Unheard stories of the sex abuse crisis


Unheard Story: Dublin Archdiocese and the Murphy Report, by Padraig McCarthy. Londubh Books, 2013.

Unheard Story cover imageThe victims of child sexual abuse at the hands of church personnel have waited a long time to be heard, to be believed, and to be offered a modicum of compassion and justice. In the process, some church personnel, including conscientious priests of the utmost propriety, have been hurt and wronged by the broad-brush approach of some state sponsored inquiries and media responses.

In Unheard Story, Fr Padraig McCarthy rightly highlights shortcomings in legal-political-media processes like the Dublin Archdiocese Commission of Investigation. Analysing the report and the responses to it, he has 'no wish, in anything that has been said, to deflect from the pain and suffering of victims and their families over the years or to excuse any professional mishandling of cases that has occurred'. But the future wellbeing of children demands that the spotlight be shone on all equally; and justice for all requires that state sponsored inquiries follow due process giving all those whose reputations are impugned the right to be heard.

McCarthy observes that it is a serious mistake to see the report emanating from such an inquiry as 'the ultimate answer on the issue of the handling of sexual abuse of children' and then to promote the processes of such a commission as providing 'a template for how commissions of investigation should be conducted'. McCarthy is right to join issue with unsourced, uncorroborated, unsubstantiated, glib, headline-seeking assertions such as: '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' — 'an earthquake deep beneath the surface hidden from view'.

But there is no getting away from the fact that in countries like Ireland and Australia, the reported instances of child sexual abuse has been greater in the Catholic Church than in other churches. In part, that is because the Catholic Church conducted far more institutions for vulnerable children than did other churches. That is not the whole explanation. That is why the Church has needed help from the State to shine a light on hidden places and to assist with designing protocols and procedures acceptable to the general community.

In Australia, a national Royal Commission which has already been running a year has conducted private sessions with 1426 persons telling their story about sexual abuse suffered as a child. 90 per cent of those presenting have been over 40 years of age, so the abuse usually dates back to the 1960s, '70s and '80s. 62 per cent were sexually abused in a faith-based institution. 41 per cent of the institutions mentioned were run either by a Catholic religious congregation or diocese.

Justice McClellan, the chief commissioner, recently reported: 'The best available indicators, nationally produced, estimate that between 3.3 percent and 6.6 percent of all reports of child sexual abuse made to police within the last five years occurred within an institutional context.' The Australian research 'confirms the view that a great deal of abuse occurs in families', most of which is unreported to state authorities.

McCarthy has two substantive objections to the findings of the Murphy Inquiry. First, the Commission ruled out the possibility of the Church having been on a learning curve about child sexual abuse prior to the late 1990s. Second, the Commission was selective in its focus on the Catholic Church even though it was supposed to shine the light on all institutions involved with the investigation of child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Dublin.

It brought only a light touch to the police, the Gardaí, naming almost no Gardaí even though there was evidence of wrongdoing by individual officers failing to investigate complaints adequately. It named many priests, including some who had no opportunity to defend their good name with due process. These are valid objections.

Everyone in society was on a steep learning curve about the prevalence of child sexual abuse occurring in institutions, including churches, prior to the late 1980s. In Australia, there has been a range of inquiries in recent years. At first, the Church tried commissioning a retired judge to investigate complaints about an individual priest in a diocese. The judge found shortcomings were not restricted to the now deceased bishop and his clerical advisers. It took time for police, consulting psychologists and even the courts to become aware of the extent of the problem and the unlikelihood of offenders reforming themselves.

Back in 1988, it was possible for a psychologist to write to the bishop after assessing a suspected paedophile priest saying that 'he no longer presents any problems for children or yourself' and 'I would hope that he will be given every opportunity to move beyond the cloud that still appears to hang over his head and receive the care and support he justly deserves after all this time.'

Australia's most experienced priest in dealing with abuse allegations, Monsignor John Usher, told the Australian Royal Commission that in the late 1980s 'my experience was very limited and I was on a learning curve to understand the nature of child sexual assault, specifically child sexual assault within the Church, and I realised that there was a lot more to understand.'

Those who say there was no learning curve need to admit they were fairly silent until recently. Everyone was on a steep learning curve except those who have always sat silent, blessed with the unerring wisdom of hindsight.

