Time for a clerical child abuse inquiry in Northern Ireland

Fr Brendan Smyth

Momentum is building for an inquiry into clerical child abuse in Northern Ireland.

With four inquiries now completed south of the border – Ferns, Ryan, Dublin and now Cloyne – northern abuse victims are rightly asking: what about us?

Their calls have now been echoed by SDLP MLA Conall McDevitt and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness:

I absolutely believe there should be the same thorough investigations in the northern dioceses as there have been in previous dioceses in the south.

We cannot north of the border view ourselves as being in the clear from all that happened in the south whenever I think many of us now know instinctively that that’s not the case.

What is this all about? This is about the protection of innocent children and there is a duty and a responsibility on all of us who are in important positions.

There is no doubt that there have been incidents of abuse – and cover-up by the hierarchy – every bit as serious in Northern Ireland as in the Republic. Even today, the very words ‘Fr Brendan Smyth’ send shivers of revulsion and fear down the spines of those who encountered him and others who recount near misses during the paedophile priest’s time in Belfast and elsewhere.

In 2010 Archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal Seán Brady, admitted that in 1975 he witnessed two boys, aged 10 and 14, sign oaths of silence after testifying in a Church inquiry against Smyth. It is clear that Brady’s actions helped ensure that Smyth was able to continue his prolific rape and abuse of children unabated for another 16 years until his eventual arrest.

With the Executive already committed to the establishment of an inquiry into historic institutional child abuse in Northern Ireland (following a vigorous campaign by survivors) – we should have an announcement on that in the early Autumn – it is now time for political leadership to address the reality of clerical child abuse here. We should also be clear that, in the case of clerical abuse, we are not necessarily simply talking about historic abuses. The Cloyne inquiry covered cases of abuse, and shameful malpractice in failure to report such cases to the authorities, in the diocese as recently as 2008.

Judge Murphy found that in the 12 years between 1996 and 2008, nine out of 15 complaints of abuse which should have been reported to Gardaí, were not reported.

As Minster for Children Frances Fitzgerald put it:

That’s very nearly two thirds of complaints un-reported, un-investigated and un-prosecuted.

For complaints which should have been reported to the health authorities the figures are even more stark; between 1996 and 2008 not one single complaint was reported. Not one.

Of course, while civil law in Northern Ireland may be different to that in the Republic of Ireland, Catholic canon law is not.

The Vatican has responsibility for the governance of dioceses and the oversight of bishops on both sides of the border. The Vatican itself has failed to be properly accountable for its compliance with legally binding obligations as a party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. As reported by Amnesty International, The Holy See was due to report on compliance with the convention in 1997. Fourteen years on, it has still failed to do so.

Until very recently the Vatican has made it clear to bishops that they should not report offending priests to the civil authorities – the Cloyne report tells how the Vatican described Irish church guidelines, which required that cases be so reported, as “a study document”. They made it clear that they did not support or require the prompt reporting of allegations of the rape and abuse of children to the civil authorities. The Newry-born Bishop of Cloyne and his delegate, Msgr Denis O’Callaghan, seem to have taken great comfort from that position and accordingly acted to protect the Church rather than children.

So, have clergy and religious in dioceses in Northern Ireland been in full compliance with the law here or have they been following orders from Rome?

As Taoiseach Enda Kenny put it this week:

The law of the land should not be stopped by a crozier or by a collar.

Is this also true in Northern Ireland? An independent inquiry will help answer that question.

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