Cloyne abuse report - How little has been learned

The Irish Bishops Conference in 1996 lay out the procedures for handling allegations and suspicions of clerical child sex abuse in a document entitled “Child Sexual Abuse: Framework for a Church Response.”

Twelve years later the Catholic Church’s own watchdog — the National Board for Safeguarding Children (NBSC) — was damning in its report of the manner in which the Diocese of Cloyne handled the complaints.

As a result, Circuit Court Judge Yvonne Murphy was appointed to examine the way in which the Church and state authorities — such as the health service and An Garda Síochána — handled the complaints made between January 1996 and February 2009.

The inquiry received information about complaints of child sexual abuse against 33 priests. Only 19 of those cases came within the remit of the inquiry, because the other complaints were made prior to January 1996. Hence it is important to stress that the report was not an investigation of the allegations of child sex abuse but, rather, a report into how allegations made in Cloyne were handled after January 1996.

The diocese repeatedly refuted assertions that it had not implemented the procedures set out in the Church protocols for dealing with clerical child sex abuse, but the report highlights a whole series of failings in which the guidelines “were not fully or consistently implemented”. The inquiry concluded that “the response of the Diocese of Cloyne to complaints and allegations of clerical child sex abuse in the period 1996 to 2008 was inadequate and inappropriate”.

The report is likely to attract widespread international attention, because of the involvement of Bishop John Magee, who served as private secretary to three popes — Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II. Although the offending clerics are only identified under pseudonyms, the report acknowledges in an apologetic way that Bishop McGee is actually named as one against whom an allegation of inappropriate behaviour had been made.

The allegation was that he embraced an 18 year old and kissed him on the forehead. This behaviour was deemed inappropriate but not reportable. In one sense, therefore, it seems unfair to include the incident in the report, but in this case it was necessary in order to emphasise the thoroughness of the report, especially when some of the findings are so critical of Bishop Magee’s handling of allegations.

The diocese failed to report any of the complaints to the health authorities between 1996 and 2008. The most serious criticism was of the failure to report all complaints to the gardaí. “The primary responsibility for the failure to implement the agreed procedures lies with Bishop Magee,” according to the report. The inquiry found it remarkable that “Bishop Magee took little or no active interest in the management of clerical child sexual abuse cases until 2008, 12 years after the framework document was adopted”.

Between 1996 and 2005 the diocese failed to report nine of the 15 complaints made against priests that “very clearly should have been reported”. As a result of the bishop’s failings, a vacuum developed in the handling of the clerical child sex abuse allegations.

By default it was left to others, especially Monsignor Denis O’Callaghan, then vicar general of Cloyne. He was essentially responsible for helping the bishop to run the diocese. The monsignor did little to fill this vacuum because he “did not approve of the procedures set out in the framework document”, especially “the requirements to report to the civil authorities”. The inquiry concludes he “failed to understand that the requirement to report was for the protection of other children”.

It was not just the authorities in Cloyne who come out badly. The report is highly critical of the Vatican, because it was “entirely unhelpful to any bishop who wanted to implement the agreed procedures”. The Vatican told the Irish bishops that the procedures outlined were not part of “an official document of the Episcopal Conference but merely a study document”.

The inquiry concluded most of the gardaí involved in the investigation “carried out their tasks well ... with compassion and dignity”. In three instances, the inquiry was critical of how gardaí handled complaints.

The health authorities were not informed about complaints between 1996 and 2008, but where they had concerns about the welfare of children, those authorities “dealt properly with these concerns” by informing the children’s parents.

What is most disturbing about this report — dealing with incidents that occurred within the past decade and a half — is that it shows that Church authorities seem to have learned so little from all the previous exposures. They posed as shepherds guarding the flock, but this report suggests that the wolves were allowed a free run at the lambs.

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