VOTFI tangles with the Irish Conference of Bishops

Twelve Questions from VOTFI to the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference Jan 2008

In the autumn of 2007 Cardinal Sean Brady spoke in Cork of his desire to address the issue of clerical sexual abuse. Taking him seriously, we wrote to him detailing the questions we believed needed to be addressed. For example, why two bishops in Ferns had ‘placed the church before children’. Had those children not also belonged to the church? What understanding of church had these bishops been using that allowed them to behave in this way? And why were bishops not accountable for this behaviour within the church? Why was secrecy such an embedded and dangerous quantity in the culture of the church? Didn’t cardinals like himself take an oath of secrecy at their installation? And finally, what action did the bishops of the church propose to take to heal the harm that had been done?

Not hearing anything from Cardinal Brady for some weeks, we decided then to redraft this letter and to release it as an open letter to the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference. An advance copy was already on its way to the ICBC when we received in February 2008 a letter from Cardinal Brady, offering to meet with us to discuss our letter to himself. We decided to accept this offer, but also to proceed with the publication of the open letter to the ICBC

‘Betrayal’ – VOTFI open letter to ICBC  18th Feb 2008

Martin Ridge: ‘Breaking the Silence’ in Raphoe diocese, 4th April, 2008

We first got to know Martin Ridge in October 2005 when he attended the meeting addressed by Fr Tom Doyle in the Tower Hotel in Derry. He made a very strong contribution at that meeting, and became a valued member of VOTF Ireland. As a serving Garda officer in Donegal he had investigated the serial paedophile Eugene Greene, who was convicted as a consequence in 2000 and sentenced to twelve years imprisonment.

On the basis of the evidence he had uncovered, Martin Ridge had become convinced that Greene’s activities must have been known to other clergy in Raphoe diocese at least as early as 1976. Now retired he accepted a commission to co-author a book on the investigation of Eugene Greene, and of another Donegal paedophile, school teacher Dennis McGinley. Published by Gill and Macmillan, the book ‘Breaking the Silence’ was launched by Mary Raftery on 4th April 2008 in Letterkenny*.

A meticulous and detailed account of the gradual accumulation of damning evidence against two highly dangerous men, Breaking the Silence made a convincing case for an inquiry into the mysterious career of Eugene Greene especially. For example, it was known that in 1976 he had received treatment somewhere as a consequence of a complaint of child sexual abuse by one family. He had told the family of this treatment at the time – and it seems inconceivable that this could have happened without the diocesan authorities being aware of it. And although Greene’s alcoholism was pleaded in extenuation of his abusive behaviour by his defence counsel at his trial, no medical record was produced to substantiate this submission.

‘Breaking the Silence’ made a compelling case for a state inquiry into the handling of abuse by Raphoe diocese, to follow inquiries into the dioceses of Ferns and Dublin. This cause is still very much alive – although the silence of Donegal politicians is very difficult to understand.

An account of the launch of ‘Breaking the Silence’, 4th April 2008

*Breaking the Silence, Martin Ridge and Gerard Cunningham, Gill and Macmillan, 2008

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VOTFI Meeting with Cardinal Sean Brady, 18th April, 2008

A team of four was selected to meet with the Cardinal by the online group that had formulated the letters to Cardinal Brady and the ICBC (see ‘Twelve Questions’ etc above). Carol Brady, Margaret Kennedy, Bryan Maguire and Sean O’Conaill were accompanied by Irene O’Byrne-Maguire as recorder. Cardinal Brady was accompanied by Bishop Eamonn Walsh from Dublin, Fr Timothy Bartlett and two lay people involved in dealing with cases of sexual abuse – Ms Aileen Oates and Sister Loretto McKeown. The meeting took place in the Carrickdale Hotel, near Dundalk.

The atmosphere of the meeting was cordial but intense. After brief personal introductions we focused upon the questions put in our open letter to the ICBC (above), emphasising the need for openness, honesty and repentance on the part of the hierarchy for the way in which they had handled the issue, and calling strongly for church structures for open discussion and for downward accountability. We also called strongly for a forum for survivors, to allow all bishops to learn of the suffering involved in clerical abuse.

The cardinal and his team were defensive and non-committal as to their own future course of action. Bryan Maguire remarked later that their attitude could be summed up by the expression: “You’ve got to listen to thunder!” That is, the Cardinal gave no sign then of wishing to follow up anything we had said. It was as though he thought his duty had been fully done by simply being physically present as we spoke.

Astonishingly, when asked about the oath of secrecy that he had been obliged to take on being installed, Cardinal Brady told us that he had never connected that oath with the issue of the handling of clerical sexual abuse.

The key issue of accountability was fended off by reference to the recently instituted National Board for the Safeguarding of Children (a church sponsored organisation to establish and monitor child protection guidelines). We were assured that the CEO of the NBSC, Ian Elliott, would make sure that all bishops were accountable for following child safety guidelines. We were simply not heard on our submission that the restoration of trust in the church would require bishops to be accountable to their people as well – and not just on the issue of clerical sexual abuse.

Although we subsequently thanked the Cardinal for the meeting and summarised what we hoped would follow from it, we received from him no follow-up message of any kind. This was on balance another disillusioning and disappointing experience. It left us with the clear impression that the Primate of Ireland would not be a dynamic force for the resolution of all the issues raised by the clerical abuse catastrophe. Despite his declared intention of October 2007 to address the problem, we concluded that he too was essentially into damage limitation rather than resolution.

The Cloyne Crisis, December 2008

From April 2008 there were persistent media reports of trouble in the southern diocese of Cloyne, whose bishop, Dr John Magee, had allegedly mishandled clerical child sex abuse allegations there. A report on this compiled by the CEO of the NBSC, Ian Elliott, had reportedly gone to the Minister for Children, Barry Andrews – but then disappeared. Public pressure for its publication increased in late 2008 – and the report finally appeared just before Christmas. It delivered virtually the same verdict on Bishop Magee’s performance in Cloyne as had the Ferns report on failing bishops of that diocese – the interests and safety of children had come second to the interests of clergy, and the church’s own child safety guidelines had not been followed.

We immediately issued a statement calling for Dr Magee’s resignation, and for a papal investigation and explanation of the dangerous behaviour of so many bishops

VOTF Ireland statement on NBSCCC Report on Cloyne Diocese – issued Dec. 20th 2008

A few days later Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin made an important intervention – saying he was extremely concerned by the Cloyne report. The possibly wide divergence it proved between how different bishops were applying church guidelines was a particular problem for Dublin, because priests from any diocese could potentially minister in the archdiocese. He warned that he might be obliged to impose a uniform system for all priests serving in the diocese.

We saw this as an important development, a change in the usually uniform response from all Irish bishops to every question. Archbishop Martin would not himself be drawn on the question of whether Bishop Magee should resign, but this position was clearly different from the support given to Bishop Magee by other bishops. A new crisis developed on Jan 13th 2009 when Archbishop Sean Brady declared that Bishop Magee, whom he had always found to be ‘dependable and reliable’, should stay in office.

At that moment an article by Sean O’Conaill on the issue of bishop accountability was ready for publication by the Irish News, Belfast. It was quickly edited to refer to Archbishop Brady’s lamentable decision and published on January 15th: “Our unaccountable bishops undermine trust in church“.

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