Bruce Arnold

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

So many wasted years but line has finally been drawn on abuse

Enda Kenny's speech last Wednesday has been rightly praised for its dramatic challenges to the Pope and the Vatican over the hypocrisy of the Holy See in respect of child abuse in Ireland. Long overdue, it is no less commendable for that. The speech has also been dealt with, almost exclusively, in the context of Ireland's relationship with the Papacy on this issue.

The speech, however, represented, in addition, a breathtaking rearrangement of domestic politics. It is wrong to see it as belated. This administration, led by Mr Kenny, has been swift to define a new child abuse policy and a new set of aims.

In dealing with this aspect -- which in the long run will prove of greater importance than battling with the Vatican -- I am not playing down the importance of the changed and, one hopes, irreversible new relationship between Ireland and Rome. But in fairness to many politicians over the past decade, we have witnessed, in that period, two distinct approaches.

One of these was a Fianna Fail fudge, half-protective of the church, and it prevailed because Fianna Fail was in power. The other approach repeatedly questioned what was being done and its purposes.

Irish Independent columnist David Quinn's mention last week of mandatory reporting, in this respect, is a red herring designed to confuse issues and blame the rainbow coalition for failures when the facts had not fully emerged and when all the main revelations about abuse, apart from the various courageous documentaries, had yet to emerge. Kevin Myers, on the same page, makes the same mistake of confusing the narrative.

Secretive clerical sexual abuse has been a blight on the lives of generations of young people during the whole life of the State. It became a public issue in 1998 and the subject of direct state action beginning with Bertie Ahern's 'so-called' Apology of May 11, 1999. That was followed by legislation setting up a process of recompense and investigation, firstly of industrial school crime, then of diocesan abuse.

From the start, this was deeply flawed. There was evidence of collusion between church and State. The object was to protect the State and the church against the potential tide of legal action by men and women who had been sexually abused in institutional care or in diocesan environments where the church had also protected the priests. Children and their families were left unprotected by state law; by the police; by the church itself, of course; and by successive Fianna Fail administrations.

This was seen by many politicians on the opposition benches. Over more than a decade, they repeatedly tried to get a better and fairer approach. I name some of them, beginning with Alan Shatter, but going on to add Richard Bruton, Roisin Shortall, Joan Burton, Pat Rabbitte, Frances Fitzgerald, Olwyn Enright, Phil Hogan, Jan O'Sullivan and Barry Desmond.

There were other voices; all stood up to the church and in debate after debate detailed the deeply suspect strategy of Fianna Fail. This was to silence and contain the abused and deliberately to avoid confronting the changes to the law that were required.

From the start of the Kenny-led administration, a new approach, sensibly handled by Mr Shatter and Ms Fitzgerald, has been undertaken with a firmness and logic completely absent in Fianna Fail. Behind Mr Kenny's speech last week lay a vital political commitment in Ireland to change the law and the system of reporting.

The deep and deserved criticism of the Vatican shows Mr Kenny transcending the domestic requirements but not ignoring them. They are already the declared intention of the two key ministers, Mr Shatter and Ms Fitzgerald.

We needed to clear the way for this new approach, making better sense of the required reality in diplomatic relations between the Vatican City and ourselves. We had to confront the deep and abiding authoritarian insolence and disrespect for this country that characterised the church of Rome. It held remarkable sway in Ireland and did not hesitate to use it. It was not just Cloyne, as Mr Myers seems to argue; it embraced the earlier Murphy Report and previous state investigations, including those by the police.

Mr Shatter has undertaken the framing of new laws. Ms Fitzgerald faces a more difficult task. Changing the law is a vital underpinning of child protection but is by no means a panacea. Child abuse in sport, under HSE care, in education, in foster homes, in institutional care, as well as within the family -- as a recent court conviction exemplified -- demands widespread and multiple levels of social care and vigilance.

It needs resources and regulation. She will have to be pragmatic as well as principled. The Constitution would be inappropriate as her first port of call.

What Ms Fitzgerald as Children's Minister does will be keenly watched after literally years of debate and discussion reaching no adequate conclusion.

Without this week's speech, the Government's task would be more difficult. With it, an important line has been drawn. We won't catch up on the wasted years. Three previous administrations have floundered and prevaricated while the country watched one abuse story succeed another, one judge after another wrestle with institutional abuse, clerical and diocesan abuse, flawed remedies, imperfect and legally inadequate guidelines. The present government members, in opposition, waited patiently.

Watching Micheal Martin in the Dail on Wednesday I could think only of his culpability, as the main architect of Mr Ahern's deal with the church in the setting up of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse and of the Apology.

These led on to the secretive and parsimonious redress system. The views taken by him and the cabinet at the time were repeated by subsequent ministers and became key elements in the flawed approach to the countrywide problem of clerical sexual abuse. They were then repeated in the terms of reference for the first Murphy Report. Fianna Fail carries much guilt in all this.

MR Martin, last Wednesday, drew a line between the Cloyne Report and what he called "the significant role" of the church "respected and valued by both people of faith and the wider community", claiming that Cloyne showed "a different picture". So where was he when Ferns came to light? Successively in senior, even crucial government appointments, what did he do? And is he ashamed at how little was done?

We have wasted 12 years coming to this speech by Mr Kenny; a speech that focuses on the past but transcends the past and points us forward, not just in church-State relations but in a vital act of political progress and sterner retribution than we have braved before.