Seanad debates

Thursday, 10 November 2005

12:00 pm

Photo of Camillus GlynnCamillus Glynn (Fianna Fail)

Whoever coined the phrase that fact is stranger than fiction was indeed a wise person. The Ferns Report makes horrendous reading. The fact it is not a pro-active measure but a reactive measure makes it all the more horrendous. I have always held the view that Christianity is a good concept. Like the song, it is a good song. We are discussing the singers, not the song.

There can be no hiding place in society for people who abuse children, whether they are priests, doctors, nurses, nuns, brothers, vets, swimming coaches or sports coaches of any kind. One of the better aspects of this report is the fact that a number of young people came forward and told of their experiences. When one discusses children in this context, one means people who have had their childhood stolen. That of itself has serious implications because not alone did it cause severe mental suffering to the victims, but also to their families. We must also consider the families of the accused, who did not send them out to perpetrate those grossly indecent acts.

Many of the victims have found their way into the psychiatric services. A number of them are part of the parasuicide or suicide statistics. Many of them entered relationships in adult life that broke down because of the background of abuse. We must stand up in this forum and say "Well done" to the victims because as Senator Henry can confirm, and as I learned from my training, one of the first steps in the right direction from an experience such as this is to be able to confront the experience and talk about it.

The most annoying revelation of the report is that despite the facts, the church tried to brazen it out in many cases. That is totally unacceptable. I can state that prior to this being made known, I was informed by my brother in Canada that the situation there and in the United States is what we have here now. As Senator Browne pointed out, evidence suggests that certain abuses have taken place in other denominations. It also contains a clear message on considering who should have access to children, whether they are teachers, caretakers or cleaners. I need only remind the House of the example from across the water of the two little girls murdered by Ian Huntley. How did he slip through the net? He did so and he had a track record that was not shining. Somebody slipped up. There can be no hiding place whatsoever for someone who abuses children.

I agree with Senator Feighan that every strata of society must be examined in the context of child abuse, whether it is hospitals, colleges or convents. Any place where children are, inside or outside of the home, must be monitored and examined. If abuse is taking place, the appropriate action must be taken. What a pity we are discussing reactive and not pro-active measures. It would be marvellous if we were discussing pro-active measures.

The one word that looms large in this debate is "trust". Trust was breached by people in whom it was placed. I remember from my time in the primary school sector when a teacher was discovered to be abusing children. What happened? Was the problem addressed? It was not. Comparable to a draughts board, the piece was moved to another square.

Much of what the Minister of State said is welcome. We should compliment those who compiled the Ferns Report. I will be as measured as I can on this occasion. I have a particular aversion to child abusers, rapists and people who abuse and beat up old people. I will not call the individuals involved "people". I do not think "animal" is an appropriate word either. I suppose my limitations in the English language preclude me from finding the right terminology to describe them.

The Ferns inquiry identified more than 100 allegations of child abuse made between 1962 and 2002, against 21 priests operating under the aegis of the diocese of Ferns. Six of the priests died before any allegation of abuse was made against them. Three more died subsequent to the allegations being made. The nature of the response by the church authorities in the diocese of Ferns to allegations of child sexual abuse by priests operating under the aegis of that diocese has varied during the past 40 years. These variations reflect in part the growing understanding of the medical professions and society in general of the nature and consequence of child sexual abuse and, in part, the different personalities and management styles of successive bishops.

In certain circumstances, "mismanagement" rather than "management" is a more appropriate term. Between 1960 and 1980, it would appear that Bishop Donal Herlihy treated child sexual abuse by priests of his diocese exclusively as a moral problem. He penalised the priest in respect of whom the allegation was made by transferring him to a different post or a different diocese for a period of time but then returned him to his former position.

That was an outrageous situation. If ever there was an example of whistling past the graveyard — in this case the graveyard was on both sides of the road — this is it.

