‘Betrayal’ – VOTFI letter to Irish Bishops’ Conference, Feb 2008

Voice of the Faithful
Greenhill Road, Coleraine, N. Ireland, BT51 3JE
18th February, 2008

Most Rev William Lee
Episcopal Secretary
Irish Bishops’ Conference
St Patrick’s College
Co Kildare

Dear Dr Lee,


“Bishops placed the interest of the church ahead of children …”
The Ferns Report (page 256), October 2005.

Among the undersigned are survivors of clerical sexual abuse who seek healing within the framework of their Christian faith. They, and the rest of us, find it deeply disturbing, and inexplicable, that, since the Ferns report was published, not a single bishop of the Irish Church has commented on this verdict – to point out that every one of the children abused in Ferns was a full, baptised member of the Catholic church.

How could the most innocent and vulnerable members of our church ever have been considered expendable by any of its leaders – by those especially charged with a duty of spiritual care for all children?

How could two successive bishops of an Irish diocese (and Ferns is so far the only Irish diocese that has been publicly scrutinised) ever have thought that the interests of the church could be ‘placed ahead of children’? (Q1)

We now know also that child sexual abuse by clergy is first recorded in the archives of our church in 309 (the Council of Elvira), and that at different times before the modern era, severe sanctions were placed against clergy who behaved in this way.

Now, day after day, global news media inform us that those Irish bishops who quite recently endangered children were far from exceptional. Using the Internet, any Irish teenager today can, in a matter of hours, discover that, in at least twenty-five countries across the globe, Catholic bishops prioritised ‘the church ahead of children’. This happened not in the distant past but in recent decades – causing lifelong trauma to countless innocents. A US investigation has established that two thirds of US bishops behaved in this way.

What theological misunderstanding of ‘church’ could have led to this practice right across the Catholic world? (Q2)

To ‘place the interest of the church ahead of children’ in such a way as to endanger them is, logically, to sacrifice the lives and happiness of children.

Certain that the answer cannot be ‘the church’ we ask: for what exactly were those children sacrificed? (Q3)

Why does one of the bishops who did this (Bernard Cardinal Law, disgraced former Archbishop of Boston) still enjoy a position of honour in Rome? (Q4)

The Failure of Catholic Bishops to Learn and to Teach

We have heard it said in extenuation of this catastrophe that bishops did not know until very recently (i) that child sexual abuse has appalling and usually lifelong psychological consequences for its victims, and (ii) that many perpetrators of that abuse are likely to be compulsive in this behaviour and therefore permanently dangerous to children.

But since we now know that the phenomenon of clerical sexual abuse of minors has been documented in church records as early as 309, and also that St Peter Damian warned the papacy in the mid 11th century of the moral and spiritual damage caused to children by such abuse, any such claims raise further profound questions.

As the magisterium has always claimed an overarching teaching competence in relation to sexual and spiritual matters, it follows logically that it has always had a duty to study these matters intensively. How then could it have failed to learn – over seventeen centuries – (i) that sexual abuse of children causes intense, lifelong anguish, (ii) that clerical child sexual abuse adds a further dimension of intense spiritual suffering – a personal hell on earth – and (iii) that child abusers are typically compulsive in their abusive behaviour?

If the magisterium did indeed fail to learn these things over such a long period, what are the implications of this for its claimed teaching authority – especially in light of Matthew 18:6; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2 ? (Q5)

If the magisterium needed to hear these things from secular psychology and psychiatry, how can this recommend its own expertise on matters of the human soul? (Q6)

And if the magisterium did indeed know or suspect these things, and suppressed this suspicion or knowledge, what are the implications of this for its claimed moral authority? (Q7)

When most bishops behave as though they have no need to address any of these questions – and deliberately avoid any occasion when they could be asked – they make it virtually impossible for survivors to trust them, or to believe in their sincerity and competence.

Not to provide such occasions, in the midst of the greatest crisis to befall our church in living memory, is to betray the church as a community, and to betray even the leadership office that bishops hold. It represents a flight from leadership, reality and responsibility – and an inexcusable prolongation of the pain of survivors.

‘Denial’ as a Factor

As some of us have experienced from clergy a reaction of denial and concealment (e.g. ‘To report the abuser would hurt the body of Christ!’) we strongly suspect that this reaction may also have been deeply embedded historically in the church as an institution, and may provide at least part of the explanation for the longstanding failure of bishops to deal with the issue.

