Child abuse and the church in Ireland

By Fr Brendan Hoban

THERE are a number of reasons why the Cloyne Report, published last week, is the worst of bad news for the Catholic Church in Ireland.

First is the shocking truth that victims and their families were made to endure so much needless additional suffering, compounding the trauma they had already experienced.

Second is the fact that the church guidelines of 1996, trumpeted so widely as the beginning of a new era of child protection, were not implemented.

Third is the fact that Bishop John Magee, after the public outrage that attended Cardinal Desmond Connell using the dodgy concept of ‘mental reservation’ to excuse what was in effect telling lies, used the same unconvincing excuse to again justify deceitfulness.

Fourth is another reminder of a consistent and depressing pattern of a failure of leadership, indeed a failure of competence on a grand scale.

Fifth is the fact that this glorious opportunity for people with an anti-Catholic agenda to do further damage to an ailing Church was the result of a self-inflicted wound on the Church.

Whatever credibility was gained by thousands of Catholics in hundreds of parishes all over Ireland for the gigantic efforts they have made in the last decade or more - in creating awareness about child protection, in training personnel, in implementing and revising guidelines - has been torpedoed by the failures in Cloyne.

We have discovered again that we are, as a church, in media terms as strong as the weakest link. The Cloyne Report has, in the public mind, undone so much.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny is right that, in terms of child protection, no institution should be allowed to police itself. Unfortunately the Cloyne failures have effectively blown the credentials of the Catholic Church in child protection out of the water.

Even though Cloyne is only one diocese out of 27, the public perception is that the Catholic Church had its chance over the last 15 years to establish our credibility in the area of child protection and we didn’t take it.

While I agree with the proposals of Minister Alan Shatter (with reservations I will come to in a moment) on mandatory reporting and those of Minister Frances Fitzgerald on children’s rights and the let’s-get-this-sorted, no-nonsense approach of Enda Kenny is to be commended, what is needed at this point is not gung-ho populist bluster but a clear and measured response.

There’s no doubt, for example, that a weakened and vulnerable Catholic Church presents a glorious opportunity for those who wish to airbrush the influence of the Church out of Irish life. It is instructive how often the ubiquitous Mary Raftery, in her many appearances on radio, television and in the print media, has sought to move the discussion on to ending the Catholic Church’s role in Irish education.

And, I regret to say that the remark of Taoiseach Enda Kenny - effectively threatening bishops and priests by saying that “a Roman collar or a crozier” would not protect anyone from the course of the law - had the word ‘bandwagon’ written all over it. And I would worry a bit too about the obvious relish of T├ínaiste Eamon Gilmore, explaining to the Irish people, how he had put manners on the Papal Nuncio. (One wonders will as many politicians be rushing to the plinth when the details of the next budget are announced.)

What we need now is a leader-ship, at this point, that eschews populism but that calmly and deliberately, in the midst of competing voices pushing a variety of agendas, does what has to be done. And recognises too what can and can’t be done. It’s time for the state to do what the state is supposed to do. It’s the state’s business and the state should get on with it.

I wonder, though, whether Alan Shatter, the Justice Minister, whose bailiwick this is, has thought through the implications of his intention to force priests to break the seal of Confession, in the interests of child protection.

There are all kinds of situations where client confidentiality demands certain in-built protections.

But the Seal of Confession is of a different order altogether - as the standard of secrecy protecting a sacramental Confession outweighs any form of professional confidentiality or secrecy.

Priests don’t just regard the seal of Confession as an absolute duty not to disclose anything that they learn from penitents in the confessional.

They know that if they reveal anything they have learned during confession to anyone, even under a threat of their own death, that they would be automatically excommunicated. It’s that serious.

A priest cannot break the seal to save his own life, to protect his good name, to refute a false accusation against himself, even to save the life of another.

In a criminal matter, a priest may encourage a penitent to surrender to authorities.

However, this is the most a priest can do.

We cannot directly or indirect-ly disclose the matter to anyone, civil authorities or anyone else.

This very specific priest-penitent privilege is usually respected in law and without a priest’s freedom to fulfil that particular aspect of his ministry his work is effectively impeded.

In a famous Hitchcock film, I Confess, (1953), a killer confessed a murder to a priest.

Later the priest himself was accused of the murder but the dilemma the film conveyed was that the priest couldn’t break the seal of Confession, even though his own life was at stake.

It is a measure of the vulnerability of the Catholic Church that part of the package of measures being contemplated by the civil authorities effectively amounts to a rejection of protection in law for what was always regarded as the sacred seal of Confession.

I can’t think of any society in the civilised world that has gone down this particular road to date.

It is an unenviable first for Ireland - framing a civil law to force priests to break the seal of Confession.

Who could have believed that it would all come to this?


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