.

The ultimate responsibility of the State is to protect its citizens, particularly the vulnerable. The Ferns Report proves that the State, including the Department of Education and Science, Garda authorities, the then health boards and thechurch authorities failed those who were most vulnerable. We must learn how to move forward. I was amused when I listened to Deputy O'Donnell speaking in the Dáil about the bad deal that was struck by the State in 2002. Fine Gael raised the issue of the outgoing Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Woods, striking a deal with the religious orders at the time. While I might understand his haste in terms of enabling compensation to be paid to victims of sexual abuse, a wider view was needed to ensure the State and taxpayers got a good deal and religious orders were not let off the hook in terms of fulfilling their responsibilities. Could the Minister of State clarify how much this deal has cost the State so far?

It has been my experience that, in other instances of children being abused in institutions — not necessarily by religious orders — the redress process has been slow. People are called before the redress board and offered a sum of money, which they can either accept or reject. If they accept it they are paid straight away. However, there can be a long delay. I am aware of one case of a lady who was dying from cancer. While I telephoned repeatedly and explained her medical situation to the board, there was no rush to pay her. She had obviously waited 30 or 40 years for this payment, perhaps even longer. It is important that, after establishing the redress board and paying compensation to victims, everything is done as quickly as possible bearing in mind the long period involved in seeking the compensation.

I welcome the Ferns Report. It is a wake-up call to everybody involved. We must take cognisance of it, especially in terms of the management of primary schools. The church authorities must reflect on their exact role and, given their decreasing numbers, I am sure many of them would be willing to move away from the primary sector and concentrate on their religious role.

The fact that teachers must teach religion is an issue. Some primary school teachers refuse and as far as I know they are entitled to do so. It can cause problems locally. Senator Norris raised the issue of teachers of different sexual orientation having difficulties in schools. That issue must also be addressed. It should not be held against someone applying for a job in a school. I have severe reservations about being asked questions on a religious ethos at a job interview. That is not the role of a teacher and it is time that society moved on.


No comments

Log in or join to post a public comment.