Monday, October 26, 2009

The Church Must Bow Down to Law of the Land

Original article

THE report on the Catholic hierarchy's handling of child sex abusers in the Dublin archdiocese is expected to criticise civil authorities for contributing to a culture of impunity surrounding paedophile priests.

While senior clergy will carry the blame, the report also implicates some senior gardai and health authorities for failing to follow through on complaints against paedophiles. According to informed sources, the report singles out the lax response of gardai in certain investigations and also criticises the former health boards in the Dublin area for failing to protect children from exposure to paedophile priests.

"The report will indicate that some senior gardai did not see investigating church men as their role. There was a view that the church was outside the remit of the garda," said an informed source.

Health authorities are criticised for not having the structures in place to deal with abusers outside the family. "They did not seem to know what their powers were," said the source.

The criticisms are believed to relate to cases dating back to the 1970s and 1980s, a period when both the Church and the civil authorities have in the past claimed they had yet to be enlightened about paedophilia.

The Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse in the Dublin archdiocese is the second this year to examine the extent of child abuse perpetrated by the members of the Catholic Church. The Ryan report disclosed in brutal and graphic detail how children, most from poor and vulnerable backgrounds, were routinely beaten, sexually and psychologically abused in residential institutions.

The findings of the second report are expected to be just as shocking.

The scale of official reluctance to challenge Catholic hierarchy over its handling of paedophile priests is said by sources to be disturbing. Equally alarming is how the errant priests were shielded behind the cloak of the church as they moved from one parish to the next.

The victims of clerical abuse and the clergy itself may have to wait another fortnight to discover the extent of the report's findings. Having got the all-clear from the High Court,Justice Minister Dermot Ahern had planned to release it after a cabinet meeting last Tuesday.

The report's release was stalled again after the Director of Public Prosecution raised fresh concerns that its publication could prejudice a forthcoming trial of a priest on sex abuse charges.

In advance of its publication, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has already alluded to its findings as providing "a painful but an important reflection on society".

But when it is eventually published, the protagonists in the sordid tale of ecclesiastical cover up documented in several volumes running to 1000 pages are likely to include former senior clerics in the Dublin diocese.

Its investigation from 1975 to 2004 examines in forensic detail the progress of 46 paedophile priests, under the stewardships of the Archbishops Dermot Ryan, Kevin McNamara andCardinal Desmond Connell. Of the three, Cardinal Connell is expected to face most scrutiny. Archbishop of Dublin from 1988, he retired in 2004, with yet another apology for his scandal-prone handling of child sexual abuse cases.

Demonstrating his willingness to face up to clerical sex abuse, he trawled diocesan records over 50 years and gave the names of 17 priests to gardai, along with the names of those who had complained. He was demonstrating his willingness to deal with clerical child abusers at the time.

When in 2005, his successor, Archbishop Diarmiud Martin, embarked on his own trawl of diocesan archives, he discovered files on 102 priests and identified a figure of 390 children whom they had sexually abused. Last year, Archbishop Martin revised the figure to 160 priests who were suspected or alleged to have abused more than 400 children since 1940.

Another protagonist is expected to be Monsignor Alex Stenson, whose name has featured in several of the child abuse cases highlighted in recent years due to his role in investigating complaints against priests.

A highly regarded canon lawyer, Msgr Stenson is now a parish priest in Killester, a north Dublin suburb. For several years he was chancellor of the Dublin archdiocese working with both Dr Kevin McNamara and Cardinal Connell who succeeded him in 1988.

As chancellor, Msgr Stenson was the person to whom many parents were referred when they complained about suspect priests.

Msgr Stenson was the senior cleric who accused a nine-year-old Mervyn Rundle of lying when he claimed to have been abused by a parish priest. This was despite the fact that the diocese had already received numerous complaints against the priest.

The priest was instead sent back to his parish. It was many years later before he was convicted and Mr Rundle awarded €300,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

Those who know Msgr Stenson say that he is a meticulous record taker. It is believed that he took detailed notes of his interviews with priests under suspicion and with their accusers, including parents, children and others.

It is understood that these records accounted for many of the 65,000 diocesan documents that Archbishop Martin released to the commission of inquiry last year. Cardinal Connell contested the release of some of the documents, in a High Court action which he later withdrew.

Msgr Stenson, who helped to draft the Catholic Church's guidelines on dealing with child sex abuse, spoke at the launch of the document in 1996.

Elaborating on the guidelines for journalists, he said there is "no way certain paedophiles" could be re-admitted to ministry, although bishops could make an exception in "special cases" where the priest would not have access to children.

Perhaps this was the logic which led to the late Fr Noel Reynolds becoming chaplain at the National Rehabilitation hospital in Dublin in 1997, despite complaints to the Dublin archdiocese about his behaviour towards children in his previous parish of Glendalough.

Cardinal Connell never told the hospital about Fr Reynolds' past, in breach of his own church guidelines.

Only when a "formal" complaint was made to the archdiocese in 1998 was Fr Reynolds removed from ministry. He later admitted to abusing 100 children.

Despite that staggering confession, the first the hospital knew of its former chaplain's paedophile proclivities was when it was contacted by the ground-breaking Prime Time documentary in 2002.

Behind the Catholic hierarchy's public displays of sorrow and hand-wringing for the victims of clerical sex abuse is a competing loyalty to canon law.

The Dublin archdiocese even refused to assist gardai in cases where sex abuse had been admitted to them in private by priests because -- in its view -- canon law took precedence over civil law.

This ecclesiastical arrogance was displayed to greatest effect in the case of Marie Collins. As a 13-year-old in hospital in Dublin, the chaplain stood at her bedside and took inappropriate photographs of her.

Years later in 1995, when she learnt that the cleric was still a working priest, she reported him to the Dublin archdiocese. Although the priest had admitted his guilt, Cardinal Connell indicated he could not co-operate with a garda inquiry. Msgr Stenson later threatened to sue Marie Collins when he discovered she had given his correspondence to her admitting the priest's guilt to gardai.

When Marie Collins went public with her claims in 2002, Michael McDowell, then justice minister, dismissed the Catholic Church's canon law as having the same status as golf club rules.

Seven years and a commission of inquiry later, it still remains to be seen whether or not the Catholic hierarchy is truly ready to bow to the law of the land.

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