Raphoe Diocese, Talking to Bishops – and organisational crisis for VOTFI

VOTFI and Raphoe diocese, December 2009 – February 2010

The Irish bishops’ admission on Dec 9th, 2009 of a widespread ‘culture’ of cover-up in the church in the period 1975-2004 raised particular questions for VOTFI members in the north-west, especially Martin Ridge. His book Breaking the Silence of 2008 had given strong reason to suspect that there had been a cover-up of the activities of the abuser Eugene Greene during at least part of that era. Accordingly, at the end of December 2009, we asked Bishop Seamus Hegarty of Derry, who had been bishop of Raphoe in the period 1982-94, if the culture of cover-up had applied then.

Statement re Raphoe diocese, Dec 31, 2009

Bishop Hegarty did not respond immediately. However, in February 2010, in response to direct questioning at a meeting in Maghera, attended by Sean O’Conaill of VOTFI, Bishop Hegarty strongly denied that he had known anything of Greene’s abusive activities.

Bishop Hegarty’s assurances re his time in Raphoe

Cardinal Sean Brady and Brendan Smyth – Mar 2010

On March 14th, 2010 the Sunday Times reported that in 1975 Cardinal Sean Brady had conducted an inquiry into abuse allegations against Brendan Smyth, involving the swearing of two children to secrecy. The allegations had not been reported to the gardai at the time. This led to calls for the cardinal’s resignation. VOTFI issued a statement saying that we could not see how the cardinal could now provide the leadership that the church in Ireland needed if it was to recover.

Statement re Cardinal Brady and revelations regarding Brendan Smyth, 15-03-2010

Pastoral letter of Pope Benedict XVI to Ireland, Mar 20 2010

Promised in February, this arrived finally on March 20th. Ready to welcome its positive aspects, we were nevertheless disappointed that it ignored the obvious need for an investigation of the roots of the global abuse disaster. And although it partially blamed the Irish disaster on the growth of secularism in Ireland, it made no mention of the fact that it had been secular agencies such as the police, the courts, the media and the state that had first brought the issue to public attention and obliged bishops to prioritise child protection for the first time. We nevertheless hoped that the pastoral would initiate a wide discussion in the church in Ireland, and said all this in a statement issued on March 21st.

Statement on papal pastoral, 21-03-2010

VOTFI launches Ribbon of Truth, Accountability and Justice Easter – 2010

To symbolise our primary commitment to supporting survivors of clerical sex abuse, VOTFI launched a lapel ribbon with the words: ‘Truth, Accountability, Justice’.

Samples of the ribbon were presented to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin on Holy Thursday, April 1st, 2010.

We urged all to consider wearing this ribbon, to ensure that these principles would now prevail in our church.

Ribbon presentation, Holy Thursday 2010

VOTFI Reorganisation, Easter 2010

Sean O’Conaill was obliged for health reasons to stand down from the role of acting coordinator of VOTFI at Easter 2010. This move was also timely in light of the growth of VOTFI membership in and around Dublin, and Sean’s location in Coleraine. From this time VOTFI has been led by a small ‘Membership Support Team’, advised by the email group that is open to all members – meeting_votfi.

Rationale for the reorganisation

‘The Way Forward’ – a programme for renewal

In four weekend sessions based at the Augustinian house ‘Orlagh’ in Dublin south, Irene and Bryan Maguire facilitated a confrontation of the emotional legacy left by the disaster that had culminated in the Ryan and Murphy reports of 2009. In sessions that included input from survivors of abuse, participants shared their deepest reactions in a context of prayer and worship, moving through the necessary stages of grief and recovery, towards a vision of a possible future. Supported by members of the Augustinian community, the programme ran through 2010 from February to September.

Meeting with four bishops re care of abuse survivors, Sep 2010

This was a well prepared and intensive meeting attended by Bishops John Fleming, Denis Brennan, John Buckley and John McAreavey. VOTFI representatives were Sr Teresa Mee, Frank Gregg, Mary O’Callaghan and Margaret Kennedy.

