Belfast Telegraph

Why is the Church still so slow to tackle cases of clerical sex abuse?

Bishop John McAreavey's apology over paedophile priest Malachy Finnegan was welcome but long overdue, writes Malachi O'Doherty

Malachy Finnegan was escorted to his grave by people who revered and respected him. We don't all get a bishop to officiate in the ceremony.

He met his end in the knowledge and confidence that he was thought well of, that he had not been found out, that the young people he had molested and abused - physically, sexually and emotionally - had not ratted on him.

We don't know the state of his conscience then, whether he was ashamed of himself, whether he trusted in God's forgiveness, or if, harbouring his horrid secrets and believing in the teaching of his Church, he stared Hell in the face.

One of the questions over paedophile priests is whether they were believers at all, or just opportunistic hypocrites.

If you were cynical enough and wanted work that would give you access to children, the priesthood and the religious orders were your natural refuge.

Others might think you were sacrificing your sexual nature, committing yourself to chastity, a life without a woman.

There was a time in which it was assumed that all any man wanted for the comforts of the bed was a female adult partner; that any man who eschewed that was heroically setting aside the promptings of his nature to serve God and his community, to teach little children and lead them to grace.

This was a naive country that knew precious little, that could barely imagine the type of man who would don the habit and bow the head, all the more easily to have the pickings of the young entrusted to him.

Now we know better. Don't we?

Some of the clergy and religious people who ran the Catholic schools were gay.

One could understand that, at a time when homosexuality was regarded as shameful and actually criminal, gay men needed somewhere to hide. And where better than in Church roles, where no one would ask why they hadn't married?

But a lot of the priests were not ordinary healthy gay people. They wanted to have sex with children.

An awful lot of them.

That is what we have learnt since the first major scandal around Brendan Smyth, of the Norbertine order, who was thought to be a fine and decent holy man with a particular interest in the welfare of little girls.

Since then, we have had the Murphy and Ryan reports, which disclosed the enormous scale of the predation on children by priests in Ireland and the cover-ups by bishops.

It was routine for a priest who was complained about to be shunted off to another parish, for the "avoidance of scandal".

We learnt that even Cardinal Sean Brady, as a young priest, had participated in this system. He had interviewed two boys abused by Brendan Smyth, pledged them to secrecy and then reported his findings to his bishop and considered the matter closed.

So, it is no real surprise to find out that yet another respected priest and teacher was imposing himself for his own pleasure on children he was supposed to be teaching.

What is surprising about Malachy Finnegan is that it took so long for the disclosures to be made.

He was based at St Colman's in Newry between 1967 and 1976. He was president (principal) of the school until 1987.

In that time, he abused at least 12 children. That is the number of cases the Church is aware of.

The first complaints about his behaviour were made in 1994, seven years after he had stood down as president and eight years before he died.

In 2002, Bishop John McAreavey officiated at his funeral. He stood at the altar before his congregation and said: "Angels of the Lord, receive his soul and present him to God the most high."

They say that about everybody, but knowing the charge against Finnegan, the good bishop must have considered this soul's meeting with God would not be a happy one.

Bishop McAreavey says now, after having spoken to one of Finnegan's victims, that he should not have officiated at the funeral. The decision to do so was "the wrong one".

He said: "In November 2002, a victim told me how hurt he was by this. I realised that I had made an error of judgment."

So, let's look at the timeline. The abuse happened between 1967 and 1987. Finnegan had been president of the school from 1976 to 1987.

The Church was made aware of the abuse by the first complaint in 1994.

Eight years later, Finnegan dies and is honoured by the Church.

The bishop realises he has made a mistake in honouring him when one of the victims speaks to him.

Was this the first time he had spoken to that victim, or any of the victims, in the eight years since the complaint was first made?

Did he have to actually speak to a victim before he could get his ecclesiastical head round the fact that child abuse is wrong? A bishop is supposed to have rather finer moral intuition than that.

After another 15 years, the Church accepts that Finnegan was a predatory paedophile. One case has been settled out of the nine the Church knows about.

One can only hope that the manner in which it has been settled has brought some comfort to those who suffered.

And now Finnegan's picture has been removed from the school of which he was president, so that no reminder of his predations looks down from the walls on future pupils and their parents.

St Colman's is rightly ashamed of its past president, but it seems a trite response to treat him now simply as if he never existed.

What this case shows is that the Church is still sluggish in its dealings with complaints of predatory abuse by ordained men.

It is nearly a decade since the shock of the Ryan and Murphy reports into the conduct of paedophiles in religious orders and the priesthood.

It was followed by the deepest journalistic scrutiny and yet also by an almost placid and smug response by the institutional Church.

Then it came out that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under the man who became Pope Benedict, had bound bishops to secrecy, had disdained the notion that the law of the land had more claim on them than their own internal canon law.

And we saw that paedophile priests were everywhere.

What is worrying about the Malachy Finnegan case is that those who dealt with it were not fired into a sense of urgency by the scandals, but took their time, as they had always done.

Because there is always one thing you can rely on about victims. In time, if you give them nothing, they go away. They die off.

We probably have people in high political office here who take that handy truth to heart, too.

Belfast Telegraph

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