Belfast Telegraph

Time to exorcise all the skeletons still in cupboard

By Martin O'Brien

What are the lessons to be learnt from the Malachy Finnegan scandal and the resignation of Bishop John McAreavey?

That is a question that will be taxing the minds of numerous committed Catholics and their priests at Mass throughout Northern Ireland this evening or tomorrow.

And many more what might be called cultural Catholics, who have long given up on their Church if not their Christian faith, will not be particularly bothered one way or another though they might just, in time, express an interest in looking at the Church again if the right lessons are demonstrably learnt.

One thing is obvious.

The clerical abuse scandals, what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger called "the filth in the Church" weeks before his election as Pope in 2005, that have ravaged the Church in Ireland - but also in other countries - have retained a capacity to come back again and again to bite the Church hard and to retraumatise victims.

That capacity to inflict so much new damage stems from the criminal and shameful cover-up of the sex abuse of children by predator priests, by the Church top brass over so many decades in the last century. It is now not just confined to the Catholic Church.

Only yesterday The Guardian reported that the Church of England "is braced for two years of 'deep shame' over its handling of child sex abuse cases" and the Archbishop of Canterbury is due to face a grilling before The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) within weeks.

No organisation can guarantee absolute protection, but the Catholic Church in Ireland has now in place so strict a safeguarding regime that Catholic premises are among the safest places for children and vulnerable adults in the country.

In Down and Connor Diocese alone, in 88 parishes, there are more than 500 volunteers who have been vetted and trained in safeguarding.

But that effort there and elsewhere over so many years now risks being undermined if bishops do not come clean about any remaining skeletons in the cupboard.

How many other Malachy Finnegan-type dark secrets are hiding in files in diocesan vaults throughout Ireland? One might hope there are none but that would be a naïve hope given past form.

In 2011 Bishop McAreavey did the right thing by requesting the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church (NBSCCC), the Irish Church child protection watchdog, to go beyond its terms of reference to review the handling of allegations against deceased priests, especially Finnegan. Unfortunately, he missed the opportunity to expose Finnegan at that time, one of five missed opportunities, as reported in my extensive interview with Dr McAreavey in last week's Irish Catholic.

A good way to proceed would be for every bishop to urgently review the files of all priests, living and dead, against whom allegations have been made, and not hold back on anything that should be legitimately shared with the public.

And also makes those files available to the next NBSCCC review. We owe the belated exposure of Malachy Finnegan, in the public interest, to BBC Northern Ireland's Spotlight programme and they should be commended for their tenacity in the best traditions of television investigative journalism.

Bishop McAreavey's position, already shaky, was rendered completely untenable by Nolan Live's revelation that McAreavey had permitted Finnegan to concelebrate Holy Mass in the very church where he had groomed Sean Faloon and where he had celebrated Mass week after week, assisted by Mr Faloon, before raping him week after week in the parochial house next door.

Nolan Live, once it had uncovered that devastating piece of news, had a duty to publicise it.

However, the way it put it into the public domain, revealing it "live" on television in the company of Mr Faloon, a victim and survivor, who looked visibly distressed and taken by surprise, is also a matter of concern. Sometimes the media have lessons to learn as well.

Martin O'Brien is a journalist and communications consultant and an award-winning former BBC producer

Belfast Telegraph

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