Seanad debates

Thursday, 17 November 2005

Ferns Report: Statements (Resumed).


12:00 pm

Photo of John Gerard HanafinJohn Gerard Hanafin (Fianna Fail)

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Brian Lenihan, to the House. The bishops have rightly called what happened at Ferns an horrific litany of abuse. That is exactly what it is. Much of the conduct was simply indefensible. It raises questions about betrayal. Children, those who were abused and the church itself, including those who put their trust in it, were all betrayed because the church is clearly and damningly against anything that would harm innocence in any small way, not to mind such a vicious way.

It is no harm to consider how we look at different groups in society who are in positions of trust. The law recognises there are a number of professions that have particular access to people's personal lives, such as doctors, lawyers and clergy. Having that personal access is a privilege. For doctors and solicitors there is regulation, and there is Canon Law in the church, but there is also the law of the land. It should be the case that those clergy who have abused, albeit a small number, and which was horrific in terms of their responsibility and the privileged position they held, should be subject to the full rigour of Irish law and Canon Law. I would like to see a strengthening of the law to ensure that those who hold a position of trust and who are in this privileged position bear more responsibility and have more responsibility under the law.

I wonder where clericalism and anti-clericalism comes into this. Of the 12 apostles who stood with Jesus, one betrayed Him, another denied Him, another doubted Him and every single one of them ran away. Why do we expect men and women with feet of clay, like the rest of us, to take on a standard they could not have by virtue of their humanity? Everybody can sin. Unfortunately we have got into a position where we doubted whether this could happen. It has happened and we must deal with it very severely.

The Ferns Report is very disturbing. It is almost as if those who were in authority were, like a family, hiding a dark secret. It was unacceptable and it is still unacceptable. The future, our church and our children must be taken on board by the church. As legislators we have a duty to ensure we never again allow a situation where a presumption is made, because everybody should be held accountable and should be seen to be accountable, with those in a position of authority even more so. We will have to take that on board. That is our responsibility having seen the Ferns Report.

The report makes disturbing reading going back over 40 years. It is a severe criticism of diocesan authorities and individuals in Ferns. It is scandalous that so many suffered horrendous abuse from people in positions of trust. Victims were deeply scarred by the abuse and when they sought help they were not believed or suitable action was not taken. We have a profound responsibility to do our best to ensure this never happens again. In 1996, the church, locally and nationally, implemented new procedures for dealing with accusations of child sex abuse among its clergy. We have to see if the position has improved since then.

Data on the incidence of child sexual abuse is vague and imprecise, being based on random sample surveys. I am not convinced as yet that there is a higher percentage of child sex abuse among the clergy than among the population at large but figures may show otherwise. Even if the incidence is as low as 3% it is a chilling thought that those figures could be accurate. How to deal with it is problematic as, for one reason or another, only a minute fraction in respect of civil society seems to come to the attention of the Garda or the courts and much of it is not prosecutable due to lack of evidence and the passage of time.

Another chilling thought is how widespread is this evil in today's world. The destruction of innocence and the exploitation of children is one of the most horrific crimes imaginable, yet it affects most societies in the modern world. Child pornography is rampant on the Internet and so is child prostitution in many parts of the world. In the 1990s there were well publicised cases in Belgium involving members of the Government. In Holland, in 1990, legislation was passed making it legal for a child of 12 to have consensual sex with an adult. That law was rightly denounced here.

What has happened in Ferns is a truly horrendous and regrettable fact. Some bishops who had been assured by professionals that paedophilia could be treated sent priests away for treatment and reassigned them when pronounced cured, only to find they were not cured and reoffended again. I believe, in the future, that this knowledge and failure to act on it will be seen and taken by the courts as criminal negligence. There was negligence and mistakes were made by bishops, health authorities and the Garda.

At the heart of this issue rests the dignity and value of every human being. Everyone is entitled to be protected from the horrors of physical and sexual abuse by virtue of their humanity and inherent worth as an individual. To fail to recognise this and, in some instances, to turn a blind eye to the extent and severity of the suffering and pain involved is inexcusable. Let us hope we all learn from what has happened and that it will never be allowed to happen again.

Much of the anger raised in the media concerning the failure of church and State authorities to protect children from abuse is justified. Publication of the Ferns Report will in the long run do the Catholic Church a great service, hopefully leading to a purification and a more authentic witness for the future. The church has a monumental task going forward to reach out to the victims of abuse in a truly penitential and considerate way to commence the long process of healing. It is a long process because the taking of innocence is akin to the taking of a life. The victim of abuse must be of primary concern. The church, in the years to come, will be judged not on how many public statements it issued on the matter but on whether victims sincerely feel it and its members are truly remorseful for what happened through word and deed.

Many priests, nuns and members of the laity are also suffering hugely at present out of a sense of shame. I feel for those good people. Perhaps it is a time to remind ourselves of the amount of good, the Christian caring, the charity and the justice with which many clergy work and for which respect was given to all clergy. We should also remind ourselves of the sense of betrayal those good people must feel. The vast majority of people working for and serving the church do so in an exemplary manner under extremely difficult and often thankless circumstances.

We must also be mindful of the many elderly priests and religious who have devoted their entire lives to the message of the gospel and feel a deep sense of betrayal in their twilight years. We cannot allow ourselves to become so hardened as a society that we fail to also acknowledge this deep and lasting hurt. If we are sincere about ensuring that such abuse never happens again we must focus on ensuring that best practice is fully implemented to protect all our children in future. While it is a time to face facts, it is not a time to opportunistically make a scapegoat of the church in pursuit of other political and personal agendas. Some people have tried to make a scapegoat of the church, which was also betrayed by this action. The victims of abuse deserve better than this. While sensationalism may help to sell newspapers, it does nothing to bring about realistic solutions to extremely important societal problems. Just like the clergy and the church, each of us will be judged on how we react to this tragedy.


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