Seanad debates

Thursday, 17 November 2005

Ferns Report: Statements (Resumed).


11:00 am

Liam Fitzgerald (Fianna Fail)

They brought education to us and to many similar communities. We owe them a debt of gratitude, irrespective of the terrible, inexcusable, heinous crimes committed by some of their colleagues. It is hard to accept that balance, fair-mindedness and a sense of proportion and context do not prevail in much of the public debate on this crime. It is all too easy to go over the top and incriminate everybody for the sins of the few.

One priest abusing a child is one too many. To judge, however, by some of the anti-Catholic invective since the publication of the Ferns Report one would conclude that every priest, and in some cases, every Catholic, was a paedophile. The facts provided by the authorities speak for themselves. The central one being that the Catholic and other clergy are responsible for only a fraction of the abuse, less than 4%.

In using that statistic I am not trying to diminish the horror of what the priests in Ferns or any other diocese are alleged to have done but to maintain a sense of balance and proportion. We must keep these events in context. Most paedophiles are male relatives, stepfathers, teachers, carers, sports coaches and perhaps scout leaders. As a member of the scout movement I have known a couple of leaders who came under suspicion, although I have the utmost admiration for the scout movement and will always support it. If we tar all priests with the brush some journalists want to use because of the sins of the 21 priests in Ferns, and those in other dioceses, logic dictates that we do the same for all other categories of people in positions of trust with children. I am calling for a sense of balance and perspective in this debate.

Before I give the wrong impression, let me stress that we must ensure any member of the clergy who is a paedophile is subject to the full rigours of the law. There must be no hiding place for them, no more than for any paedophile in any position of trust. Nobody should get away with such a heinous crime. We must also ensure that as we go after the 4% of clerical paedophiles we pursue the other 96% or more lay paedophiles with equal vigour.

This report achieves a great deal but especially it brings this heinous crime into the full glare of public scrutiny in a way that previous reports did not. The welfare of our children and the victims makes it imperative that everybody in authority and every member of the public has a duty to report such a crime. While I do not have legal training, as the Minister of State does, I have strong views on mandatory reporting. There are forceful legal arguments against this, which I could not take on, but considering the situation in the round, if we are to confront this evil once and for all, thoroughly and effectively, we must choose mandatory reporting. I look forward to the comments of the Minister of State on this proposal.

Another issue arising from this debate is the conflict between civil law and Canon Law. We must all agree that Canon Law can and must never be invoked to protect clerical paedophiles from civil law. Some people have recently fudged this issue. There can be no fudge on this matter. I was heartened recently to read an article by Dr. Michael Mullaney a lecturer in Canon Law at St. Patrick's College, Maynooth. He was also one of the advisers on Canon Law to the inquiry. He wrote that he wished:

categorically to dispel some of the myths . . . regarding the relationship between canon law and civil law with respect to paedophilia.

Firstly, no priest, religious or bishop as a citizen of the State is exempt from civil law, much less the civil law that pertains to the crime of paedophilia.

That helps to clear up this issue, coming as it does from a man of good standing and prominent legal background, a man whom the State saw as appropriate to call in to be one of the Canon Law advisers to the Ferns inquiry.

Dr. Mullaney goes on to say that those clerics who commit such crimes must face the penalties imposed by the State for such offences. He points out that Canon Law does not claim precedence over the civil law, nor does it prohibit reporting sexual abuse where the civil law requires it. There is great clarity in the statement and presentation of the legal side of Canon Law from Dr.Mullaney. It is categoric and definitive, I am prepared to accept it and I look forward to the views of other people of equivalent legal standing, whether those views are to the contrary or reinforce those of Dr. Mullaney.

Turning again to the victims and their families, one of the most horrible aspects of this crime is that it was so secretive and private. It was carried out in secret, private places and involved hideous actions by adults, manipulating young innocent children, robbing them of their innocence and potentially destroying a child's life. Children were also manipulated on the basis on the inevitable guilt feelings they would have about what was done to them.

It is hard for us to imagine what those young, innocent children must have gone through during that horrible experience, what they went through subsequently and what their fathers, mothers and other family members went through because in the culture of that time one did not talk about such matters. They have had to deal with those taboos and face terrible traumas and ghosts. We know this has resulted in suicide in certain cases, and in other cases in emigration, with a decision never to return to Ireland. It resulted in people living their lives almost in privacy, concerned that their neighbours were constantly talking about them. I have spoken to some people in the Ferns diocese whose neighbours have told them they feel like that.

Overall, I am reassured that safeguards have been put in place. I am also reassured by the determination of the Minister and the Government, on the basis of the national audit, to have those safeguards monitored on an ongoing basis to ensure they are adequate, and that in the archdiocese of Dublin no priest against whom serious allegations have been made will be allowed continue in ministry; or if allowed do so, the Government will see to it that it can move the commission of inquiry into the relevant parish or diocese. This particularly refers to the archdiocese of Dublin, where any priest against whom serious allegations have been made should not be allowed continue in ministry.

It is also reassuring that one of the key recommendations by Mr. Justice Francis D. Murphy is that the High Court should have the power to issue an order against a person who is deemed to be a risk to children and prevent that person from having anything to do with children in an employment or recreational capacity.

What Dr. Willie Walsh said is true. He acknowledged publicly that it will take quite a while for the wounds of this horrible period in our recent history to heal. Last week the Archbishop of Dublin said he now hopes for a mature relationship between church and State. Regarding the Government decision to investigate the Dublin archdiocese and conduct a national audit, I compliment the Minister of State for the forceful way in which he came forward to articulate what he is determined to do in that regard with full Government support. These are welcome signs of a new maturity by both church and State with regard to this hideous crime.


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