Bruce Arnold

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

Church abuse was crying out for legal remedy

THE initial public response to the Cloyne Report was appropriately directed at the victims, the abusers and those in power and authority within the Catholic Church who protected abusers and left those who suffered abuse to go on suffering.

It is a dismal story displaying a largely unrepentant church, its authority undermined, Bishop Magee whose behaviour has been quite outrageous, a Papal Nuncio in confusion, the Pope and the Vatican neglectful, without explanation.

If we turn to the wider context of how this happened, and why, we come upon an altogether more hopeful and positive picture.

This is the welcome spectacle of a new political will, expressed by Alan Shatter and Frances Fitzgerald. Their determination to go the legal road is refreshing and long overdue.

I have argued in favour of this for the past 10 years, in respect of the widespread abuse of children, both in the relatively distant past and in the present. The Fianna Fail party's legislative actions were to dismantle relevant laws or to exclude protection from sexual abuse in certain laws.

The party never confronted the confusion between canon law and the laws of this State, never clearly identified the prime targets in institutional and diocesan abuse, and was evasive and reluctant in dealing with primary offenders who engaged in paedophile crime, pederasty or child sexual molestation.

In setting up the Ryan Report, it excluded the issue of state responsibility. With Murphy in 2009 it left out the State's role.

With one case of sexual abuse following another, and with truly appalling serial child sex offenders like Brendan Smyth damaging children's lives, State and church engaged in an unending pavane around each other, trying to place the onus of control and action on each other, or on somebody else.

Now a Daniel has come to judgment, Alan Shatter. He has a clear grasp of the simple fact that has eluded so many previous administrations, thereby obstructing the normal duties of a justice minister.

This resides in his decision to strengthen and reinforce the State's statute law at the expense of canon law on the simple issue of those with clerical authority being party to, or protecting, criminal acts, namely the abuse of children.

Much has been made of the privilege of the confessional. This privilege, which Alan Shatter is determined to set aside, is based on common law or case law, and the case cited, Cook v Carroll, dates from 1945. The implication, now giving ammunition to the church in seeking to oppose the minister, is that the privilege is somehow sacred. It is in fact concerned with spiritual privacy and has only a very biased relevance to the cover-up of sexual abuse by priests.

If Bishop John McAreavey is right when he says the confessional is not harbouring or protecting abusers, then the church has nothing to fear from Shatter. And if the bishop is wrong, then let the law pass and when the confessional yields up abusers it will be an appropriate sacrifice to an unforgiving God.

If the issue arises at all, it is a one-sided protection of privilege. In cases known to me, deriving from first-hand evidence, the privilege was both used and abused by the priest hearing the confession of the child. The priest then relayed the confession to the abuser. It was a regular occurrence in the industrial schools and led to appalling punishment and further abuse of children when their abusers became aware they had been exposed through the confessional.

The other side of this coin -- of the priest hearing detail of a serious crime and acting on his knowledge -- is so remote as to be not worth consideration.

Such nonsense should end. So too should the idea of widespread hiding by the church behind 'privilege'.

Essentially, the confessional is safe for the vast multitudes who gain comfort from it, trusting the priest to whom they confess. Criminal sexual abuse should never come under that umbrella.

The most pathetic response to the Cloyne Report this week was not Bishop Magee's, whose cold, hard, unrepentant stare came out at us through the many images published of him. He had run away to the Vatican from his own misbehaviour, shamed by it into flight, as bishops have been shamed before. No, the pathetic figure, floundering publicly and giving all the wrong answers, was Cardinal Sean Brady.

Sean Brady should not be a Cardinal, nor Catholic Primate of Ireland nor a bishop. He should have resigned over his role in the cover-up of the activities of the paedophile priest, Father Brendan Smyth.

Father Sean Brady, as he then was, participated in an internal church legal process in 1975 that required victims of Smyth to remain silent about their abuse. It involved him in the intimidation of two children. Smyth went on to abuse many children before being brought to justice in 1994.

One abused child is suing Cardinal Brady on the grounds that complaints about Father Smyth were not reported to the gardai, nor steps taken to prevent Smyth from committing further assaults. Children were required to sign oaths not to discuss the complaints. Failure to report the complaints led to the plaintiff and others not receiving appropriate medical treatment.

Labour Party spokeswoman, Roisin Shortall, said in 2010 that Cardinal Brady was "hopelessly compromised". He still is.

The cardinal said he defended Bishop Magee, "but I did not defend him very strongly", adding that "he was quite clear in his mind at the time that Magee would need to eventually step aside".

What possible leadership is this for the Catholic Church?