Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life February 2014
On June 1st 2009 the radar image marking the position of Air France flight 447 over the mid-Atlantic suddenly disappeared, as did 228 human beings. Irish lives too were lost in that tragedy. For over two years its cause was mysterious – because of the difficulty of locating and recovering the plane’s flight recorders from deep ocean water.
Those recorders were retrieved in the end because Air France was able to arrange for a French submarine to scour the bed of the Atlantic over a wide area and over a lengthy period, in search of the unrecovered wreckage of the plane. That meticulous search was finally successful in April 2011, and experts were then able to determine the probable cause of the crash. This had been the icing-over of the plane’s airspeed sensors as it flew through a system of thunderstorms. That alone would have resulted in a loss of instrumentation that would probably have left the pilots not merely disoriented but very likely to misunderstand the situation, and likely then to take actions that would prove disastrous. The discovery of the vulnerability of that aircraft model’s speed sensors was vital in allowing the instrumentation of the Airbus 330 to be made more secure, and in making all air travellers safer.
I particularly noted that determination on the part of a national airline to retain the trust of its passengers because I was trying at the same time to assess the level of interest of our Catholic episcopal magisterium in discovering the answer to another mystery: why its ‘learning curve’ on the issue of clerical abuse of children had failed ever to rise, over many centuries, to the knowledge that this abuse was deeply dangerous to children. Since we know now that the Church Council of Elvira had condemned clergy sexual intimacy with minors in the early fourth century, and know also that St Peter Damien had strongly warned the papacy against retaining these clerical malefactors in ministry in the early eleventh century (for serious moral reasons), it struck me that our church could surely do with a thorough ‘submarine’ study of the history of this malady – to discover exactly why it had not led the world in revealing both the factuality of adult-child sexual abuse and, even more important, its dangers. Why had it still needed to learn this from the secular world in the 1980s?
It was in Nov 2009 – while the remains of Flight 447 were still being sought – that the shock of the Murphy Report on the role of church and state authorities in the handling of abuse in Dublin archdiocese struck Ireland, causing deep anguish to Irish Catholic clergy and people. As a parent who knew some sufferers of clerical sexual abuse I received the Murphy report as a timely vindication of the position they had always taken – that Catholic bishops and their administrative staffs had grievously and unjustly erred in their handling of the issue. I took as a genuine milestone the following excerpt from a statement of the Irish Bishops’ Conference in response to the Murphy Report on Dec 9th 2009:
We are deeply shocked by the scale and depravity of abuse as described in the Report. We are shamed by the extent to which child sexual abuse was covered up in the Archdiocese of Dublin and recognise that this indicates a culture that was widespread in the Church. The avoidance of scandal, the preservation of the reputations of individuals and of the Church, took precedence over the safety and welfare of children. This should never have happened and must never be allowed to happen again. We humbly ask for forgiveness.
Already, of course, beginning in 1994, the Irish church had taken serious steps to make sure that the children of the church should be safer from this crime, and this too was welcome. However, the loss of trust in the episcopal magisterium was still seriously deep and in need of full repair. Why, for example, had it taken the public revelation of the phenomenon of clerical child abuse by Belfast families in 1994 (N.B. not by our bishops or other clergy) – to kick-start the first search for church guidelines for protecting children, when Irish bishops had taken the first steps to protect church finances from damages claims caused by clerical sex abuse as early as 1987?
And why then had it taken a state inquiry to persuade men ordained to be the shepherds and guardians of the Irish Catholic family to admit to a cover up? These questions too suggested the need for a full church-sponsored inquiry into whatever had caused its own inner house, its episcopal magisterium, to fail to prioritise the protection of the Irish Catholic family and to protect the wider church’s trust in the integrity of its leadership – a trust that is surely necessary for the survival of its prestige.
We still do not know the answers to these questions – in the midst of the deepest crisis the Irish church has ever known. This adds to the mystery of the failure of the global church to set out as of yet to discover the full history of this disaster. Why, in short, do Catholic bishops still seem less concerned to restore the trust of their people than a 21st century airliner has shown itself to be in regaining and retaining the trust of its passengers – by uncovering the full story of a disaster, at whatever the cost?
Very surprisingly for me in this context, a recent publication – ‘Untold Story’ by Padraig McCarthy – suggests an entirely different course of action – that Irish bishops might instead consider rebutting altogether the charge of cover-up, as well as the charge that in explaining their failures in Dublin up to 1994 solely in terms of a ‘learning curve’ they were being evasive.
