Lessons from Ireland

IRELAND has been a leader in investigating institutional child sex abuse, particularly in relation to the Roman Catholic Church.
Last month, the Chair of the Commission of Investigation into clerical child sex abuse in Dublin, Justice Yvonne Murphy, gave the Annual Michael Kirby Justice Oration at Melbourne’s Victoria University. Justice Murphy (pictured right) gave a measured account of the lead up to the Commission of Investigation, which was conducted between 2006 and 2009 and relating specifically to the period 1975 to 2004.

The unassuming circuit court judge told the audience that 1993 was the year “the dam finally burst as far as allegations of clerical sexual abuse were concerned”.

“In that year Father Brendan Smyth, who was a Norbertine monk, was convicted of numerous counts of sexual assault of children spanning a 35 year period.” (Smyth sought refuge in a monastery in the Republic of Ireland for three years. He eventually handed himself over to the authorities of Northern Ireland, but the mishandling of the extradiction led to the downfall of the Fianna Fail/Labour coalition government.)

Justice Murphy opened the oration quoting from a November 2009 feature in Ireland’s largest newspaper entitled ‘The age of our grave indifference is finally over’. The author, a history professor at the University of Dublin, wrote:

“…there are still rare events that not only deserve but demand to be described as historic. The publication of the Murphy Report is one such event. A truly historic landmark in a sad and squalid story of church/state relations in independent Ireland.”

Justice Murphy then spent the rest of her lecture giving context to that quote.

“Ireland,” she said, “has been overwhelmed in the past two decades by what the Catholic Church itself calls a tsunami of revelations of clerical child abuse, physical as well as sexual; of the meticulous concealment of those abused, those who abuse and of the long and almost established policy of protecting the assets and reputation of the church in preference to exposing abusers.”

The Murphy Commission had very specific terms of reference set down. Its object was not to establish whether abuse had actually occurred. Instead Justice Murphy explained the object was to establish how complaints of child sexual abuse against clerics in the Dublin Archdiocese where handled by the church, by state authorities, which included the health authorities and the police.

The Murphy Report concluded that “the Dublin Archdiocese’s preoccupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid 1990s, were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities. The Archdiocese did not implement its own canon law rules and did its best to avoid any application of the law of the State”.

Perhaps the biggest take home message for us as Church, is the impact the Murphy Report, the other judicial enquiries and some powerful television documentaries have had on the psyche of the Irish people.

Justice Murphy described the visit of “an impossibly young and impossibly handsome Pope John Paul II” to Ireland in 1979, where it seemed the whole country had turned out to see him. “I mean it was really a truly joyous occasion for the Irish people,” she said.

“Now the country has changed massively as a result of all these investigations. By way of example in 1988 Mr Brian Burke, a former premier of Western Australia, was appointed Australian ambassador both to Ireland and to the Holy See.

“No aspect of that appointment seemed untoward in either country. Now Ireland has closed its embassy to the Holy See after a thorough going attack by our present prime minister on that institution. Dealings with the Holy See are conducted through a civil servant who is based in Dublin.

“Priestly ordinations at one time running to the hundreds are now at an all-time low, as is attendance of church-going people,” Justice Murphy said.

The Australian Royal Commission to investigate Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse will look at state, church and other organisations involved in the care of children. The Uniting Church has welcomed its establishment, and a Synod Task Group is working with the Assembly’s National Response Task Group.

It is always important to shine the light on the dark and hidden places. For Ireland it revealed a betrayal of immense proportions, and a shattering of trust between church and its people. Let us pray for our nation as we prepare to hear submissions brought before the Commission.

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