Three bishops made significant errors of judgment when allegations of child sexual abuse were made against priests, a Catholic Church watchdog has found.
As recently as 2009 a priest was appointed to a protection body in the Co Donegal Diocese of Raphoe by Bishop Philip Boyce even though he was uncomfortable examining lifelong friends.
The National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church (NBSCCC) found the priest lacked confidence, was emotionally challenged by the job and had no formal child protection training.
A lay person has since been appointed to the role.
The NBSCCC audit singled out Bishop Boyce, his predecessor Seamus Hegarty, who retired as Bishop of Derry earlier this month due to ill-health, and his predecessor, Bishop Anthony McFeely for mishandling complaints against clergy since the 1970s.
The three bishops were in charge of Raphoe during the time when Eugene Greene, one of the most notorious paedophile priests in the country, was abusing dozens of youngsters and being moved from parish to parish.
The NBSCCC found they were more concerned with the accused than the victim – a well- documented pattern in inquiries into clerical abuse.
“It is clear that significant errors of judgment were made by successive bishops when responding to child abuse allegations that emerged within this diocese,” the report found.
“Too much emphasis was placed on the situation of the accused priest and too little on the needs of their complainants.
“Judgments were clouded, due to the presenting problem being, for example, alcohol abuse and an inability to hear the concerns about abuse of children, through that presenting problem.”
Bishop Hegarty took over Raphoe from Bishop McFeely in 1982 and became Bishop of Derry in 1994. Bishop Boyce became Bishop of Raphoe in 1995.
Ian Elliot, NBSCCC chief executive, found that guidelines on dealing with sex abuse allegations were not referenced on a regular basis when handling complaints, while some safeguarding volunteers were not up to speed with the regulations.
The priest on the Child Protection Committee, known as the Designated Person to oversee inquiries in sex complaints, admitted he was “ill at ease” with the role as alleged abusers were often life-long friends, the report found.
He was appointed as recently as January 2009.
The NBSCCC found that the priest was emotionally challenged by the role which he accepted he approached first and foremost from a “pastoral point of view”.
“It is also evident it is not a role in which he felt comfortable but he undertook it out of a sense of responsibility and a desire to ensure better practice in the diocese,” the review states.
On the church’s recruitment policies in the diocese, the report said while all individuals who are in contact with children are asked to be vetted, a few had expressed reluctance to do so.
Complaints have been made against 14 priests in the Raphoe diocese since 1975. All were still alive when the review was completed, while two more priests now living in the diocese have had allegations made against them relating to their time in ministry elsewhere.
Four have been convicted and six still remain in the priesthood.
The review found there were 52 complaints made to gardaí and health authorities about priests based in the diocese.
The audit also singled out Bishop Boyce over a serious case of abuse in which he tried to protect the priest's family rather than have the cleric removed from ministry.
“Bishop Boyce in at least one serious case was keen to protect the family of the convicted priest from further trauma by not initiating laicisation,” Mr Elliot said.
“Although the case was referred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Vatican, the further laicisation process has not yet been completed. This, whilst pastorally understandable, is inappropriate and should be reviewed.”
Mr Elliot said bishops Boyce, Hegarty and McFeely should have acted to stop child abuse when fears were first raised.
“More attention should have been given to ensuring that preventative actions were taken quickly when concerns came to light,” he said.
“This view is based on an assessment of cases reported to the diocese and includes a number which were received during the previous bishops’ time in office.”
The NBSCCC also found there is some evidence in the diocesan files to suggest that insufficient emphasis has been placed on ensuring that complainants received support.
It also pointed to a lack of awareness of reporting requirements by some clergy and on occasions in the past there were delays reporting complaints to authorities.
The NBSCCC said all allegations have been passed on.
But it warned that Bishop Boyce appeared to have taken it upon himself to judge the credibility of an allegation before reporting it to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The review found that in most cases the body was not notified until prosecution began or laicisation was sought.
“There is evidence in the files suggesting that, in some instances and especially where the credibility of the accused is high, the church authorities appear to offer support primarily to the respondent and their family,” the report found.
The bishop has been warned to follow the Church’s guidelines, issued in 2001, to notify all allegations which hold “a semblance of truth”.