For reasons of health I cannot submit myself to the full rigours that McCarthy has obviously endured in re-examining the full report over the past four years. I am already satisfied, however, that he makes a good case for the occasional fallibility of the report, and especially for the fallibility of its language. That linguistic precision failed at least once with disastrous consequences for the wider clergy of the Dublin diocese. In its account of what was known of clerical child sex abuse among Dublin clergy the following paragraph occurs:
1.24 Some priests were aware that particular instances of abuse had occurred. A few were courageous and brought complaints to the attention of their superiors. The vast majority simply chose to turn a blind eye. The cases show that several instances of suspicion were never acted upon until inquiries were made. Some priest witnesses admitted to the Commission that they had heard various reports ‘on the grapevine’.
This paragraph alone suggests that the commission did not review the final draft of the report with a keen enough eye to basic comprehensibility, let alone with an eye to how it might be used by media queuing up to summarise and sensationalise it. As the word ‘some’ can mean a percentage anywhere between one and ninety-nine, what on earth is that word ‘some’ doing in this paragraph – both as the initial word of the very first sentence, and initially again in the last? As to the ‘majority’ who ‘chose to turn a blind eye’, was this a majority of the initial ‘some’ or of the entire cohort of ordained men serving the Dublin diocese over the period in question? The impossibility of making any sense of what a ‘majority’ of ‘some’ might mean, and the media deadlines and competition that advised editors in favour of the easy option, led to media accounts of the report that took by far the most sensational and damning option. The consequent suffering of all Dublin clergy, and of all Catholic clergy must have been intense.
The Murphy commission has been seriously at fault at the very least in not withdrawing and rewriting this paragraph. As it stands it weakens the report’s authority by failing to make any useful sense, and by allowing an interpretation that is argued against by the commission’s own finding that those clergy who knew the details of these abuses of children followed a policy of secrecy.
There is another reason for changing that paragraph. The commission does not ever say clearly what it means by the term ‘cover up’. It is therefore open to readers of the document to interpret ‘chose to turn a blind eye’ as equivalent to ‘cover up’ – and from there to proceed to a conclusion that a majority of Dublin clergy were covering up criminal abuse.
There is another lack of clarity in the report – to do with frequent use of the term ‘learning curve’. McCarthy find this especially damaging because he feels that the commission’s rejection of the explanation given by clergy dealing with the issue – of why they did x when they could have done y (and absolutely never did z!) – i.e. that they were on a ‘learning curve’ – imputes to them a blanket dishonesty.
He quotes the following from the report:
1.14 The volume of revelations of child sexual abuse by clergy over the past 35 years or so has been described by a Church source as a ‘tsunami’ of sexual abuse. He went on to describe the ‘tsunami’ as ‘an earthquake deep beneath the surface hidden from view’. The clear implication of that statement is that the Church, in common with the general public, was somehow taken by surprise by the volume of the revelations. Officials of the archdiocese of Dublin and other Church authorities have repeatedly claimed to have been, prior to the late 1990s, on ‘a learning curve’ in relation to the matter. Having completed its investigation, the commission does not accept the truth of such claims and assertions.
McCarthy goes on to argue as follows:
What the commission is actually saying is this (please pardon my blunt translation):
“Officials of the archdiocese of Dublin and other Church authorities have repeatedly claimed to have been, prior to the late 1990s, on ‘a learning curve’ in relation to the matter. Having completed its investigation over several years, the commission does not believe them. The commission believes that they were repeatedly telling lies. We, the commission, say very clearly that there was no such learning curve. The commission believes that we cannot trust what these people say.”
They make another equally serious charge (again my words):
“These people say that they were on a learning curve – that they
did not have sufficient knowledge and understanding prior to the late 1990s. We do not believe them. We believe that they did have the requisite knowledge to deal effectively with the allegations of child sexual abuse and that they deliberately chose not to do so. They deliberately turned a blind eye and let children and families suffer.”
(Unheard Story p. 39)
McCarthy follows this by proving conclusively that Dublin administrators could not have known in, say, 1980 what they knew by, say 1994.
