Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Abuse report ignores failure of State to stop the horrors

The main axis of public concern is missing from the report of the Murphy Commission. This is the tie-up between Church abnegation of responsibility for abuse in the Dublin diocese and the State's awareness and response to this.

The State at the highest level, meaning government and ministerial involvement as well as that of the Dail and Seanad, is simply not in the report. Generous investigation and coverage is given to the legal provisions that were in existence and were so callously and dishonestly ignored by the Church.

And this led to serious and endemic criminal acts of which clerics from the hierarchy down were guilty. But there is no such attention given to the State's equally reprehensible collusion in this.

As with the parallel investigation, by Justices Laffoy and Ryan, into widespread, endemic and horrifying sexual abuse in the child prisons masquerading as industrial schools, the failure was to fix responsibility for criminal neglect on the State. The State in the end was responsible. Unfortunately, the Murphy report does the same.

The State knew; but the State bowed the head in response to the Church's obsession with scandal and secrecy and did nothing. Leaders of this country, in successive governments over more than half a century -- the period covered by the Murphy report's 'time-line', (as opposed to its investigative remit) -- were simply governed and controlled by the Church in sexual matters, including widespread abuse. They have central responsibility for allowing that widespread abuse. There is no examination of this in the report.

The terms of reference stop short at "public and State authorities" over the period January 1975 and May 2004 and are confined to "a representative sample of complaints or allegations of child sexual abuse" in the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin. This is a narrow focus. The report asks "whether there is any evidence of attempts on the part of those authorities to obstruct, prevent or interfere with the proper investigation of such complaints".

The Murphy Commission followed its remit. This was to "establish the levels of communication that prevailed between the archdiocesan and other Catholic Church authorities and public and state authorities". But the public and state authorities are defined in the terms of reference, and so understood by the commission in its own interpretation of them, as "the relevant state authorities, that is, the gardai, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and the health authorities".

These are not the ultimate authorities in state policy and its implementation. They are instruments of such policy, interpreting the law and carrying it out in precise ways -- or not, as the case may be.

It is clear from the Murphy report findings that they need further investigation. However, it should have been much higher than the level of Garda Commissioner or past occupants of the role of DPP, as well as health boards. What is missing from the report is that higher authority.

Who failed to shape and periodically reform the fetid relationship between Church and State? Those responsible are left out of investigation and consideration and it is a serious omission on which the report is silent. Exactly the same charge may be made about the reports by Justices Laffoy and Ryan.

Clearly the Murphy Commission does not go far enough. What did the State do about the abuse of the law? What did it do about knowledge of what was going on? How did it deal with senior police officers blocking investigation and colluding with the Church? Why were politicians like Alan Shatter and Joan Burton blocked in their efforts at reform?

The truth is that the relationship has never been reformed. As recently as the summer, the coalition blocked the perfectly sensible and satisfactory Labour Party bill on rectifying criminal guilt affecting thousands of victims of the industrial schools. It was blocked by the Cowen-led government. Virtually all such previous political initiatives have been blocked.

It would be an indulgence in superfluous rhetoric simply to explore this further. A much larger problem derives from it.

This is the dangerous global demand for some kind of legal package protective of children, including an amendment to the Constitution.

It is not necessary. The package is already there in the law of the land. This was criminally abused by clerics from the highest in the Dublin archdiocese, serially acting in the same way to protect men guilty of indictable offences.

As to the Constitution, it is difficult to see how any amendment would help in the circumstances outlined above.

This points to present and future gaps that the Murphy report fails to address, because its terms of reference did not cover them and also because it was precluded from making recommendations, for which, as the report states, "the Commission has no specific remit". It has merely "given its views on a range of matters which it considers significant at various stages in the report".

The Ryan Commission made recommendations but they

were of a puerile kind, by-passing the victims of past abuse.

The two ministers, Dermot Ahern and Barry Andrews, were not reassuring about the State's intentions. I do not think Dermot Ahern is any more committed than his predecessors with his glib "a collar will protect no criminal".

Let us wait and see which clerics are arraigned.

Barry Andrews talked about "comprehensive child protection laws" and the need to put them in place. We should be precisely careful of overkill. We do not need a "package" -- we need good laws, well-written, debated fully, and then enacted.

There have been admirable exceptions to the predictable platitudes and statements of horror. Diarmuid Martin is the first Archbishop of Dublin who has declared himself on the side of the law.

Fergus Finlay and Justine McCarthy have been firm about the limitations in the Murphy report, particularly its terms of reference and absence of recommendations.

It is a time for cool judgment. We knew already the horror children face.