Ireland moving to compel church to report sexual abuse

A new report that found a Catholic diocese failed to disclose allegations of sexual abuse of children to the police has many in Ireland pushing for new laws to punish priests to disclose information about alleged pedophiles.

A report into clerical child abuse in Ireland has scandalized the nation, prompting the government to promise tough new laws to compel the Catholic church to report abusers and a senior politician to call for the expulsion of the Vatican's ambassador to the country.

The Irish Catholic church, with the support of the Vatican, continued to conceal evidence of child abuse even after it created new internal rules in 1996 that promised to inform state authorities of suspected child abuse by priests, the Cloyne Report found. The report also found that two-thirds of abuse complaints made to the church between 1996 and 2009 were not passed on to the police.

New laws, set to be voted-on in the fall, will see clerics and others imprisoned for up to five years if they withhold information about suspected pedophiles.

“This is not a catalogue of failure from a different era. This is not about an Ireland of 50 years ago. This is about Ireland now,” said Frances Fitzgerald the Irish government’s minister for children, speaking at a news conference Wednesday.

The report report found that the then-serving bishop of the diocese of Cloyne in Cork county, John Magee, misled Ireland’s health service executive. It also found that the Vatican had interfered by describing Irish Catholic church procedures on reporting abuse to police as a “study document.” Mr. Magee’s present whereabouts are not known and he is thought to be abroad.

Meanwhile Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, the papal nuncio (the Vatican's ambassador), was called to meet Eamon Gilmore, Ireland’s deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs today.

After leaving the meeting Mr. Leanza said he was “distressed” by the report’s findings and said he would “bring it to the immediate attention of the Holy See.”

Leanza refused to answer reporters’ questions.

Speaking to reporters, Mr. Gilmore said: “I told him [Leanza] the government considered it unacceptable that Vatican intervention may have led priests to believe they could, in conscience, evade their responsibilities under Irish laws, which could have protected innocent children from sexual abuse.” Gilmore also said a response was required from the Vatican.

Demanding police cooperation

Charlie Flanagan, chairman of Fine Gael, the lead party in Ireland’s government, has called for the nuncio to be expelled from the country, echoing a campaign by outraged citizens in 2009.

Rumors are circulating in Rome that Leanza will be reassigned to Prague in the Czech Republic, in an attempt to halt the embarrassment that would result from his expulsion.

Ireland’s justice minister, Alan Shatter announced the publication of new laws Wednesday following the release of the findings of investigating judge Yvonne Murphy.

The laws will center on a mandatory reporting requirement of any case of sexual abuse and are expected to prove controversial with not only the clergy but also medics and lawyers, who are generally obliged to keep conversations confidential.

Any person who refuses to pass on to the authorities information on a case of child abuse will face up to five years imprisonment under the new legal regime.

Mr. Shatter, who said that the findings of the 400-page report “could not be starker or more disturbing,” said there would be no “legal grey area” on reporting allegations – breaking the Catholic church’s “seal of confession.”

The change follows Ms. Murphy’s report finding serious breaches of child protection in the diocese, which found that most reports of abuse were not passed on to the authorities. Murphy also led the Murphy Report into clerical sexual abuse in Dublin, published in 2009.

Executive director of abuse survivors’ group One in Four, Maeve Lewis said the lessons from the report must be applied immediately. “This may be the last major report into the Irish Catholic church and it is imperative that we learn from it and apply those lessons. We must now act to ensure that Ireland is a safe place for children.”

Lewis said the church’s failures continued: “Our clients’ experience of engaging with dioceses and congregations remains appalling. Not because they meet terrible people, but because they meet people who just do not get it, who do not understand the impact and dynamics of sexual abuse. There is also a conflict of interest in the way statements given by victims are used. We would urge anybody who has been abused within the Catholic Church to speak directly to the HSE [Health Service Executive] or the gardaí [police], or to contact a service such as One in Four for support before they take any action.”

Missing Magee

Despite his absence, Bishop Magee Wednesday issued a press statement saying: “Given my position of responsibility, I am particularly saddened when I read the accounts of the complainants describing the effects of the abuse, knowing that I contributed to their distress."

He added, "I am sorry that this happened and I unreservedly apologize to all those who suffered additional hurt because of the flawed implementation of the church procedures, for which I take full responsibility. I can only hope that the detailed work of the Commission and the National Board can now provide the new beginning that we all had hoped for in 1996.”

Archbishop of Cashel and Emly Dermot Clifford, who took over the administration of Cloyne in 2009 when Magee stood down, told reporters he “accepted” the report's findings and “humbly apologized.”

“It appalls me that, up to 2008, 13 years after these procedures were put in place, they were still not being implemented in the Diocese of Cloyne. This means that the Church authorities in Cloyne failed some of those who were abused by not adhering to their commitments when dealing with complaints,” he said.

Sinn Féin deputy first minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness has called for a similar inquiry into clerical sex abuse in the north.

Public anger is running high and The Catholic church’s image is at an all time low as a result of the reports into clerical abuse.

Peter McVerry, a Jesuit priest based in inner city Dublin who works with the homeless, says the drip-drip of failings, which has now become a tidal wave, has led to a transformation in how priests are seen in Ireland.

“I think the reputation and status of priests has been tarnished. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as they were up on a pedestal and that gave them the power and unaccountability that allowed them to abuse. Now they have to earn the respect of the people they work with,” he says.

Father McVerry says a combination of the Catholic church’s rigidity and institutional defensiveness lie at the heart of its present difficulties in speaking to its flock. “People are thirsting for some spirituality but all they’ve been getting is rules and regulations. The church is an institution but it needs to continually reform, more than most.”

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