Bruce Arnold

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

Church must respect State law ahead of its own rules

Politicians, including party leaders, are ignoring their role in putting right deeply flawed social structures that have failed

We have reached a point of surfeit over abuse. The story spreads worldwide, now involving Germany, South America, the United States again with the Milwaukee revelations. We can always trump what happens elsewhere with worse here. If it is deaf children, we had worse in Ireland where boys were sexually abused over decades, and the girls suffered mindless cruelty.

Disabled children? The same. We allowed a massive culture of abuse to develop, the church part of it, but by no means the whole, since the people, together with their guardians -- the State, the law and the police -- simply allowed it to happen. Even today, politicians, including party leaders, are ignoring their role in putting right deeply flawed social structures that have failed.

Abuse is history. Material facts continue to be unearthed, but from the past and shrouded in perpetually dishonest excuses from the church, claiming it was not clear about what abuse meant and why it happened.

As a child at school in the 1940s I read about abuse in 'The People' and the 'News of the World'. I was advised by my father to avoid men with beards! The predatory nature of adult sexual desire for children was recognised and warned against. Prison sentences were published. Even in Ireland the crime was known.

Diarmaid Ferriter, in his 2009 book 'Occasions of Sin', writes: "Cases (of child abuse) were reported in newspapers, though the language used was often circumspect and barristers had a tendency to announce they would not 'go into the gruesome details'."

What is exceptional to this is the law. It is part of the present. It is reality and not just history; it is the duty of the lawmakers to ensure that it remains up to date. It is their duty to address it, reform it and change it. It must accommodate what it failed to accommodate throughout the State's history. On abuse, the law has been a shy handmaiden to the church, fobbed off with the idea that an alternative law, the one administered and shaped by the Vatican, was a suitable protection for children. It has proved the opposite. Rather than protect children it has been their insidious enemy.

In Ireland the extent is infinitely greater than in other countries because the lawmakers and those who implement the law have accepted the church's rule in the State and have largely failed to use civil and criminal law as it was made to be used, against grievous and sustained criminal behaviour by generation after generation of priests and others.

This issue, of there being two laws operating in the State, one managed and applied by the church, the other by our courts and the police, requires to be digested and its elements fundamentally reformed. And to do this we need to separate it from the abuse saga, isolate it as an ongoing problem, debate it and bring in a new charter for change and reform.

Unless we do so, canon law will remain in operation as the church's first resort, impeding total transparency and immediate reporting of the abuse that has so riveted attention, yet in a singularly distorted way.

In a speech last Saturday Alan Shatter put this situation in the context of the Children's Rights Amendment to the Constitution, really only a starting point. People are not easily governed by the Constitution; they need laws to underpin its principles. And this is emphatically so over the state of the law in respect of child abuse.

Mr Shatter comments: "There has been an eerie and deafening silence from government." He goes on: "To date the Government has neither expressed support for the proposed amendment nor specified a date for the holding of the required referendum."

'Leave it to the church to sort itself out' is the approach of politicians.

We are dealing, as this notably outspoken public representative has repeatedly told us, with 'saga-length' scandal, with lip-service and with failure, both by the State and the Roman Catholic Church.

The reforms needed are crucial and go beyond constitutional amendment. They affect the law in detail and in substance, yet no cabinet minister from the Taoiseach down contributed to the recent Dail debate on the proposed constitutional change, and this included Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, who was a member of the Children's Rights Committee, and has been vocal about not allowing the clerical collar to be a defence of abusers.

What we need is a commission of inquiry, with this brief: To look into the broken and ignored relationship between the pre-eminence of state law and the confusion in state law created by the widespread respect for canon law. Such a commission would need a short timetable and its remit confined. It should consist of a small group drawn from Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Nuala O'Loan comes to mind as well as Maurice Hayes. The SDLP politician, Declan O'Loan is another sensible candidate. In recent criticism of the Pope's letter he expressed disappointment that it did not address or analyse "what went wrong and why it went wrong".

He repudiates "the very unhealthy culture of centralised clerical power within the church and the attendant secrecy. If that is not even admitted, what hope is there of correcting it thoroughly?".

He invokes the need, in the light of the Pope's proposed "visitation", to define whether or not this should be backed by state intervention.

Not many politicians in the Republic have come anywhere near saying this.

"I find it embarrassing that, in many historical instances, the lead in developing human rights has come from secular society rather than from the church. Indeed it has often been achieved against opposition by the church.

"Once again in this area of responding to child abuse, despite the strongest imperative, the church appears to be slow to move in a necessary direction."

We need a commission to define this in brave, forthright and unequivocal terms.