It was not only the churches which had inadequate procedures for dealing with child sexual abuse. In 2013, police gave evidence to an Australian parliamentary inquiry and ran a media campaign suggesting they had long been dissatisfied with the Church's attempt to come to terms with child sexual abuse. But the Inquiry found:

The Catholic Church established the Melbourne Response (in 1996) in consultation with Victoria Police and the Victorian Government. The Assistant Police Commissioner and the Solicitor-General each approved and signed off on the process.

There was no indication that at anytime before April 2012 Victoria Police told the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne that it had any concerns about the Melbourne Response. It is clear that Victoria police paid inadequate attention to the fundamental problems of the Melbourne Response arrangements until relatively recently in April 2012 and that, when they did become the subject of public attention, Victoria Police representatives endeavoured quite unfairly to distance the organisation from them.

Imagine if the Church leaders had conducted themselves in this way before the parliamentary inquiry. The press would have gone ballistic. Everyone, not just the churches, was on a learning curve. Church and State have to take the rap when inquiries come with the benefit of hindsight saying that society can do better in offering protection to vulnerable children.

While on the learning curve, church leaders have been too slow to acknowledge personal shortcomings and oversights, to admit the need for structural and cultural change in the Church administration, and to apologise for past wrongs. This episcopal inertia has made it difficult to hear McCarthy's unheard story about the collateral damage caused to those well-meaning clergy who did all they could to address the issues in a timely manner.

In Australia, much of the focus in recent times has been on Cardinal George Pell who has now been promoted by Pope Francis to be Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy. Having been auxiliary bishop in Melbourne between 1987 and 1996, he told that Victorian parliamentary inquiry:

As an auxiliary bishop to Archbishop Little, I did not have the authority to handle these matters and had only some general impressions about the response that was being made at that time but this was sufficient to make it clear to me that this was an issue which needed urgent attention and that we needed to do much better in our response.

The Victorian inquiry was critical of Little and the Church processes before 1996. Many people inside and outside the church were left wondering, if Little did not respond adequately between 1987 and 1996, why did not his auxiliary bishop do something? And if the Archbishop knew during those nine years, why did not his auxiliary?

Welcoming the Victorian parliamentary report, the Cardinal admitted past mistakes by the Melbourne Archdiocese during his time as auxiliary bishop there. Signalling a change of approach, he wrote:

The report details some of the serious failures in the way the Church dealt with these crimes and responded to victims, especially before the procedural reforms of the mid 1990s. Irreparable damage has been caused. By the standards of common decency and by today's standards, church authorities were not only slow to deal with the abuse but sometimes did not deal with it in any appropriate way at all.

This is indefensible.

It is only part of the story to lay blame at the feet of deceased church leaders. The opaque hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church leaves many people wondering about the clerical culture inside the Church and its lack of transparency and accountability. In preparation for his pending appearance at the Royal Commission in March investigating how the Catholic Church had earlier contested fiercely allegations of child sexual abuse trying to block any successful legal claim in the courts, Pell admitted the need for a change of approach.

He wrote: 'Whatever position was taken by the lawyers during the litigation, or by lawyers or individuals within the archdiocese following the litigation, my own view is that the Church in Australia should be able to be sued in cases of this kind.'

The Australian Catholic Church with the forced scrutinies of the State has been assisted in getting back to its mission and basic values, espousing truth, justice, compassion and transparency. As an institution, it has been dragged kicking and screaming.

In his written statement to the Royal Commission, the Cardinal was upfront in apologising for the sexual abuse which a man Mr Ellis had undoubtedly suffered at the hands of a priest when a child. He wrote, 'I acknowledge and apologise to Mr Ellis for the gross violation and abuse committed by a now deceased priest of the Sydney Archdiocese. I deeply regret the pain, trauma and emotional damage that this abuse caused to Mr Ellis.'

Under cross examination, he had to admit that he, his advisers and his staff had fallen well short of the standards expected of a model litigant, let alone a Christian organisation. He admitted to the vast chasm between Christian decency and the tactics employed in pursuing Ellis in the courts. Having blamed various members of his staff for earlier errors and omissions, he was anxious to exculpate his lawyers who had acted on instructions and perhaps with insufficient supervision. He said:

I believe in a legal sense there was nothing done that was improper, and any reservations I might have about particular stands of our lawyers, I would not want to suggest that they did anything improper. But from my point of view, from a Christian point of view, leaving aside the legal dimension, I don't think we did deal fairly (with Ellis).