I can agree that again here the language of this paragraph of the Murphy report can bear the interpretation that McCarthy gives it. However, having read, several times, all of those passages in the Murphy report that speak of a ‘learning curve’ , I believe that McCarthy’s summary is mistaken. I believe that instead the commission was saying something more like the following:
“Your explanation of your actions over a long period in terms of a ‘learning curve’ is in the end incomplete, unconvincing and evasive. It’s true that you did not know in 1980 what you knew by 1994. However, you did know of cases of clerical sexual abuse of children in the 1960s and 1970s, and you knew from then also that these actions were repugnant both to the law of the Irish state and to the laws of the church. You may not have been aware all along of the full consequences of these actions for the long-term health of the children concerned, or of the typical chronic recidivism of paedophiles, but you had no reason whatsoever to believe that such an experience for a child – an experience categorised as a crime by both legal codes – would be harmless. You must therefore have had deep misgivings in returning these men to ministry, misgivings about the possible dangers to other children if these men were to reoffend – as some had already done. In failing for so long to explore options for dealing with offenders that could have involved a civil criminal investigation – and in failing also to explore the full possibilities of canon law for removing offenders from Catholic ministry – we believe that you were not constrained simply by lack of experience and knowledge but by the conviction that these offences must not become a matter of public knowledge.
“The ‘learning curve’ explanation of your conduct for so long is therefore in the end both inadequate and evasive – because you have not admitted that your belief in the need for secrecy to avoid scandal, and not just your lack of knowledge, was at all times what also constrained you in the period before 1994, and you must know that it was.”
I come to this conclusion simply because of the volume of evidence covered by the commission in the report – evidence that was easily sufficient to convince it of the conclusions it reached. The absence of any general warning – at any stage before 1994 – to Irish families that caution over child safety in a church context would be sensible speaks emphatically of a reluctance to admit even that sexual abuse by a priest could ever occur. The uniformity of administrative clerical practice in Dublin archdiocese until 1994 – in never choosing an option that would put the facticity of Catholic clerical sexual abuse into the public domain – speaks to the same conclusion. In that year, 1994, the phenomenon of child sex abuse by some Irish clergy was revealed for the very first time to the Irish public by civil legal court actions initiated by Catholic families – NOT by any Catholic cleric in Dublin or elsewhere. It was only then that the ‘learning curve’ of Dublin diocesan administrators rose to embracing options that they had previously avoided. And it was only then that the Irish magisterium began the search for guidelines for dealing with offenders and for ensuring the protection of the children of the church.
McCarthy’s efforts to interpret every avoidance of any option that would result in public revelation until then as entirely explicable and excusable in terms of the limits of the knowledge they had, and/or of the psychiatric advice they had received, and/or in terms of the unproven effectuality of other options – are in the end unconvincing. I cannot and will not impute to any individual at any stage a primary intent to cover up a crime, but the sheer volume of such incidents and the uniformity of clerical practice in avoiding all options that would have led to public revelation, speaks to a conviction until 1994 on the part of all clergy who dealt with these matters that such public revelation of clerical sexual misconduct must be excluded as an option – whatever else they knew or didn’t know.
The commission’s account of the diocesan use of psychiatric advice speaks to the same conclusion:
1.38 Archbishop Ryan failed to properly investigate complaints, among others, against Fr McNamee, Fr Maguire, Fr Ioannes*, Fr (Name withheld) Septimus* and (Name withheld) . He also ignored the advice given by a psychiatrist in the case of Fr Moore that he should not be placed in a parish setting. Fr Moore was subsequently convicted of a serious sexual assault on a young teenager while working as a parish curate.
1.50 In the case of Fr Payne he (an auxiliary bishop) allowed a psychiatric report which was clearly based on inaccurate information to be relied on by Archbishop Ryan and subsequently by Archbishop Connell (see Chapter 24).
1.71 The Commission is very concerned at the fact that, in some cases, full information was not given to the professionals or the treatment facility about the priest’s history. This inevitably resulted in useless reports. Nevertheless, these reports were sometimes used as an excuse to allow priests back to unsupervised ministry.
This is important because McCarthy makes much use of the failings of psychiatry to justify his conclusions that diocesan officials were indeed on a ‘learning curve’ in their handling of abuse. It’s clear that both psychiatrists and clerical administrators were indeed learning as they went along, but that clergy were also operating within the ‘no publicity’ constraint, even in having recourse to psychiatry. They could never allow themselves to learn that state prosecution could be an option until the secrecy that they themselves had maintained had been exploded.
