Fr Kevin Hegarty
For me the most memorable encounter that Jesus had is the one with children. The apostles wanted to send the children who had gathered around Jesus away. Jesus rebuked them and called the children to him. He appreciated their innocence and cherished their sense of wonder. He understood their vulnerability. He set the standard of care that should be central to the church’s mission
Once again the Irish Catholic Church is in the news because of its failure to adhere to this standard. So many hearts have been broken, so many hearts have been left in turmoil, so many futures have been crippled.
The Cloyne Report, released last Wednesday, makes grim reading. As revelations of the sexual abuse of children by priests and religious tumbled out in the 1990s, Church leaders promised the future would be different.
What is disturbing and dispiriting about the new report is that the Bishop of Cloyne, John Magee failed to adhere to guidelines published in 1996 to respond to the revelations and to try and ensure that such abuse would never occur again.
Since then the guidelines have been revised, updated and approved. The Cloyne Report acknowledges that current church procedure is superior to that of the state: “the standards which were adopted by the church are high standards which, if fully implemented, would afford proper protection to children. The standards set by the state are less precise and more difficult to implement”.
“If fully implemented” is the relevant phrase. Otherwise they are only pious platitudes and have only what George Orwell called, “the solidity of pure wind”.
Bishop Magee interpreted them in a cavalier fashion. In this approach he was encouraged by a Vatican statement that the guidelines were not mandatory.
Magee was arguably the Irish bishop who was closest to the Vatican. He had friends in high places there. He had been secretary to three popes. Before his appointment to Cloyne he regularly regaled appreciative audiences at length with happy stories of life in the Vatican - a kind of clerical Walton’s extravaganza.
Given his views it is not surprising that he appointed Monsignor Denis O’Callaghan, formerly Professor of Moral Theology at Maynooth, to oversee implementation of the guidelines. O’Callaghan had made it clear he did not agree with them. In his avuncular autobiography, “Putting a hand to the Plough”, published in 2007, he expressed his disdain for their forensic nature. He preferred what he called “a pastoral approach” which he arrogantly claimed was in line with the attitude of the “Good Samaritan”.
Appointing O’Callaghan to the role of overseer was akin to the government appointing the socialist TD, Joe Higgins to implement the details of the IMF bailout. Or to put it even more graphically, putting a fox in charge of the hens.
So it is not surprising that the Cloyne report concludes that Magee had “little interest” in child protection policies and that O’Callaghan frustrated their implementation, acting in accordance with his own perception of what was best for the church.
Between 1996 and 2009 nineteen people reported stories of abuse to the authorities in Cloyne. Nine of the cases were not given to the Gardaí for investigation. Until 2008 none of them was brought to the attention of the HSE.
The most disturbing case was that of Fr Brendan Wrixon who eventually in November 2010 was given an 18 month suspended sentence at Cork Criminal Court because of three acts of gross indecency against a then 16-year-old youth in 1982 and 1983.
Fr Wrixon admitted the assault to Bishop Magee in 2005. Magee compiled two reports - one for the Cloyne diocesan archives, stating that Wrixon had denied the allegation and another stating that he had admitted it, which he sent to the Vatican.
In 2008 Ian Elliot of the National Board for the safeguarding of children in the Catholic church got involved in the case. He received minimal co-operation from the diocese of Cloyne. Elliot drew up a report on his investigation to Magee. Magee responded to the report by claiming that Wrixon “never at any time admitted to the alleged abuse to the bishop or any other diocesan personnel”. The Cloyne report concludes that Magee and O’Callaghan “positively misled” Elliot which is putting it rather kindly. Ministers Alan Shatter and Frances Fitzgerald were impressive in their handling of the release of the report and encouraging in their commitment to radically improve our child protection laws. It is welcome that Eamon Gilmore called in the Papal Nuncio to inform him of the anger in Ireland over the Vatican’s response to the child abuse crisis in the Irish Catholic Church.
What happened in Cloyne reveals once again how poisonous is the virus of clericalism. It is animated by a sense that priests and bishops are an elite not bound by the laws and rules that govern the laity. The protection of the authoritarian church is its primary imperative. Until this virus is addressed and eradicated there can be no real reform in the Catholic Church.