Cardinal and abuse victims prove jaw-jaw is better than war-war

“To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war,” Winston Churchill once said, and last week’s meeting between victims of child sexual abuse and Cardinal Desmond Connell proved the point yet again.

While the cardinal has met with abuse victims before, his five-hour meeting on December 30 with Marie Collins and Ken Reilly was something new. For the first time, the public learned that such meetings could bring satisfaction to both sides. And the Church's critics, who for so long viewed it as mean-spirited and legalistic in its dealings with abused people, finally saw something to make them change their minds.

At the meeting, the diocese declared its intention to let the gardaí review its files on sex abuse. Even more significantly, it asked Collins and Reilly for their advice on how to proceed with the management of child sexual abuse issues. Further progress was made last Friday when the former victims met with David Kennedy, chairman of the diocese's Independent Advisory Panel on Child Sexual Abuse.

It seems the cardinal's prayers have been answered. From a situation where sincere and articulate victims of child sexual abuse were calling for his head, renewed trust has broken out. And his diocese is on the verge of forging a new alliance with abuse victims in its attempts to put right past wrongs.

Much of the credit must go to Marie Collins and Ken Reilly. The role they adopt in advising the Church, and maybe one day helping it communicate its approach to child sexual abuse, will be a matter for them. Undoubtedly, they will retain their distinct perspective, and their right to criticise things they disagree with. But they have shown remarkable generosity of spirit in getting involved at all, and if from now on there is less polarisation in the debate about child sexual abuse, it will be thanks to them.

But it would be wrong, too, to see the meeting as a hastily convened effort by Cardinal Connell to save his own bacon. While Marie Collins's call for his resignation was well-meant and led to positive results, comparisons in the media between Connell and Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston were way off the mark. Law resigned over clear and repeated mishandling of abuse cases, whereas Dr Connell could always be said to have acted in good faith. Unlike bishops elsewhere he never ignored allegations of abuse, nor did he move priests from parish to parish to cover-up their wrongdoing. As far back as 1991 he moved to have an abuser dismissed from the priesthood. That Dublin was different from Boston was clear from the attitude of Dr Connell's own priests. Law's departure came after 58 Boston priests urged him to go, but Connell got very public backing from Fr Martin Cosgrove, chairman of the Dublin Council of Priests, when he needed it most. Cardinal Connell is now almost 77 and a coadjutor bishop, with right of succession, could be appointed within 18 months. His meeting with Marie Collins and Ken Reilly has restored his reputation in the eyes of many and given him an opportunity to reach out to disaffected Catholics. But this will only happen if the Church learns some key lessons from the child abuse issue.

1. In times of crisis, people in positions of leadership must be seen to care. One of the ironies of Cardinal Connell's tenure is that the church officials who built friendship and trust with abuse victims such as Marie Collins and Ken Reilly did so at his bidding and with his support. Yet the victims had very little sense that he himself cared. The cardinal and his fellow bishops should spend time and energy in personal contact with victims of abuse. Not just the ones that call for their resignation.

2. The Church must take the initiative. While Marie Collins met Cardinal Connell in 1996 the fact that she did not meet him again until last week tells its own story. The door may well have been open had she requested further meetings, and Church officials are understandably nervous of intruding on victims, but they need to be more proactive. The cardinal showed the right spirit when he phoned Mrs Ena Reilly, mother of Ken Reilly, to apologise for all the suffering she had endured and for the failures of the Church in dealing with her complaints against Fr Tony Walsh.

3. Trust lay people. Since 1996 Cardinal Connell has been advised by an Independent Advisory Panel on Child Sexual Abuse, composed largely of lay people and including parents. Constructive advice from victims is also vital, and now looks possible.

4. Sometimes, acting honourably won't be good enough. The Church faces a big problem in distinguishing between proper allegations of abuse and 'concerns' expressed about priests by third parties. This arose in Marie Collins's case and more recently Cardinal Connell was accused of having appointed Fr Noel Reynolds as chaplain to the National Rehabilitation Institute despite having received complaints of abuse against him. This particular accusation by the October Prime Time documentary, 'Cardinal Secrets,' tipped the scales against Dr Connell in many people's minds. In fact, the Dublin diocese did not have knowledge of abuse by Reynolds when it appointed him as chaplain, but had heard 'concerns' from people about the priest. This was serious enough, and the Church's response was to question the priest and to later send him for psychiatric assessment. The experts recommended 'supported ministry', but didn't regard the priest as a threat to children. The diocese later appointed the priest to the National Rehabilitation Institute and has since acknowledged that it should have informed the institute about the original concerns expressed.

Maybe the Church should remove all such priests as a matter of prudence but there are dangers here which need to be acknowledged. What if such 'concerns' cannot be verified? Just as third-party comments are regarded as hearsay in court cases, and cannot be used to secure convictions, the Church cannot permanently dismiss a priest from parish ministry if proof of wrongdoing is absent.

5. The Church needs a more proactive media strategy. There are three main reasons why Cardinal Connell was wise not to give extended television or radio interviews in recent months. Firstly, he is not a good media performer. Secondly, the Church should avoid clashing with victims even if it is right on certain points. Thirdly, the capacity of the media to deal with the issues fairly was, and remains, open to serious question.

But this leaves a major problem if false allegations are put into the public domain, or half-truths as arose in the Prime Time documentary. Since Church-based communications won't reach disaffected Catholics, bishops need to consider advertising and other promotional material as a radical alternative.

Massive damage has been done to people's faith as a result of child sexual abuse by priests. But thanks to Marie Collins, Ken Reilly, Cardinal Connell and others, there is now an opportunity to restore the credibility of Church leadership. It should not be missed.

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