Victims of historical clerical abuse met with the former Archbishop of Westminster in Newry yesterday as part of a Vatican probe into sex crimes committed within the Irish Catholic Church.
Last March Pope Benedict announced the probe, formally known as an apostolic visitation, following the publication of two damning reports by the Irish government which found a culture of systematic cover-up of paedophile priests and allegations of abuse.
In an open letter the Vatican said it wanted “to respond adequately to the situation caused by the tragic cases of abuse” and promote the “spiritual and moral renewal” of the Irish Church.
Five senior prelates were chosen to carry out the inquiry in the four diocese of Armagh, Dublin, Cashel-Emly and Tuam.
But their roles are to gather information and report to Rome, not resolve any issues raised.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-|O’Connor, who is now retired, was appointed to lead the investigation in Armagh. But the cardinal was himself the subject of intense criticism over his handling of a paedophile priest.
In 1985 the cardinal, then Bishop of the Arundel and Brighton Diocese, appointed Father Michael Hill to Gatwick Airport despite experts warning that he could be a danger to children.
Victims’ groups demanded his resignation in 2002 when Hill was jailed and the cardinal was forced to apologise to victims.
Last night Jon McCourt, who suffered abuse as a child at the Termonbacca home in Co Londonderry, said members of group, Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse, were pleased the cardinal had met with them.
He explained the senior clergyman listened along with Dr Sheila Hollins, professor of the UK Board of Psychiatry, to the stories as well as their concerns.
He also said they had gone into the meeting with realistic expectations and were aware the cardinal would only be there to record.
“It was fairly informal and cordial — a lot more informal than I expected it to be, seeing we were meeting the cardinal,” he explained. “He was very direct with us. He told us his role wasn’t to make a promise to us as to where this was going to go. It was simply as a recorder and to report back to Rome.
“We have no idea of a timescale for that. That is one of the difficulties; we have no real idea how long this process is going to take.
“The only time frame we know of is that next Tuesday they have a meeting with the northern bishops.
“Cardinal O’Connor said he will take back to the bishops some of the suggestions we put to him — mainly that we need to have a direct liaison between ourselves and the Church so that we are informed as the process develops because that is one of the things that has been lacking.”
Yesterday’s meeting comes a month after the Stormont Executive announced it was launching its own inquiry into historical and institutional child abuse after persistent campaigning from victims.
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness welcomed the opportunity for victims to meet with the apostolic visitor.
He said the abuse suffered by many children and vulnerable young people in institutions over the years and the totally insensitive manner in which this was dealt with had “cast a dark cloud over Irish society”.
“There is an onus on us all to ensure that this abuse can never be allowed to happen again and that necessary safeguarding arrangements are put in place to guarantee protection for those who are greatest at risk.
“The papal initiative is an important part of the process of putting the needs of victims first. Those who have perpetrated such heinous crimes must not be protected, but must be subject to the full rigours of the legal process.”