Pell then made a long awaited apology to Ellis, not just for the initial and sustained sexual abuse Ellis suffered at the hands of a deviant priest but for the hurt which had been inflicted on him by the Church ever since he had sought compensation and closure. He said:

As former archbishop and speaking personally, I would want to say to Mr Ellis that we failed in many ways, some ways inadvertently, in our moral and pastoral responsibilities to him. I want to acknowledge his suffering and the impact of this terrible affair on his life.

As the then archbishop, I have to take ultimate responsibility, and this I do. At the end of this gruelling appearance for both of us at this Royal Commission, I want publicly to say sorry to him for the hurt caused him by the mistakes made and admitted by me and some of my archdiocesan personnel during the course of the Towards Healing process and litigation.

The Cardinal's long time critics found fault with his mode of delivery. He did not even look at Ellis who was sitting directly in front of him. And the apology came years too late.

To date, the victims of sexual abuse have been unlikely to succeed in court against anyone but the perpetrator or a callously negligent employer or supervisor who had little regard for the signs that there may be a sexual predator in their midst. There have been many hurdles for a victim wanting to sue anyone but the criminal perpetrator. Law reformers need to give detailed consideration to these hurdles, making recommendations to government about reforms which will impact on all employers and not just churches.

Until now, a victim like Ellis has faced an additional hurdle when suing for abuse by a priest or other church personnel. Often the alleged abuse occurred many years ago and now there is a new supervising bishop or superior. The previous bishop or superior will have long since died. Who is to be sued? In the past, courts have ruled that in the case of the Catholic Church, there was no point in trying to sue the 'Trustees of the Roman Catholic Church', the statutory trust corporation that holds title to all the church lands of a diocese. That corporation may hold the assets but it does not supervise, employ or oversee clergy or other church workers.

All right thinking people now accept that the Church should not give any appearance of hiding behind the corporate veil. Justice demands that present church leaders agree to satisfy any judgment debt against their predecessors or their deceased predecessors' estates when there is an allegation of past failure to supervise or adequately investigate a sexual predator in their ranks. Any damages should be paid from church assets.

To date, much hierarchical behaviour has fallen short, failing the sunlight test, being corrected only under pressure from state inquiry. McCarthy's stringent criticisms of the Murphy Report are valid but they are but one small part of this tragic epic playing itself out in countries like Ireland and Australia.

With heart-felt apologies from Church leaders backed by commitments to structural and cultural change, there is greater prospect that McCarthy's story will be heard and that the Church might make a credible return to evangelisation in societies where the State has arguably been more attentive to gospel values than the Church when it comes to the protection of vulnerable children in our pews.

Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ AO is professor of law at the Australian Catholic University and adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University. This review was originally published in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Volume 103, No. 409, Spring 2014.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Dublin, Murphy Report, clergy sex abuse, Royal Commission



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Existing comments

I remain forever puzzled that to my knowledge no psychologist/psychiatrist was called before the Royal Commission given a track record of recycling permits for offenders[in USA],not forgetting DSM psychiatric bible on pedophilia[a mental disease only if acted on and if it causes anxiety-- ding dong!!] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/01/dsm-pedophilia-mental-disorder-paraphilia_n_4184878.html

Father John George | 30 May 2014  

Frank Brennan quotes Justice McClellan, the head of the Royal Commission: 'The best available indicators, nationally produced, estimate that between 3.3 percent and 6.6 percent of all reports of child sexual abuse made to police within the last five years occurred within an institutional context.' The Australian research 'confirms the view that a great deal of abuse occurs in families', most of which is unreported to state authorities. The statistics are quite misleading. There is a mountain of evidence that shows that victims of sexual abuse in institutions routinely did report abuse because of (a) the brutal intimidation exercised by perpetrators in institutions; (b) they had seen what happened to others who dared to speak up; (c) many had come to believe that sexual abuse was the "way of the world" in institutions; (d) in any event, such was the total lack of accountability,they had no access to any relevant reporting authority let alone family members who would act on their behalf.

