ON MONDAY of last week, in his much discussed address to the Knights of Columbanus, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin spoke of “strong forces” in the Catholic Church “which would prefer that the truth did not emerge” about clerical child sex abuse.
Yesterday we were presented at a press conference in Dublin with one of those strong forces in the church which is even more determined that the truth will emerge.
There is no doubt that the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland (NBSC) has earned its credibility. Its uncompromising uncovering in 2008 of “inadequate and in some respects dangerous” child protection practices in Cloyne diocese represented a baptism of fire for the fledgling board and its then new chief executive Ian Elliott.
But it stuck to its guns, eventually persuading Cloyne diocese to publish that damning report on its own website in December 2008.
The result was the resignation of Bishop John Magee and an extension of the remit of the Murphy commission to include Cloyne diocese, which it is now investigating.
Similarly, the NBSC decision to yesterday “name and shame” three dioceses which have been tardy in appointing parish safeguard representatives will have earned them few friends in Killala, Clonfert, and/or Ossory. But it is another uncompromising move towards ensuring children are safe in Catholic-run contexts on this island.
The obstinacy of the NBSC in pursuit of this aim and in particular of its chief executive, Elliott, has prompted some humour, with a recognition that much of the church’s future credibility where child protection is concerned rests on the shoulders of a Presbyterian, which Elliott is.
A native of Dublin and a Trinity College graduate, he has spent most of his working life in Northern Ireland, where he implemented major reforms in child protection services for the Department of Health and Social Security there.
Such was his reputation that he was head-hunted by the Catholic Church to become chief executive of the NBSC in July 2007.
That alone indicated a serious commitment by strong forces within the church to properly address child protection.
The continuing and unequivocal support that Elliott and the NBSC have received from church authorities, through the Cloyne upheaval and the fall-out from the Ryan and Murphy reports, indicates a sharp change of approach to this catastrophic issue by most of the church’s authorities in Ireland.
It is, however, a work in progress.
As NBSC chairman John Morgan, who has been dealing with child protection issues on the church’s behalf since 1999, said in a statement accompanying yesterday’s report, from the NBSC perspective “the best thing we can do is help change the future – and that is our pivotal emphasis”.
He went on to say that “clearly a cultural correction is required in the Irish church to deal with the problem of abuse”.
He said “there is little apparent recognition that Vatican II decisively moved the role of the church lay faithful from collaboration to co-responsibility. A form of collective authority in the safeguarding of children might assist the ushering in of a wider recognition of the principle of co-responsibility.”
The NBSC intended “to participate in this crucial debate”, he added.
For his part, Elliott was as uncompromising. “The radical change imperative within the church is an acceptance that the safety of the child is paramount,” he said. All other considerations, including the reputation of the church, the hierarchy, or any member of the clergy, “comes some way after the safety of the child in any consideration of decisions to be made or actions to be taken”.
He warned that “within some areas of the church, this commitment has been tempered by a mistaken belief that it is possible to continue with past and familiar practices”.
That, to quote Margaret Thatcher, is “out”.
In more than an echo of Archbishop Martin’s address last week, Elliott said that this approach had led to “a reliance on a defensive legal response when complaints emerge rather than a focus on safeguarding concerns and the elimination of risk to other vulnerable young people”.
Radical change required “nothing less than a major step away from the defensiveness of the past to a more open and accountable future,” he said.
And where abuse victims were concerned, he said the church “must improve significantly” in “communicating a sense of regret and remorse for what has happened, along with a sincere concern for their present wellbeing.”
Such victims were also “a great source of wisdom and guidance about what mistakes to avoid in the future,” he said.
Elliott’s comments on the Christian Brothers yesterday were unexpected. Of all 18 congregations investigated by the Ryan commission it had been the most recalcitrant and reluctantly co-operative. It also emerged very badly from the Ryan report.
Elliott said that since publication of that report last May the Christian Brothers had been “working diligently” to ensure that all information they held on members suspected of being involved in abuse was reported to statutory authorities and to the NBSC.
The organisation also now had a mandatory reporting policy in place. The Christian Brothers had become “an excellent example to be followed by the church” and were deserving of “the highest praise”, he said.
Quite a turnaround, and a welcome one, for a congregation which had been denying any abuse had taken place in its institutions five days before publication of the Ryan report on May 20th last year.