This too needs to be subjected to intensive investigation – because continuing denial prevents the discovery of truth, the delivery of justice and the achievement of healing. It will also wittingly or unwittingly enable further abuse.

Denial is a state of mind that forbids further investigation of difficult yet critical issues.

Has the magisterium been in denial of the gravity of clerical child sexual abuse, and of its compulsive nature for perpetrators – for seventeen centuries? (Q8)

And was it this culture of denial that delayed the implementation of adequate child protection measures by the church leadership until the secular media made total denial impossible in our own time? (Q9)

The known historical sequence certainly permits that conclusion. For example, although Irish bishops took out insurance against liability for clerical child abuse in 1987, no child protection measures were adopted until 1996 – after the first major Irish child abuse public scandal in 1994 (the Brendan Smyth affair).

We ask the Irish Bishops’ Conference to look frankly at this sequence, and to comment upon it:

309 the magisterium knows about clerical sexual abuse of children;
c. 1051 St Peter Damian warns the papacy of the damage caused to children by clerical sexual abuse;
1994 Ireland learns of this phenomenon – through the secular media;
1995/6 the Irish magisterium begins to act to protect children.

To have any hope of stemming the loss of trust and confidence that is now racking the church the conference must not ignore this sequence. To do so would be to raise further strong suspicions about the ongoing strength of denial – the enemy of truth, justice and healing – among the appointed leaders of the church.

Secrecy as a Danger to Children

It is already clear that many thousands of children have been endangered and harmed by the withholding by bishops and other church leaders of vital information about dangerous clergy from parents. This practice was a betrayal of families, despite the magisterium’s regular protestations about the critical importance of the family to the church and to society.

While warmly welcoming the transparency offered by Bishop Eamonn Walsh to the Ferns inquiry, and that granted by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin to the Dublin inquiry, we are deeply disappointed that so far there has been no general recognition by bishops of the danger posed by church secrecy to children and families, or any promise of a diminishment or an end to it.

Indeed, according to a number of different sources the following solemn promise is still required of a Cardinal at installation:

“I [name and surname], Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, promise and swear to be faithful henceforth and forever, while I live, to Christ and his Gospel, being constantly obedient to the Holy Roman Apostolic Church, to Blessed Peter in the person of the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI, and of his canonically elected Successors; to maintain communion with the Catholic Church always, in word and deed; not to reveal to any one what is confided to me in secret, nor to divulge what may bring harm or dishonour to Holy Church; to carry out with great diligence and faithfulness those tasks to which I am called by my service to the Church, in accord with the norms of the law. So help me Almighty God.”

Unable to authenticate this text, and aware that it is a translation of the original Latin, we nevertheless believe that in the wake of the Ferns report – and the recent High Court challenge to the Dublin inquiry – it gives serious cause for concern. We ask:

Do all Irish bishops accept that many children have been harmed by clerical secrecy in the past, and that for their sake no leader of the church should ever define the interests of ‘Holy Church’ as standing apart from and above the interests of children and other vulnerable members of the people of God? (Q10)

Unaccountability as a Factor

All abuse – whether sexual, spiritual, emotional or physical – is an abuse of power.

Attaching as it does a superior dignity and authority to the Catholic priest, Catholic clericalism empowers the priest above all lay members of the church. This is part of the power imbalance that has too often been exploited abusively, not just towards children but towards vulnerable adults who come seeking spiritual care. In no way accountable to the people of God, a minority of clergy have abused this power simply because they could do so with impunity.

It was this lack of accountability to the faithful also that led to the mishandling of abuse by so many bishops – further imperilling all vulnerable members of the church community.

Recognising that, in the case of the Ferns and Dublin inquiries, two Irish bishops have accepted the principle of accountability to external state investigation, why has no Irish bishop yet addressed the obvious connection between the lack of clerical accountability to the faithful within the church, and clerical abuse, including the administrative abuse that harmed children who would otherwise have been safe? (Q11)

This failure also strongly supports a conclusion that the magisterium generally is still in denial over the causes of abuse.

Sooner or later, unchecked power is always abused. We do not believe that recent moves towards child protection in the Irish church (which have not yet anyway been approved by the papacy) are adequate. We strongly believe that abuse is institutionalised within the church through the absence of structures that would make clergy in any way directly accountable to those they serve. We do not believe that children and vulnerable adults will ever be as safe as they should be in the church until this issue of clerical accountability has been addressed.

Nor do we believe that Catholic bishops can recommend to Irish children the principle of moral accountability until they have accepted it themselves.

