Belfast Telegraph

Silence offers no escape from the shadow of abuse

The Catholic Church has yet to come clean over institutional child abuse - while its latest 'apology' has the ring of news management to it, says Malachi O'Doherty

How answerable is the Catholic Church for its crimes against children? Well, the institution wants us all to acknowledge that it has learned great lessons out of the horrific disclosures of recent years. And no doubt it has.

One of those lessons is in media management; in the trick of agreeing with your accuser that the rape and abuse of thousands of children, all of it for decades swathed in cover-up, was inexcusable, yet never quite apologising wholeheartedly; never conceding that you are still anything less than the moral leader of the society you inhabit; never going to jail - not if you're a bishop, anyway.

All of this was demonstrated last week in a flurry of new stories around the Church and the abuse issue.

For a start, there was an address by Chief Constable Matt Baggott to the North and South Councils on Social Justice on the subject of faith and policing.

With the assembled bishops in front of him and a file on his desk back at the office listing 170 cases of clerical and institutional abuse to be investigated, you'd have thought Baggott might have taken the opportunity to feel a few dog-collars.

Instead, he and the bishops exchanged affirmations of each other on what important contributions they had to make to society and none of the media observed that the Church had got off lightly. In their more private deliberations, the bishops will have chalked that one up as a particularly elegant reputational victory.

Hopes of a little show of Episcopalian shame-facedness rose with the announcement of reports to come on the levels of abuse in six Catholic dioceses.

The publication of the report into the shocking scale of abuse in the Derry diocese coincided with the public service workers strike on November 25. Cynical news management could not have planned it better.

The retirement of Bishop Seamus Hegarty from public life through illness had proven equally well-timed. Not that anyone would want a sick man dragged from his bed to explain the inadequacy of his efforts down the years to protect children.

But one would like to think that the lost opportunity to unburden his conscience before his people will have rankled with a good Christian. His predecessor, Bishop Edward Daly, spoke of his "profound shame" that children had been so gravely offended against by priests of the diocese. But, in the same breath, the Catholic Communications Office explained to the media that he had not been bishop for 18 years, would have nothing further to say on the matter and would not be giving interviews.

He should change his mind about this. It doesn't sit well with his past record of high principle and commitment to justice, nor with his well-proven readiness to engage in public moral arguments.

When a report of the Police Ombudsman last year disclosed that Bishop Neil Farren had colluded in 1972 with the Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, in shuffling suspected Claudy bomber-priest Fr James Chesney, out of harm's way, it was Edward Daly who stepped forward to defend the dead priest against calumny.

The ombudman's report recounted a meeting in which Farren and Whitelaw had discussed what to do about the "very bad man". Edward Daly's recollection of the mannerisms of Farren and Whitelaw persuaded him that it was Whitelaw, and not Farren, who had used this expression.

An intuitive memory that worked so confidently across nearly 40 years should hardly have been deterred at the challenge of speaking openly about abuse in his diocese half that distance back in time beyond issuing a 149-word statement to the media.

Surely he would want to clarify his own role when complaints were made against predatory paedophile priests during his own period as bishop, beyond regretting "any failings or shortcomings" that he "may" have had.

The report by the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church says, "Priests about whom there were clear concerns were not robustly challenged, or adequately managed, and problems were often 'handled' by moving them to postings elsewhere. There is evidence that abusive behaviour continued to be exhibited by priests who were moved on in this manner."

So who would want it in the historical record against them that they had shuffled rapists around in order to protect the Church against scandal? But, then, that is probably what all bishops did.

Bishop Hegarty made no statement because he is unwell. Last month, he notified the Pope that he wished to stand down - three years before his retirement age - because he had been diagnosed with an "irreversible and progressive" condition which would make it impossible for him to discharge his duties.

We have not been told what that condition is. The man is, of course, entitled to be ill in private, but those around him must consider whether withholding such information will be seen as part of a strategy of evasion. There are "irreversible and progressive" conditions, after all, which do not impair a man's ability to explain himself - if he wants to.

Has Bishop Hegarty left nothing on the record to excuse, or clarify, the policy of shunting rapists out of reach of the law? Hadn't he plenty of time to set out his case before his illness took over?

Bishop Daly himself retired through ill-health after a stroke and has since written two books, contributed to public debate on priestly celibacy, given evidence to the Saville Inquiry and driven his own media campaign in defence of the memory of James Chesney. He, surely, has more to say.

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