The main topics covered were: financial support for survivors of diocesan abuse; impediments to healing such as the continuation in office of bishops who had failed to challenge the culture of cover-up in the church; the need for a thorough explanation of the abuse disaster, including especially the cover-up; the need for inclusive church structures to allow all of the people of God to share responsibility, and the need for a well-designed programme of pastoral care for survivors.

We learned from the bishops that they found financial support for survivors problematic, due mainly to the reluctance of lay people to contribute. (We argued that this too was a consequence of the exclusion of lay people from real responsibility in the church.) To their plea that thorough research into the abuse issue was very costly we responded that this would not be the case if bishops would simply explain with complete honesty why they had covered up abuse. They had no satisfactory answer to the question of why bishops implicated in the cover up were retained in office.

The four bishops told us also that the Irish Bishops’ Conference was in process of putting in place a mechanism to respond to the on-going pastoral needs of abuse survivors. They hoped it would be up and running by the end of January 2011.

Although there were no clear assurances on structural change in the church, our representatives felt they they had made a good case for this, and had received a respectful hearing. Many other voices were raised in support of this cause in 2010, and we feel that this is something that cannot be ignored by the Irish Bishops’ Conference in 2011.

Talking to clergy in Cashel & Emly, and Killala – Sep & Oct 2010

As a survivor of clerical abuse in the diocese of Ferns, Bryan Maguire spoke to priests of the diocese of Cashel and Emly in September 2010.

In October Sean O’Conaill spoke to the priests of the diocese of Killala on our VOTF vision of the future church, as requested by Bishop Fleming. He began by outlining VOTF’s view of the role of clericalism in all aspects of the abuse disaster, and then explained why he believed that a complete and shared understanding of the common priesthood of all the faithful offered a solution to the problem of clericalism and the gathering tension in the Irish church. He was given an attentive and friendly hearing but gained the impression that the despondency caused by recent events, and the increasing burden of priestly duties, were taking their toll on morale in Killala as elsewhere.

Letter of support to Fr Owen O’Sullivan OFM Cap, Nov 2010

Early in November we learned that the Irish Capuchin priest and author, Owen O’Sullivan had fallen foul of the church’s theological monitoring body the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A challenging article he had written for the Maynooth monthly, The Furrow, was adjudged to have overstepped the bounds of church teaching on the subject of homosexuality, and Owen had been informed that in future all of his writings must be submitted to a censor appointed by the CDF.

A number of VOTFI members took the view that this was an issue that troubled many sincere Catholics, and that, whatever about the doctrinal correctness of his views, Owen should be allowed to express his opinions – to enable a thorough discussion – and that the position taken by the CDF was too severe. A letter expressing support for this viewpoint was signed by a number of VOTFI members and posted to Fr O’Sullivan.

The Apostolic Visitation: Marie Collins’ protest Nov 2010

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, appointed as apostolic visitor of Ireland by Pope Benedict XVI, made his first official appearance at a concelebrated Mass on November 14th. To the considerable shock of Marie Collins and other survivors, he was accompanied on the altar by, among others, Bishop Dermot O’Mahony, who had been strongly criticised by the Murphy report for mishandling abuse allegations in the period covered by the Murphy inquiry.

As it happened, Marie had been invited to meet with Cardinal O’Malley the following day. Very courageously she decided to go ahead with the meeting, where she made her feelings plain. He “appeared sincere and very open”, she said, but “there’s no way of knowing. I’ve been in that situation many times before.”

Reactions to the pastoral letter of Pope Benedict to Ireland, 2010

In the wake of the papal pastoral letter in March, a badly-communicated and inadequate process of consultation took place in some dioceses in the months that followed. Some VOTFI members participated in one such event organised at Maynooth in May, expressing strong support for the cause of structural reform in the church.

We learned in December that this theme had been taken up by a majority of the almost 3,000 respondents to the consultation. Bishop Seamus Freeman reported to the Irish Bishops’ Conference on December 9th that many had expressed disappointment that “child sex abuse was not seen as a symptom of shortcomings in structure and function in the church”.

Disappointingly, there is as yet no sign of a response to this complaint from the IBC. It will be a priority of VOTFI to make sure that this issue is kept centre stage.

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