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Omerta Code and the Irish Church

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Justice Minister Alan Shatter and Minister for Children and Youth Affair, Frances Fitzgerald take questions about the Cloyne Report last Wednesday.
The only surprising thing about last week's report on sex abuse in the Catholic Church in Ireland was that anyone here was surprised.

We've heard it all before, the shocking behavior of priests, the numbers involved, the failure to act on complaints, the indifference of the bishops and the Vatican.

It's a familiar litany from previous reports, like the ones on dioceses in Wexford and Dublin. This latest one was on the Cork diocese of Cloyne, and it had added interest because the bishop involved was a Vatican insider for years.

Bishop John Magee had been private secretary and assistant to three popes (Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II).  He was clearly destined for even higher office in Rome until, in what seemed a curious development at the time in 1987, he was sent back to Ireland to be a local bishop.
There was speculation back then that he might have a blot on his record and that they wanted to get him out of the Vatican. We don't know if that was so.

But we do know that after his return to Ireland the then Magee himself engaged in what this report called "inappropriate behavior" with a young aspirant clerical student.  This was considered by the judge who produced this report to be a "boundary" issue rather than abuse (the bishop tightly hugged the young man for over a minute on several occasions when they were alone and is alleged to have kissed him on the head).

It may have been entirely innocent, or it may have been the actions of a deeply repressed older man seeking physical contact.  But as the report says, it was inappropriate.

This, and the fact that the bishop, who resigned last year, is currently thought to be hiding somewhere in the U.S., gave this report added interest here.

But the main reason the Cloyne Report became such a big story in Ireland last week was because this was not about stuff that had happened 30 or 40 years ago. This was mainly about events in the decade up to 2009, the period which followed the introduction of the new protocol for child protection put in place by the Catholic Church in Ireland in 1996 after the national outcry about the initial shocking revelations of abuse.

We were told at that time by the Irish bishops that the new guidelines and systems meant that such appalling abuse would never happen again, and that all cases in the future would be reported to the police immediately instead of being handled internally by the Catholic Church.

In spite of this, however, last week's report showed that the new guidelines were not followed in Magee's area in Cork.  In the diocese of Cloyne -- and for all we know in other dioceses as well -- it was the same old crap, with abusing priests being protected, with cases not being referred to the police and with victims being hushed up, sidetracked and ignored.  Yet again the church had behaved as if it was a law unto itself.
It's important to keep in mind that this is a state report, not a church report, and that the investigation commission was directed by a judge. What is contained in the 340-page report is beyond question and it is absolutely damning of the Catholic Church, both in Ireland and in Rome.

You can see the full report and the main findings on the web, under Cloyne Report.  What will strike you immediately is the way the report makes clear that Magee never really accepted the new protocols and procedures put in place in 1996 to prevent abuse. Two-thirds of the complaints about abuse in the Cloyne diocese between 1996 and 2008 were not referred to the police.
Magee had also lied about what was happening.  He told the then minister for children that the guidelines were being implemented in Cloyne.  He told the Health Service Executive (the national health service which has a statutory responsibility in dealing with abuse) that all complaints and alleged cases were being referred to the police.

An issue that should have been a top priority in every diocese in Ireland after 1996 was treated by Magee with a sort of distant disdain.  Instead of getting directly involved in implementing the new measures himself, Magee passed the job on to an underling, an elderly priest who had the same sort of attitude to the issue as Magee himself.  

In doing so and in his behavior in general, Magee was reflecting an attitude that still exists in some quarters in the Catholic Church in Ireland and elsewhere.  This attitude involves a reluctance to accept that the church has to follow state rules, and an instinctive feeling that abuse cases can be dealt with internally in the church.  It's an attitude that regards the behavior of priests as church business, and resents any "outside" interference by the state.

Magee's years in Rome may have made him lean more towards this attitude than other bishops here, and certainly he appears to have been encouraged in this direction by the stance of the Vatican and the present Pope. This is probably one of the most shocking findings in the Cloyne Report.

It says that a secret letter from the Vatican was sent to the Irish bishops in which it described their new abuse protocol and procedures put in place in 1996 (including immediate referral to the police) as not official church policy, but merely a document to be discussed and studied.

The report is highly critical of this attitude by the Vatican, pointing out that it probably encouraged dissenting bishops like Magee to continue on as they had before. So the Cloyne Report is not just revealing about a diocese in Cork and the Irish Catholic Church in general, it's also further evidence that the core of this problem goes to the heart of the Church in the Vatican.

In Magee's case, it probably allowed him to believe that he was right when, as the report reveals, he continued to defend an abusing priest even though he knew the priest was lying.

All of this led to unprecedented outrage here last week.  Even though we have gotten used to this stuff to some extent, this time it was different.
This is the fourth state report on abuse in the Catholic Church in Ireland since the mid ‘90s -- one each on Dublin and Wexford, one on abuse in Catholic institutions and this one on Cloyne in Cork.

Each one provoked outrage, but it wasn't just people who were angry this time. It was the government as well.

The day after the report was published last week the Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore called in the Papal Nuncio (the Vatican's Ambassador) and let him know how displeased the government was at what amounted to Vatican meddling in criminal matters in Ireland. One senior Fine Gael politician called for the Nuncio to be expelled.

Following the Cloyne Report the new minister for children was also in action, saying that new legislation will make it a criminal offense for anyone to withhold information about possible child abuse or to fail to bring information about possible cases to the attention of the authorities.
That will include priests and bishops as much as everyone else.  And failure to report complaints about abuse or evidence of possible abuse will be punishable by up to five years in jail.

In short the government, just like everyone else here, has reached the end of the road with the Catholic Church and its code of Omerta.  Any more of this in the future -- any more Bishop Magees -- and those involved in denying, delaying and then throwing up a smokescreen of apologies and contrition while they continue to hide the guilty, will find themselves behind bars.

This could be relevant very soon because we know that the church has carried out several internal investigations in recent years in areas around the country where there has been a higher number of complaints about abuse. The results of these investigations have not been published.

At the moment here in the wake of what the minister for children had to say last week about five year jail sentences for those who don't contact the authorities about possible child abuse cases, there is a debate going on about whether the new legislation will cover what a priest hears in confession.  Will a priest have to report to the authorities cases of child abuse he hears about in the confession box?

This, of course, is the kind of smokescreen the bishops love to throw up because in this discussion the priest is an innocent party.  But this academic theological argument is unlikely to deflect attention away from the main business for long.

That business is deciding what to do about an organization that is morally bankrupt even though it still holds itself up as the moral leader of Irish society.

As far as this former Catholic is concerned, it's of no concern.  Indeed, the same goes for the vast majority of people here who no longer look to the Catholic Church for guidance on anything.

The only concern we have is to be sure that the privileged position the clergy once had here is consigned to history and that priests and bishops are treated exactly the same as anyone else before the law.  And that's state law, not church law.

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