Changes should be made to seminaries and admission criteria for would-be priests, a Vatican report on the child abuse crisis in the Catholic Church in Ireland has warned.
A probe into the handling of clerical sex abuse cases found while guidelines to protect children against paedophile priests are being followed, academic programmes in seminaries should put more focus on the issue.
Senior churchmen were sent by Rome to investigate safeguarding procedures and protocols in the Catholic Church in Ireland after it was rocked by several reports which unveiled decades of abuse and cover-ups by church and state authorities.
The visiting clergy said they saw how much the shortcomings of the past gave rise to an inadequate understanding of, and reaction to, the abuse of minors.
“With a great sense of pain and shame, it must be acknowledged that within the Christian community innocent young people were abused by clerics and Religious to whose care they had been entrusted, while those who should have exercised vigilance often failed to do so effectively,” they found.
“At the same time the visitators were able to verify that, beginning in the 1990s, progressive steps have been taken towards a greater awareness of how serious is the problem of abuse, both in the Church and society, and how necessary it is to find adequate measures in response.”
The unprecedented probe, known as an apostolic visitation, was announced by the Pope in his letter to the Catholics of Ireland two years ago in response to the catalogue of abuse outlined in the Murphy and Ryan reports.
A summary of the report was published at the Columba Centre in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, by Cardinal Sean Brady, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin and papal nuncio to Ireland Archbishop Charles Brown.
Cardinal Brady said the visitation was not intended to replace or supersede the ongoing work of the Church in Ireland, its watchdog the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland, or state agencies in the efforts they have made to deal effectively with child abuse.
“Today’s report provides us with a helpful snapshot of a key moment in the ongoing journey of renewal, and a signpost to future priorities and directions,” he added.
The churchmen, Cardinals and Archbishops from England, America and Canada, visited four archdiocese as well as seminaries and religious institutes in early 2011.
They suggested trainee priests live separately from other students to prepare them properly for the priesthood.
Archbishop Martin – a campaigner for survivors of abuse and for reform in the church – denied the move was about isolating seminarians.
“It isn’t a cloistered life,” he said.
“The seminarians here at St Patrick’s College, for example, spend the vast majority of their time with other students. But in a seminary there must always be that space for prayer and reflection.
“It’s not about closing and locking up the seminarians.”
Cardinal Brady said seminarians themselves have sought their own space.
“That request has come time and time again from the seminarians themselves,” he said.
“And you must think how often they are away from the seminary in their parishes and so on.”
The report recommended that all institutes - dioceses and religious congregations - carry out an audit of their personnel files and monitor the implementation of guidelines set by the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church.
Bishops and religious superiors should also formulate guidelines for handling cases of clergy accused of abuse when the Director of Public Prosecutions does not bring a criminal case, and for those falsely accused who return to ministry.
Policies over the pastoral care of those convicted of abuse, i.e. the appropriate settings and conditions offenders should live, should also be written up.
Sister Marianne O’Connor, director-general of Cori, which represents Ireland’s religious congregations, said: “All religious congregations will now be taking time to review these findings with a view to ensuring that the work already undertaken in regard to child safeguarding, the support of survivors and the renewal of religious congregational life continues.”
The clergy said the painful events of recent years also opened many wounds within the Irish Catholic community, with many lay people experiencing a loss of trust in their pastors and many good priests and religious feeling unjustly tainted by association with the accused in the court of public opinion.
“Some have not felt sufficiently defended by their bishops and superiors,” they found.
“Those same bishops and superiors have often felt isolated as they sought to confront the waves of indignation and at times they have found it difficult to agree on a common line of action.”
Elsewhere they said there should be a new focus on the role of lay people in the church and said there was a need for deeper formation in the content of the faith for young people and adults.
They also urged diocesan and religious authorities to continue to devote much time listening to and receiving victims, providing support for them and their families.
Maeve Lewis, of support group One In Four, said the Vatican was still not accepting responsibility for its role in creating the culture of purposeful cover-ups of the sexual abuse of children.
She said it was disappointing that the Vatican did not use the opportunity to acknowledge that its interventions in the abuse scandal had allowed individual Catholic Church leaders in Ireland to ignore guidelines and to protect the good name of the Church at the expense of the safety of children.
“While we welcome the findings of the visitation that the Irish Church now has good child protection practices in place, we feel it is a lost opportunity to address the role played by the Vatican in perpetuating the policy of protecting abusive priests at the expense of children,” said Ms Lewis.
“We also welcome the recommendation that the bishops and religious superiors should devote much time to listening to survivors and attending to their needs.
“In the past year at One In Four we have noticed a hardening of attitude on the part of the church authorities to the question of compensation for survivors.
“We have had grotesque situations where senior churchmen meet with survivors, assure them of their remorse for what happened while at the same time are instructing their legal teams to file full defences in relation to civil compensations suits.
“This only compounds the pain and hurt of survivors. It brings into question the authenticity of the Church’s repentance.”