Thursday, November 26, 2009

Clerical Abuse: The Dublin Cover-Up

By Terence Weldon

Editor’s Note: This commentary was first published November 23 at Terence’s blogsite, Queering the Church.

From Ireland we now have the long-awaited report of the commission investigating the response of the bishops of Dublin to the problem of abuse of the children in their care. (This is not a report into the problem itself. That was splendidly done by the Ryan Report earlier this year, which not only covered clerical sexual abuse of minors, but also clerical abuse by physical violence and by neglect in church institutions for child “care.” This latest commission investigated the response of the bishops to specific complaints of sexual abuse in just the Archdiocese of Dublin.)

The core finding?

The four Catholic archbishops of Dublin who preceded Dr Diarmuid Martin, were aware of complaints against priests for sexually abusing children — a practice that went on for over 35 years.

But the most senior figures in the Irish hierarchy did not report these crimes to the gardai because of an obsessive culture of secrecy and a desire to preserve the power and aura of the Church and to avoid giving scandal to their congregations.

So, the response was determined by an obsession with secrecy, and the preservation of church power. Note here that the consensus view of those who have investigated the problem from outside the ranks of the church establishment is that one of the key factors is the excessive concentration and abuse of power within church structures. A driving force in the response was a determination to preserve one of the key factors that caused the problem in the first place.

This evidence of concern for the power and prestige of the church was not matched by concern for the welfare of the victims:

The report of the Commission set up to investigate how the Dublin Archdiocese dealt with sex abuse scandals from 1975 to 2004 will find that there was little or no concern for the welfare of the abused children or other children who might come into contact with deviant and even paedophile priests.

Far from offering sympathetic support in their search for justice, they often responded with lack of co-operation, suspicion or even hostility.

Some of those who complained were met with denial, arrogance and even cover-up, the shocking report will reveal.

Let me try to illustrate the scale of this with some figures. First, a reminder of the time scale – 35 years- under the supervision of 4 separate Archbishops: Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, Cardinal Connell. For the first 20 years, there was no action at all, until finally, in 1995, Cardinal Connell ordered a trawl through the archives:

It was not until 1995 that he ordered a trawl through the diocesan secret archives to determine how many clerics had ever been accused of child abuse, and he gave gardai only 17 names.

One key reason for his inadequate response was that he just didn’t understand the severity of the problem. . . . He was slow to recognise the seriousness of the situation, took bad counsel from legal and medical advisers and failed to realise that clerical sex abusers could not be dealt with in secret.

The report also says that while Connell was kind and sympathetic to some of those who complained to him, he appeared not to comprehend the suffering of victims.

This week’s verdict in newspaper headlines is that Cardinal Connell’s actions were just ‘too little, too late’. The cardinal claims that he was given “bad advice,” and defended his record on the basis that there was a limit to how much he could do. This didn’t prevent him making a further intervention later, however – in an attempt to prevent his successor doing what he himself had failed to do.

His one intervention came last year when he sought a High Court application to prevent the examination by the commission of more than 5,000 documents which had been handed over by Archbishop Martin on the grounds that these files were confidential to him. But in the ensuing public clamour against his perceived cover-up, he withdrew the application.

In fairness to Connell, though, consider that he at least made some attempt, no matter how inadequate – his three immediate predecessors, John Charles McQuaid, Dermot Ryan and Kevin McNamara did nothing. (No, wait, there was something that one did – he took out insurance to protect against financial losses).

When, finally, his successor had completed a second investigation of Connell’s own records, he found rather more than 17 names.

This compares starkly with how his successor Archbishop Diarmuid Martin later found that since 1940 more than 400 children had claimed to have been abused by at least 152 priests in the Dublin area.

Think on that: Dublin is a particularly large city – yet Dr Martin came up with 400 children abused by 152 priests. 400 cases found by Dr Martin, 17 by Connell. What happened to the other 383? (Or, if Connell’s names refer to priests, not children – it’s not clear which- the other 138 priests?)

This commission investigated a cover-up, not the cause or extent of the original findings. Nevertheless, reading through just these leaked newspaper reports, it does seem that they corroborate the standard findings of the most reliable observers on the nature of the causes of clerical abuse around the world.

One, this is a question of lust gone mad. St Paul is well known to have argued that celibacy is an ideal for those who can manage to control their carnal impulses, but for the greater number who cannot, marriage is recommended, so that their lust can be channeled without doing harm.

Two, it’s about power. An obsession with power and control is widely believed to be a systemic, institutional factor within the church contributing to the problem – but for decades, the bishops of Dublin (like those elsewhere) responded simply with trying to exert yet more control.

Three, it’s about a complete lack of understanding of human sexuality. It is astonishing that Cardinal Connell, a highly intelligent well-educated man at the very end of the twentieth century still could not understand that this was a serious problem which could not be just dealt with by a quiet chat with offenders. He of course was not alone – one of the priests claims it was just a little bit of “innocent pleasure.” (In contrast, presumably with the scandalous sin of adult men who engage in consensual, mutual expression of a loving relationship.) It is clear that a fundamental element in the toxic mix is totally inadequate preparation of our clergy for proper understanding of sex and its role in human relationships.

Other than the fact that it is finally being made public, one of the few good things about this report is that some names and details of individual offenders are being withheld, or are being masked to avoid identification. This is not to continue the cover-up, but to avoid prejudicing the continuing criminal investigations and possible prosecutions.

Finally decades after the scale of the problem first became known, we are seeing an appropriate response to individual offenders (at least in Dublin).

How much longer must we wait to see a comparable, appropriate response to the institutional culpability embedded in church structures – an obsession with power and control, compulsory celibacy, and totally inappropriate methods of selection and training of candidates?

Recommended Off-site Links:
Commission Finds Church Covered Up Child Sex Abuse - Patsy McGarry (Irish Times, November 26, 2009).
In Dublin, a “Perversion of Power” - Rocco Palmo (
Whispers in the Loggia, November 26, 2009).

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