Frank Golding | 02 June 2014  

It's good to see you finally weighing into this discussion Frank! There has been noticeable silence in commentaries over the past 15 years by religious and priests on this topic in Australia. It looks like the Royal Commission may also have had the effect of finally allowing 'safety' for open discussion. Australian Catholics need spaces in which to think and talk intelligently about this subject, without being accused of disloyalty or of exaggeration. Silence in the past helped pedophiles and thier Bishops to thrive. It needs to be broken through healthy and informed discussion.

Michelle Mulvihill | 02 June 2014  

“...the State has arguably been more attentive to gospel values than the Church when it comes to the protection of vulnerable children in our pews.” Some years ago we witnessed our son forcefully remind us, his parents, that one of us was behaving completely contrary to the values and behaviors we had instilled. It was a cause of pride for both of us. We had succeeded, at least in this vital area, as parents. I see a parallel when our society calls to account the Church for failing to live according to values which the Church has embedded in society. Ironically, the Church should be proud of its successful parenting. It needs to be humble, honest, and contrite regarding its failures and quick to implement all gospel values and practices.

Michael O'Connor | 02 June 2014  

One factor that everyone seems to regard as a 'forbidden topic' is that Catholics in general, and official representatives in particular, were all conditioned to believe that Christianity, and especially Catholicism, was a God-guaranteed institution that should therefor be defended at all costs. This has its counterparts in Judaism, with some Jews believing God gave them inalienable rights to the Holy Land; and with those Muslims who believe that God- (Allah)- gave Muhammad the definitive instructions and life-style he demanded. When such illusions are shattered by evolving enlightenment, individuals are left disoriented,- a prey to basic instincts and emotions, like detribalised natives. This does not excuse bad behaviour, but at least helps explain it.

Robert Liddy | 02 June 2014  

Apologies for my careless omission of the critical word 'not' in my previous post. What I intended to say was: There is a mountain of evidence that shows that victims of sexual abuse in institutions routinely did NOT report abuse because of (a) the brutal intimidation exercised by perpetrators in institutions; (b) they had seen what happened to others who dared to speak up; (c) many had come to believe that sexual abuse was the "way of the world" in institutions; (d) in any event, such was the total lack of accountability,they had no access to any relevant reporting authority let alone family members who would act on their behalf." One small word can make such a difference!

Frank Golding | 02 June 2014  

Well spoken Frank.

Matt Casey | 03 June 2014  

Let the truth be revealed in each and every case examined. Too long we have sought an authentic answer. How can we stand before our God (all knowing) and seek to Speak Lies!

Sr.patricia Leydon, r.s.j. | 05 June 2014  

The stories of those abused stand as testament to our failure as a church. We must strive to be reconciled with those we have failed whatever the cost. Is this not our sacramental responsibility as Catholics? Your words will help us all to reflect. Thank you.

John Faulkner | 06 June 2014  

Father Brennan writes a very glib apologia for Cardinal Pell. He completely ignores Pell's inaction prior to assuming the Archbishop's role in Melbourne in 1996, completely accepting Pell's excuse that Archbishop Little took sole responsibility in secret up till his sudden illness that led to Pell’s promotion - even though Pell was certainly involved in some abuse cases in his area of responsibility. Pell's actions as Archbishop in Melbourne and regarding Ellis in Sydney are overlooked by Brennan's comments. He accepts unquestioningly Pell's assertions that mistakes were made in the Ellis case only by his staff and his lawyers, not by him! The vigorous establishment of the Pell defence and the later pursuit of Ellis for costs were rather more than "mistakes." They were deliberate actions designed to establish clear precedents. If Fr Brennan believes otherwise, I have a nice opera house he might like to buy! For Fr Brennan's information, many people raised serious issues re the Melbourne Response prior to 2011-12, but were resolutely ignored by the Archbishops. I have seen no evidence that Victoria Police and Solicitor-General "signed-off" on the Melbourne Response. I believe that, at most, they made no explicit objection, rather than "signing off."

Jim Boyle | 06 June 2014  

I watched Cardinal Pell's evidence at the Royal Commission and although he stated that in his view there should be an entity for victims to sue, the next morning his lawyers asked him if that was a personal view or a Church view. He answered "personal". This from the highest ranking official of the Catholic Church in Australia - the lawyers gave him an out-and he took it-not good enough!! I heard a recent interview on the ABC with you when you stated that sexual abuse had not come across your path in your younger years, and you were "blessed". Surely you would realise how this would sound to victims - "Were they not blessed?"

Patricia Hamilton | 28 May 2015  

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