Thursday, 17 November 2005
Ferns Report: Statements (Resumed).
Brendan Ryan (Labour)
For any citizen of this State, this is in many ways perhaps the most distasteful debate the Oireachtas has ever had to deal with. I remember the shock in this House at the first appearances of the X case, but however, awful, sad, tragic and anger-creating that was, it was a unique, once-off situation. The Ferns situation can not be something unique to one small part of Ireland despite all of us wishing it was not a widely replicated experience around the country. The situation is an enormous tragedy of neglect by institutions in which this State, rightly or wrongly, put its faith. Indeed the State had little choice because those institutions demanded that faith and that this role be entrusted to them. In this respect terms like "parental choice" and so on are very much a new language. Before the foundation of the State it was demanded and granted that the national school system be under what the Church would like us to believe was the service of the Roman Catholic Church, but was not.
This is a huge tragedy of violence against the most innocent in society. It is a huge tragedy of deceit — I use the word deliberately — by people who set themselves up as moral leaders and expected to be given credibility as such, and who got involved at the very least in disingenuous arguments. I remember a very eminent member of the Roman Catholic hierarchy telling us that because Father Brendan Smith was a member of a religious order, it was very difficult for any of the bishops to deal with him. If Father Smith had been marching around the country preaching the joys of contraception, he would have been dealt with very quickly by the same bishops who tried to explain to us, after the event, that there was nothing much they could about him abusing children. I find such disingenuous attitudes very difficult to accept in politics or elsewhere, though we all acknowledge our limitations, our humanity and our frailties and we are all liable to lose our jobs because of how we perform.
As I said before, and recently in another venue, when one gets into a position where one is accountable only to God, and to nobody else, that opens the door to megalomania unless one is a saint — and putting it mildly, not all bishops are saints. I am slow to canonise anyone. Most of us have profoundly fragile feet of clay.
The scale of institutional interest being put ahead of the terrible suffering of children is extraordinary, as is the distortion involved. What troubles me currently is the succession of little things which suggest we are now in the process of putting the scale of what happened behind us. To put it mildly, I was disappointed when the Taoiseach's words to describe his reaction were that we were all, as he put it, "disappointed". We were a lot more than disappointed. We were extremely angry and horrified. When the Taoiseach was responding to Deputy O'Donnell, I wish he had used a stronger word than "disappointed". There is much more than disappointment involved. I am disappointed when Kildare has not won an All-Ireland title for 65 or 75 years or whatever period it is. I am very angry when the church to which I give my allegiance turns out to have behaved in a way that no politician would ever have got away with, been forgiven or excused for.
Let us remember the fiery coals heaped on a former leader of Fine Gael for his statement, following legal advice, on the issue of hepatitis C. We should compare the language used then with the benevolent attempts to explain away the present circumstances. Last May, the current leader of the Catholic Church said in discussions with Polish bishops that the declining profile of the church in Ireland was partly due to perceptions of clerical sexual abuse. That was under 18 months ago, yet perceptions rather than the facts of neglect were being discussed.
Celibacy has been eulogised in today's newspapers. While I do not have an issue with this lifestyle, it is important to note Mr. Justice Murphy's finding in the Ferns Report that each of the experts he consulted believed celibacy was a contributory factor to the matter. I do not want to take part in that debate but to pretend or ignore it represents an attempt to move on.
At present attempts are being made to rewrite the significance of the guidelines on Canon Law. The late and wonderful John Kelly wrote what most lawyers regard as the authoritative guide to the Constitution. If a Supreme Court judge announces next week that the book's interpretations are incorrect, the majority of lawyers who rely on it will not claim they do not grasp the significance. The guidelines relied on by priests and bishops gave incorrect advice on dealing with child sex abuse, advice which involved reducing the risk of civil society becoming aware of the church's role. It is not entirely honest to declare in the current embarrassing circumstances that it was an insignificant book. It was essentially the only book people relied on to explain Canon Law.
An eminent professor of moral theology, who was once a colleague of mine, argued in an edition of The Irish Times last week that the post-Vatican II dilution of clear roles of authority played a role in this matter. We even have the 3% issue. While I accept that the vast majority of clergy are good people, the people in question were given higher moral authority and the right to tell us how to live, based on their sacramental ordination and the quality of their lives. They claimed to be holier than others, albeit using humble words. It is not simply a question of 3%, which, if true, implies there are approximately 700 paedophiles in Ferns alone. I am sceptical as to whether the problem is that significant. I believe that evidence will indicate a disproportionate incidence of paedophilia among the ranks of the clergy, although many are fantastic people. We cannot allow the horror of what was reported to be diluted by the careful use of words.
The fundamental problem in terms of what happened in the Ferns diocese is that a large institution had the power to control education and health care. It still has that power. Today, I read in a newspaper that bishops are about to insist on the right of Catholic parents to send their children to Catholic schools. Nobody in politics, even those in the most extreme left-wing parties, wishes to deny people the right to choose. However, the official position of the Roman Catholic hierarchy is that a school is not Catholic unless a bishop is the boss. The parents of one gaelscoil voted to have a Catholic ethos while also being under the patronage of Foras Pátrúnachta na Scoileanna Lánghaeilge. However, the Catholic hierarchy told them a bishop had to be in charge if the school was to be Catholic. This issue concerns episcopal control rather than parental choice. The role of the church in education needs to be debated, although not with the over the top language used last week, because we have not yet reached an honest agreement on that role.
The efforts made by religious orders 150 years ago to educate people who were abandoned by state and society were heroic but, while these orders are withdrawing from education, they continue to teach in prestigious fee-paying schools. They have not given to lay boards the control of Gonzaga, Belvedere or Clongowes Wood.