Although it was set up in 1996, most Catholics were unaware of the Stewardship Trust fund until 2003. In Feb 2003 the Irish Times reported that most Catholic dioceses in Ireland had taken out insurance in 1987 against liability for clerical child sexual abuse, and that the Stewardship Trust fund had emerged out of the collapse of that insurance cover in 1996.
The first money in the fund was a sum of €4.3 million, an interim payment made in 1996 by the church’s insurer, Church and General, in settlement of its insurance obligation. A final sum of €6.3 million from the same source was added in 1999.
In 2003 Catholics were startled to learn that bishops had insured the church against child sex abuse claims as early as 1987. Victims of clerical child sex abuse were astounded, because until then Irish bishops had been arguing that they had not understood the gravity of this offence until the case of Fr Brendan Smyth had hit the headlines in 1994.
Interestingly, it had been in 1987 that the Dublin government had issued its first set of guidelines on the handling of child sexual abuse, pointing out that it was a criminal offence. This coincidence was intriguing.
So was the fact that it wasn’t until after the sensational Brendan Smyth case that Irish bishops adopted their own guidelines for dealing with clerical child sex abuse – guidelines that included the reporting of cases to the civil authorities. Why hadn’t they done so in 1987, when the Irish state guidelines had included this obligation?
And did their insurance cover collapse in 1995/6, essentially, because they hadn’t done so?
An article in the Irish Times in February 2003 by Mary Raftery strongly suggested that this had indeed been the case. She pointed out that in connection with a clerical child sex abuse case reported to the Gardai in Dublin in 1995 it had subsequently been revealed by a psychiatrist who had treated the priest concerned that he had been given an incomplete account of the priest’s history of this offence by the Dublin Archdiocese in 1986. This had led the psychiatrist to underestimate the danger of the priest re-offending – and this underestimate had led to the priest being reassigned.
And the priest had then again re-offended. Huge damages were awarded against the church to just one victim of this priest in 2003.
Furthermore, the psychiatrist had declared that he was aware of other similar instances of misinformation by the Dublin archdiocese involving re-offending priests.
Mary Raftery’s analysis posed a stark question: had the church’s insurer, Church and General, withdrawn from its insurance contract in 1995 because it had learned in that year of the bishops’ failure to report criminal acts, and of their reassignment of criminally abusive priests? Had it then decided that this behaviour exposed the firm to unacceptable insurance risks?
Interestingly, this explanation was not subsequently discounted by the Irish bishops. Mary Raftery’s article was followed by a deafening silence.
This is of great interest to all Irish Catholics, who in 2005 were being asked to pick up the tab for an insurance collapse that has never been fully explained by those doing the asking.
Many also wondered why, since 1996, the Stewardship Trust had acquired other responsibilities – including, notably, the child protection requirements of recent legislation. In recent church statements on the trust, its remit for child protection has been placed at the top of the list of its purposes, although it did not take on this duty until 2001.
Was this done to disguise the origins of the Stewardship Trust in the very opposite of child protection – a catastrophic and culpable failure to protect children – in the period 1987-1996, when bishops had known that child sex abuse was a criminal offence?
In March 2005 the bishops revealed some details about payments so far made from the fund (€8.78 million for compensation and legal fees, for 143 claims involving 36 priests). These details were welcome, but raise further questions.
For example, were all of these instances of clerical child sex abuse reported to the civil authorities? And were any of those priests still in parish ministry, or any other ministry involving contact with children?
In light of the recommendations of the Ferns report, the continuing failure of some bishops to give assurances that there are no priests still serving in parish ministry who have had abuse claims met from the fund was especially serious – as it could not meet the fears of lay people that any contribution made to a compensation fund might actually prevent a solution to this grievous problem in the church.
This failure implies, for example, that the Stewardship Trust may have been used to meet claims that could involve non-disclosure agreements with abuse victims.
Non-disclosure agreements are likely to be detrimental to the long term interests of victims – especially if the offending priests are maintained in ministries or locations that involve possible contact with children or vulnerable young people. Victims can often subsequently interpret these circumstances in a way that brings further self-blame for participation in a cover-up.
And innocent priests – the huge majority – are entitled to feel aggrieved also that their innocence could be compromised in such a way.
Many Catholics could not – in conscience – support a fund that could be used for such a purpose. But if they couldn’t, how was the critical cause of child protection to be funded by their church?
Without adequate diocese-specific transparency on all of the 143 claims so far met from the fund, and a guarantee of equal transparency in relation to all present and future claims, the Stewardship Trust remained seriously compromised, and the cause of child protection imperilled.
The latter cause should have compelled our bishops to move emphatically towards complete transparency far sooner. It was their failure to do this that created the compensation crisis of 2005, and placed their people in an impossible dilemma.
Sean O’Conaill – Co-ordinator, Voice of the Faithful (Ireland), April 2006
(By March 2006 there were strong indications that the Stewardship Trust was no longer in being – at least as a compensation fund. The Trust had signally failed to win the trust, and the support, of the Irish Catholic people. The main reason for this was that from the beginning it lay cloaked in dark shadow – like so much else of our bishops’ handling of this catastrophe.)