The Catholic Church faced further allegations of mishandling child sex abuse in Ireland today after claims that a girl abused by a priest was sworn to secrecy in an out-of-court settlement as recently as 2000.
The victim went public with her claims that she was abused over a 10-year period by an unnamed priest, but said she was bound to secrecy in a legal deal which involved the Bishop of Derry Seamus Hegarty.
The fresh controversy comes after revelations that the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland Cardinal Sean Brady remained silent for 35 years over two abuse cases involving a notorious paedophile priest.
The latest case involves a woman who said that a decade of abuse by a priest who had befriended her family began in 1979. She told her parents only on the day of her 18th birthday after becoming overwhelmed by events.
A spokesman for Bishop Hegarty said today he was aware of the case, but would not be commenting until a detailed review of the file had been carried out.
He confirmed the bishop’s office was alerted to the woman’s claims yesterday afternoon by the Belfast Telegraph newspaper, but had not immediately reviewed the case because of the St Patrick’s Day holiday.
An official responsible for overseeing the Church’s handling of abuse claims said out-of-court settlements were not acceptable.
Ian Elliott, chief executive of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland, said: “If any situation comes to light involving a child, then the policy of the church, and the absolute commitment that is given, is that that information will be conveyed to the appropriate state authorities, the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) and the social services.”
The settlement of the Derry case was said to have involved a payment of £12,000 to the woman and her parents. The family had not contacted police in the belief that the Church would deal with the issue, but they later became dissatisfied with how the clergy handled the matter.
The settlement is said to have included a confidentiality clause, plus a handwritten letter by the abusive priest.
In the letter, reproduced in the Belfast Telegraph today, the priest wrote: “Now as I grow into pension years and feel the insecurity of uncertain health, I am anxious to offer you and your extended family my deepest apology for any pain I caused you through inappropriate gesture or mistaken signs of affection.”
The young woman at the centre of the case said she was subjected to a sustained campaign of abuse which began when she was eight and lasted into her late teens.
Spelling out the current Church position on handling such cases, a spokesman told the Belfast Telegraph: “Since the implementation of the Framework for the Church’s Response to Child Abuse in 1996, and more recently in our present Safeguarding Children – Standards and Guidance for the Catholic Church in Ireland (2009), it is policy that any concerns of a safeguarding nature are passed on to the relevant statutory authorities and confidentiality cannot be assured either for the perpetrators of child abuse or the survivors.
“This process is managed by the Safeguarding Office, which is run by professionals in the field of child protection and safeguarding and who regularly liaise with the inter-agency forum to ensure the care and protection of our young people.”
Victims of clerical sexual abuse have continued to call for Cardinal Sean Brady’s resignation for his role in a meeting 35 years ago where two children abused by Father Brendan Smyth were asked to take a vow of silence as part of an internal Church investigation.
The primate yesterday told a congregation in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh - where he said Mass to celebrate the feast day of Ireland’s patron saint – he would take a period of time to reflect on his future.
But those affected by abuse said he should go now.
A separate Irish Catholic clergyman, speaking in defence of his under-pressure primate, sparked further controversy when he said he would not necessarily report child sex abuse to the police.
Monsignor Maurice Dooley, who said he studied canon law with Dr Brady, defended the cardinal’s silence in 1975, and added that he would not necessarily refer sex crimes against children to police today if passed information confidentially.
Asked what he would do if a paedophile priest confided his crimes to him, Monsignor Dooley said: “I would not tell anyone.
“That is his responsibility. I am considering only my responsibility. My responsibility is to maintain the confidentiality of information which I had been given under the contract of confidentiality.
“There must be somebody else aware of what he is up to, and he could be stopped. It is not my function.”