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The Irish State and the Catholic Church: A history of collusion

Joe Craig 

15th January 2006

The exposure of child sexual abuse and publication of the Ferns Report has led many to assume three things. First that the Catholic Church in Ireland has learnt a hard lesson; that the State has too and will no longer privilege the Church or allow it to cover up for its wrongdoing; and finally that its legendary power has now been broken. None of these assumptions are correct.

The outpouring of hurt and anger provoked by repeated revelations of child abuse has been accompanied by hyperbolic declamations of dire consequences for the Church. In 2002 Father Colm Kilcoyne told RTE that the institutional Catholic Church was ‘facing meltdown.’

It hasn’t happened, and doesn’t look likely to happen despite everyone’s worst fears about the scale of abuse being amply confirmed. Why?

Answers – The Church

The recent response to publication of the Ferns report illustrates the answer. Its publication led to disclosure of details of abuse cases in other dioceses, although a couple still refused to release details of any aspect of allegations, court cases or money paid out. In each parish a letter from the bishop was read out to congregations apologising for the scandal the Ferns Report had revealed. So the Church had learnt its lesson?

Well, even some priests were not convinced. In Clonakilty Fr Gerard Galvin refused to read the bishop’s letter out and said it ‘didn’t go far enough. There was no real sense of atonement.’ It was ‘more PR than reality. I think the time for fobbing people off is over. We need real honesty.’ But his was very much a minority voice.

While ‘welcoming’ the Ferns Report (and submitting a bill to the State for costs) the Church has carefully rejected its most fundamental recommendation – that all allegations of child abuse are reported to the civil authorities. Since its 1996 ‘Framework Document’ (‘The Green Book’) this has been the declared policy of the Church, although it has been revealed that Dublin Cardinal Desmond Connell felt it didn’t apply to him. The response to the Ferns Report, ‘Our Children Our Church’, the name itself a subtle attempt to displace culpability, leaves open circumstances where the Church does not have to report allegations. Of course the Church will defend itself by arguing that the decision will be taken by lay child protection officers but since there can be no reason in logic why this should be so, and no history of such procedures being rigorously applied, the ultimate control still rests with the bishops – the lay protection officers are their employees.

In effect the new guidelines allow the Church a means to continue covering up allegations of abuse. It also undermines the State’s response to the Report, which was to establish an 18 month inquiry into the Dublin Archdiocese’s handling of child abuse allegations and an ‘audit’ of every other in the State to see if safeguards have been properly applied. The Church has just declared that it will be the judge of what proper safeguards are, how they are applied and what may constitute a possible case of abuse, which totally undermines the basis of the State’s inquiries. So what will be the response of the State? If the past is anything to go by it will be to tacitly accept the Church’s policy.

Answers – The State

The response of the State to the Ferns Report has been the minimum it could get away with. It claimed it could not institute a state-wide investigation in the manner of Ferns because it would take too long and cost too much. We will note later how cost is not a factor when it comes to bailing out the Church; but what does this say about the State’s views on the seriousness of systematic child abuse?

We have an institution, which in the weeks after Ferns was exposed as harbouring hundreds of abusers, and whose hierarchy has repeatedly protected, lied and covered up for them. (This is symbolised by the career of one priest, described as ‘one of the vilest abusers’ who went on to be given a job in the communications office of Cardinal Connell’s Dublin diocese.) Yet the State confines itself to investigating how this organisation policed itself, based on the absurd notion that we don’t already know what the problem is. Its terms of reference assume that the power of the Church is a benevolent one but the basic problem is this very power. Even the inquiry into the Dublin archdiocese involves only looking at a sample of cases.

What possible justification can there be for treating Ferns and Dublin dioceses differently from the other 18 wholly and three partly in the State? And what of the three wholly under British jurisdiction which have their own history of abuse but where calls for action have been remarkably muted? A survey by the ‘Irish Times’ revealed that 286 priests had allegations made against them in all dioceses across the country and this excludes two which failed to make a disclosure.

So why only investigations into two of them? Maybe it’s because the ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’ policy of the State continues despite accumulating evidence of the extent of the problem. In fact the State, far from being proactive, has responded only to media exposures of scandal. The Ferns inquiry was precipitated by the BBC programme ‘Suing the Pope’ in March 2002 and it was the RTE programme ‘Cardinal Secrets’ broadcast in October 2002 which set in motion the inquiry into the Dublin archdiocese. This is the only difference between these two, where inquiries have or are taking place, and the rest.

Bailing out the Abusers

The State has closed its eyes to abuse and dragged its feet in attempting to identify and deal with the problem. In fact it has done worse, but we will come to that.

The institution of an inquiry into the Dublin archdiocese is over three years after the minister of justice promised one to a victim of abuse and nearly two years after representatives of a charity for those abused were promised one would be up and running by October 2004.

The complicity of the State in the Church’s abuse has been reflected at all levels, as befitting their integration, especially in education. One of the most notorious abusers, Fr Sean Fortune, was chair of the board of management of a primary school. In one of the most notable cases in Ferns, that of Fr Grennan, the statements to police of children abused by him ‘mysteriously’ disappeared after having been sent to Garda headquarters in Enniscorthy. The 50 year career of abuse by Christian Brother, Donal Dunne, did not appear to influence the Department of Education’s decision not to take action against him even after he had been sacked from an earlier post. ‘The government has washed their hands of us, the Department of Education just doesn’t want to know,’ said one of his victims.

In 2002 the Minister for Education, Dr Woods admitted that successive ministers and officials had ignored warnings of children being abused, but even this admission signalled not a break from the close alliance of Church and State but a cynical justification for the State’s move to save religious organisations from financial ruin.