By 1980 Bishop Herlihy recognised there was a psychological or medical dimension to child sexual abuse. His decision in 1980 to send priests, in respect of whom allegations of abuse were made, to a psychologist was appropriate and broadly in accordance with the understanding then evolving. What was wholly inappropriate and totally inexplicable was the decision of Bishop Herlihy to appoint as curates priests against whom allegations had been made and in respect of whom a respected clerical psychologist had expressed his concerns in unambiguous terms as to their suitability to interact with young people. BishopHerlihy disregarded the professional opinion of people who were well placed to make such a diagnosis and recommendation. Equally inappropriate was Bishop Herlihy's decision to ordain men who were clearly unsuitable into the priesthood when he knew, or ought to have known, of their propensity to abuse children.

In the view of the Ferns inquiry — it is also the view of Roderick Murphy SC, now Mr. Justice Roderick Murphy, as expressed in his 1998 report on child sexual abuse in swimming — where a credible allegation of child sexual abuse is made against an employee, or other persons acting under authority, it is the responsibility of the employer or superior to require the employee to step aside promptly from any post or position in which he has access to children. This is not rocket science but common sense. Regretfully in this case and in other cases, common sense was far from common. Bishop Comiskey accepted that this principle was equally applicable to the exercise by a bishop of his authority under Canon Law in respect of priests of his diocese. Furthermore, it was recognised that in the case of diocesan clergy stepping aside from a position in which there was unsupervised access to children, it necessarily entailed stepping aside from the active ministry entirely pending the investigation of the allegations. In my time as an officer of the Midland Health Board it was the case that if a person was deemed to have committed an inappropriate act or a grossly unprofessional act, he or she was suspended on pay pending an inquiry. That person was not permitted to continue to perform professional duties. I fail to see the reason this did not happen in this case as it is well-established practice in general employment.

The report sets out in detail the difficulties experienced by Bishop Comiskey in securing the removal of diocesan clergy under his aegis from particular posts held by them. In almost every case, significant periods elapsed before the bishop could persuade the priest in question to vacate his position and undergo the assessment and treatment suggested by the bishop. In no case did the bishop persuade or compel the priest concerned to stand aside from his priestly ministry. This is a clear example of a policy of procrastination. The inquiry does not underestimate the difficulties encountered by the bishop but it expressly criticises his failure to stand aside from the ministry those priests against whom allegations had been made and in respect of whom information was or should have been available to the bishop. This information was available and I question the reason decisive action was not taken.

Subsequent to the appointment of Bishop Walsh as apostolic administrator of the diocese of Ferns in April 2002, more effective steps were taken to ensure the protection of children. I commend the bishop concerned. All outstanding allegations of child sexual abuse were reviewed by the administrator in conjunction with a new advisory panel. In addition, the bishop appealed to members of the public to come forward to the diocese, the Garda and the health board with information about any allegation or suspicion of child sexual abuse not previously made known or which had been disclosed and had not been satisfactorily investigated or dealt with. There was a very significant response to that appeal. There were clearly two situations. One bishop was doing his job, carrying out his ministry as ordained while another clearly did not.

There can be no hiding place for anybody who has not discharged their responsibilities to the people who will be our leaders tomorrow and will be tomorrow's parents, politicians and carers. This is to do with the formulation of the personalities and persona of those young people who will be the pillars of society in the years ahead. Anybody who did not take the appropriate action to protect the most vulnerable in society, our children, has a very serious question to answer. There can be no hiding place for them from the full rigours of the law.

In April 2002, 11 priests against whom allegations of child sexual abuse had been made were still alive; three have been excluded from the priesthood by direction of the Holy See and seven have stood aside from active ministry at the request of Bishop Eamonn Walsh. The eighth priest is advanced in years and is in retirement. The Garda Síochána and the health board are advised from time to time as to the whereabouts of the priests who have stood aside and the circumstances in which they live and this is an important provision. The Garda and the health board are satisfied that the arrangements made in respect of those priests provide an appropriate measure of child protection. This speaks for itself.

The church has had many crises in the past. It was mostly under attack from without; on this occasion it is attacking itself from within. I thank God for those good priests, nuns and brothers and above all, for those who are good bishops. We should all spare a thought for them. The Ferns Report deals with the exceptions rather than the rule, for which we should be thankful.


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