For much the same reasons I have the same difficulty with McCarthy’s position on the commission’s charges of ‘cover up’. In a chapter dealing with this he writes:
Perhaps the commission interprets as a cover-up the efforts of the diocese to deal with the situation without handing the whole thing over to state authorities, but at the time there was no legal obligation to do this.
I must say that I find this argument, at this late stage, quite staggering. There has been much recent public attention to the problem caused to families if abuse of one family member by another is ignored and not challenged, and general agreement that this kind of cover up is entirely wrong – quite apart from what the law may have to say about that abuse. To ensure the safety of younger family members, the abusive member needs to be confronted and those younger members need to be informed of the danger.
Leaving entirely aside the role of the state in dealing with clerical child abuse, the church too is a family, all of whose members have needed to know – and have had a right to know – of the danger of clerical child sex abuse ever since Irish bishops have known of the problem, and have known also that men who have abused in this way have been, as a matter of policy, sometimes returned to ministry. Keeping the phenomenon of Catholic clerical child abuse entirely to themselves in these circumstances was always a breach of trust, and therefore morally repugnant – completely irrespective of state legal requirements. It was a sin against family.
It is specious to argue in this cause that bishops could not ever have divulged information that could have damaged the reputation of individuals. What they could have done since the knew of the possibility of clerical sex abuse occurring was simply to find a way of warning their people that it could occur. That they never did that speaks also of a church denial of information – i.e. of a cover-up that actively endangered all of the children of the church – especially when, by the early 1980s they were aware of the wider incidence of the problem.
Total exculpations of diocesan clerical administrators also tend to ignore the claims of the magisterium to be a teaching corps – i.e. a corps that could claim to teach the whole church and the wider global society – especially about matters of family. All Catholics could feel justly proud today if their magisterium had faced with fortitude the ordeal of revealing to their people that Catholic clergy could err in this way – before secular society had evolved to the point of forcing them to acknowledge it. “Why didn’t they tell us!” – this is what we lay people all now tend to ask. Our church leaders could have taught and led the world – instead of waiting to become an object of media execration.
That this leadership could have happened in Dublin also is proven by the resignation statement of Bishop Moriarty of Kildare and Leighlin on Dec 24th 2009. (He had earlier served as an auxiliary in Dublin archdiocese.)
It does not serve the truth to overstate my responsibility and authority within the archdiocese. Nor does it serve the truth to overlook the fact that the system of management and communications was seriously flawed. However, with the benefit of hindsight, I accept that, from the time I became an auxiliary bishop, I should have challenged the prevailing culture.
It does not serve the church’s best interests to say its leaders were no more dilatory in facing this problem than the surrounding society, and that it’s leaders should therefore be completely exonerated. If the church is ever to lead anyone, all of its members need to see the necessity, sometimes, of taking risks to effect change. This is especially true for all of those in a position to be especially aware of faults, and of injustice, within the church itself.
I find it interesting to speculate, for example, over the reasons for the deep anger felt by St Peter Damien over what he described as moral corruption of the young by clergy in the early second millennium. Morality is our church’s ‘core business’ – in the deep belief that to be moral is to be deeply happy also. The deep demoralisation experienced by all who suffer abuse suggests that a remoralisation of the church is necessary if we are to address a whole series of problems, from addiction to school and workplace and digital bullying to clinical depression. If we are to do that we need to find a way of talking honestly together about all kinds of abuse, including clerical and family sexual abuse. I don’t believe we can move to that stage if we now set out to roll back the major findings of the Murphy report – including the finding that our ‘learning curve’ was retarded, and not completely unconsciously, by episcopal secrecy – by a cover-up.
In a very real sense the cover-up mentality is not yet completely behind us. How many Irish priests feel strong enough now to initiate a discussion with lay people on this whole issue? And how many of us laity would feel ready to be entirely open about, for example, the issue of family abuse, in such a discussion? We all need to pray hard these days for all the gifts of the Holy Spirit. When will church bells toll to convene us all for the most candid verbal communion?
Thankfully the new papacy has shown signs of a willingness to take risks on behalf of a more open church. I have not lost hope that someday we will know the full story of the church’s unspectacular learning curve on clerical child sexual abuse – over sixteen centuries. We will not finally be able to declare the era of cover up behind us until the church at its summit has commissioned as unremitting an investigation of its tragically slow ‘learning curve’ on clerical child abuse as Air France undertook into the causes of the crashing of Flight 447.