This involved a deal between the State and various religious organisations, assembled under the umbrella of CORI (Conference of Religious of Ireland) which had run the residential institutions within which systematic abuse had taken place, to indemnify them from claims made against them by the victims of their abuse. The State set up a Redress Board which would make payments to the estimated 3,500 abused while a deal was made with the religious congregations that their contribution to the scheme’s funding would be limited to €128m. They would not be open to any further loss and their members would not have to face any civil prosecutions.

The €128m contribution consisted of €80m transfer of land and buildings, much of which (€42.32m) had already taken place and had nothing to do with consideration of compensation for the abused. The €10m for counselling and record retrieval also included amounts already paid out and would have continued to be paid out in the future regardless of any deal. A further €26m was to be paid in cash and €12.7m in educational programmes.

At the time it was estimated that the total cost of payments to victims would be €500m, so that the State would pay around 75% of the total. This acceptance of blame by the State stands in stark contrast to its mean-fisted approach to the victims of the Hepatitis C scandal in which the State was wholly and directly responsible. When it came to protecting the Catholic Church, cost was not a problem. As we noted, when it came to investigating widespread criminal child abuse by that same institution cost suddenly becomes a limiting factor.

This religious contribution was offered after fourteen months of hard negotiations during which CORI had made a ‘final’ offer of only €45m. Its skills in negotiation were much more in evidence in protecting itself that in its self-appointed role of representative of the poor inside the social partnership process. CORI’s professions of a desire for healing and reconciliation thus came cheap. They also came wrapped in nauseating hypocrisy since these orders held up the prospect of clogging up the courts ‘for the next 20 years’ as they threatened to fight the victims of abuse in the latter’s struggle for some recognition of their ordeal and some compensation.

How cheap became clearer a few months later when the Comptroller and Auditor General estimated that the total potential liability was €1 billion. The State’s procedures and decisions were harshly criticised but this only served to allow the Government to use a favourite tactic, which only the debased political culture of the Irish State would allow, and claim incompetence. It also claimed that it had no power to make the congregations subscribe to its redress scheme, but this only revealed that its priority was to protect these same organisations not compensate their victims. It was never suggested that the State could easily have compensated the abused and then sued the abusers for their full costs. The approach of the Irish State stood in stark contrast to that of the Canadian and Australian governments, which were much clearer in assigning blame and costs to the abusers.


But this was not the only service the State performed for the Church. In 1999 the Government set up a Commission under High Court judge Mary Laffoy to head an independent inquiry into institutional child abuse. Once again the usual litany of excuses was wheeled out as the commission was frustrated by the Government and ultimately rendered powerless though a failure to provide it with the resources necessary for it to do its work.

The methodology of the commission, of taking only a sample of cases of abuse, assisted the State in protecting itself and covering up for its own systematic failure to prevent abuse or to take the necessary steps after abuse had been exposed. The commission was frustrated and in effect harassed by repeated ‘reviews’ by the Government which called into question its operation and eventually led to its suspension. Ultimately Mary Laffoy, resigned but she was pretty candid about why she had done so and the role of the government in precipitating her decision.

She made it quite clear that the government had curtailed her independence and the ability of her inquiry to do its work. ‘The commission has never been properly enabled by the Government to fulfil satisfactorily the functions conferred on it by the Oireachtas.’ Her commission had been left with a ‘real and pervasive sense of powerlessness.’

In typical fashion Bertie Ahern agreed with her and said he accepted her criticisms, and then wrote a letter disputing them. Once again the Government engaged in appearing stupid and incompetent rather than mendacious and malevolent. And once again the congregations of the Church exposed themselves as more fearfully concerned for their worldly treasures than their hypocritical confessions of reconciliation and healing. The commission was frustrated in no small part by the Christian Brothers’ legal challenge to the constitutionality of the inquiry which was initiated, by a miraculous coincidence, after it had secured the deal from the State capping its liability.

The Law

Reading through the reports of abuse it is initially difficult to come to terms with how the State gets away with allowing blatant criminality while surfing a tide of reactionary law and order posturing which has, as one of its favourite targets, the abusers of children. Why haven’t the priests and bishops who have covered up this widespread and appalling abuse been hauled in front of the courts to answer for their role in perverting the course of justice?

Part of the reason is that the State has taken the conscious decision to protect them and its efforts to do so show just how far it will go. So let us return to our starting point and the issue of mandatory reporting that the Church has decided to reject. In 1997 the new programme for government of the victorious Fianna Fail/ PD coalition promised to legislate, as a ‘key objective’, on mandatory reporting of child abuse. Up until then it had been a common law offence not to report to the Garda information in your possession that a serious crime had been committed, and child abuse was and is a serous crime.

Then the Criminal Law Act 1997 removed the offence. A mistake? No. The Government was unaware of its implications? No. It was pointed out at the time that the change would allow the concealment of child sexual abuse, yet the law was not only enacted but also made retrospective.

In 1998, after the Omagh bombing, the Government introduced the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998. This made it a criminal offence to conceal knowledge of serious crime, a definition which included serious personal injury and damage to property. The Act specified only one exclusion – any crime of a sexual nature. Dail debates show that this was specifically to ensure that mandatory reporting was not introduced even while the Government promised to legislate on precisely this matter.

Far from acting to enforce basic safeguards against appalling crimes and punish the perpetrators the Irish State has engaged in breathtaking hypocrisy in its exertions to protect the Catholic Church, its hierarchy and its abusing priests.

We will turn to the nature of this relationship between the State and Church in our final article.


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