Clerical abuse is not a strictly Irish phenomenon. In recent years many thousands of victims in countries across the globe have spoken out against abuse and in search of justice.
There are striking similarities in the way in which abuse occurred and in the response of the Catholic Church hierarchy to it.
The first case to attract significant media coverage was that involving James Porter in the early 1990s in the Boston area. He was eventually convicted in 1993 of abusing over 100 boys and girls. The approach of the church authorities in dealing with him will be instantly recognizable to anyone watching the unfolding story of clerical abuse in Ireland.
Porter was moved from one parish to another after complaints of abuse were made against him. And the church hierarchy did not report his activities to the police and covered up his abuse of children.
Eventually, in December 1992, 68 alleged Porter victims were paid $5 million by the church in the largest settlement of its kind at that time, and a year later Porter pleaded guilty to sexually abusing 28 young people and was sentenced to 18-20 years in prison.
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Clerical abuse came to the fore again in the USA with more revelations of abuse in the Boston archdiocese in 2002.
Once again, church authorities tried to minimize the extent of the problem. However, as the media, principally the Boston Globe, investigated further, more and more cases came to light. Scores of priests were involved and there were hundreds of victims.
It soon became clear that there was a culture of secrecy and deception and that the most senior figures in the Church Hierarchy in Boston had been aware of the extent of the problem for decades. They did not tell the police, and they kept the problem hidden from their congregations.
Boston was not the only diocese affected by this. By the end of that year, over one thousand priests had been accused of abuse in parishes across the United States. Two years later, a report from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops stated there were approximately 10,667 reported victims of clerical abuse in the previous 50 year period, involving over 4,000 priests.
Secrecy, deception, lies and cover-up were also the approach adopted by the Catholic Church hierarchy in Ireland when it came to dealing with clerical abuse of children.
The Cloyne report, the recently published probe into child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the County Cork diocese, is the fourth such report in the last five years. It has drawn significant international attention, strong condemnation of the behavior of the church, and brought relations between the Vatican and the Irish government to an all-time low.
The Ferns report was published in 2005. It reported into how allegations of clerical sex abuse against children had been handled by the church and State authorities in the Diocese of Ferns between 1962 and 2002.
Four years later, the Ryan report presented a damning account of life and abuse for thousands of children who were victims of abuse in industrial schools, orphanages, institutions for children with disabilities, reformatories, and ordinary day schools.
The conclusions were devastating for church and state alike. The Ryan report painted a picture of many thousands of children enduring years of sexual and physical abuse in over 200 institutions run by religious orders over decades. Hundreds of priests and nuns and brothers and lay people were involved.
The Murphy report investigated the handling of allegations of clerical sex abuse in the Dublin archdiocese and was published in November 2009. It concluded that four successive archbishops had handled the allegations with “denial, arrogance and cover-up” and that they did not report what they knew of these allegations to the police.
And now there is the Cloyne report. It investigated allegations of child sex abuse in the Cloyne diocese from 1996 to 2009. Once again, the hierarchy, including its most senior figures, come in for serious criticism. Their response to allegations of abuse is described variously as “inadequate,” “inappropriate,” and “ineffective.” It stands accused of telling lies.
The taoiseach, speaking in the Dáil in a debate on the report and speaking about the church hierarchy said: “…the Cloyne report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism….the narcissism …….that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day. The rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and ‘reputation.'”
It’s not often that many of us would agree with a Fine Gael politician, but in his remarks to the Dáil, Enda Kenny was speaking for all of us in his anger and outrage and demands for change within the church hierarchy and that institution.
Of course, there is also the issue of the Irish government’s response. That will be judged by its willingness to put the necessary money into new statutory measures that are being proposed to protect children and help the victims.
I suspect that most citizens are exasperated with the endless apologies and failures by bishops and archbishops and cardinals to face up to this issue honestly. Too often they have been revealed to have been more concerned about scandal and its impact on the Catholic Church than with the needs and concerns and interests of victims. The subsequent damage to the church has been all the greater because of this.
There is a grievous lack of leadership. But more importantly the church hierarchy have completely failed to live up to the teachings of Jesus.