The Need for Action

In October 2007, Archbishop (now Cardinal) Sean Brady delivered a sermon in Wilton, Cork, in which he emphasised his personal commitment to the programme for dealing with the issue of clerical child abuse proposed by Pope Benedict in 2006. This called for the uncovering of the causes of abuse, for justice to survivors, and for healing. Having read this sermon one of our survivor members responded spontaneously as follows:

“We know them by their ACTIONS and so far all we get is rhetoric.

If they want to ‘understand’ have they gone on training courses?
Have they visited survivors to hear their story?
Have they written prayers about it?
Have they given funds to clergy abuse groups?
Have they had a memorial service?
Have they built a monument?
Have they challenged their lawyers about gag orders?
Have they given money for survivor retreats?
Have they knelt at the feet of survivors repenting their closed eyes & ears of years past?
Have they opened files to independent people and admitted what THEY did or did NOT do?
Have they sponsored conferences?
Have they held a national day of prayer for survivors of sexual abuse?
Have they funded research into the needs of survivors of clergy abuse? 

Recognising that individual bishops may be able to answer some of these questions in the affirmative, we ask the conference to understand that survivors often feel there has been a lamentable failure of the Irish hierarchy generally to travel outside the comfort zone of their own scripts. These are almost always delivered in contexts of immunity – where none of the questions we have asked above can be put freely by members of the faithful, and especially by survivors, or by relatives of those who have not survived.

And, when potentially fruitful action is proposed – as in the Irish bishops’ document ‘Towards Healing’ of February 2005 – this seed bears no fruit – not even an invitation from bishops to priests and people to read this document together. Two years later it had disappeared totally from view. In place of a climate of confident discussion and learning in our church there is still in most dioceses a deep and awful silence on these issues – another major consequence of leadership failure.

This makes it impossible for us to trust that Irish bishops generally are yet capable of taking the risks necessary for the discovery of the whole truth, and for the forwarding of the causes of understanding, justice and healing – the programme given them by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.

Christian leadership does not shrink from those steps that are necessary to prove its courage and sincerity to those it has wronged. It does not hide behind lawyers or seek refuge in PR advice.

It does what Jesus did: it seeks an enduring companionship with the broken and listens to whatever they may wish to say.

The actions that will lead to real healing can only be negotiated freely between the leaders of the church and those they have failed to protect. When will this process begin? (Q12)


‘Betrayal Trauma’ is a recognised psychological and spiritual injury, caused chiefly by a betrayal of trust by those to whom total trust is awarded. It has been defined as follows:

Betrayal trauma occurs when people or institutions that are depended on for survival violate human trust. An example of betrayal trauma is childhood physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.

Believing that this is the best succinct description of the impact of this catastrophe upon its victims, we have no doubt that they have been betrayed by the institution upon which they too depended – for spiritual care and for survival of all the challenges of life. They never expected that the most severe challenge they would ever experience would come from the leaders of the church that taught them to hope and to believe in the goodness of God. In seeking to come to terms with this catastrophic betrayal we discover betrayal of other kinds also:

Betrayal of the values of the Gospels that bishops are sworn to uphold;

Betrayal of parents and the family, the cornerstone of the church’s life;

Betrayal of the Church itself, the happy home we have almost lost;

Betrayal of the office of bishop, to which we once looked as a moral bulwark in an increasingly dangerous world.

Having waited in vain for the Irish Conference of Bishops to address this betrayal, and especially the questions that arose out of the Ferns Report over two years ago, we send this letter now in the faint hope that the conference will not respond in the same totally inadequate way to the forthcoming report of the state inquiry into the handling of clerical abuse by the Archdiocese of Dublin.

Deeply frustrated by an inexplicable failure to address issues that may well frustrate all the hopes that may rest upon another papal visit to Ireland, we place those issues again in the public domain.

Seeking truth, understanding, justice and healing we ask the Irish conference of bishops urgently to face, investigate and explain this betrayal, responding honestly to the questions we ask here – especially those numbered Q1-Q12.

The Prospective Visit to Ireland of Pope Benedict XVI

Unknown to the vast majority of Irish Catholics, the betrayal described above was actually ongoing (e.g. in Ferns) when Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979. Knowing this now, Ireland is a vastly different place. It is therefore unthinkable that Pope Benedict XVI could visit Ireland in the near future without alluding to that betrayal, or that he could leave it at the end of such a visit with these questions (Q1-Q12) still unaddressed.

And were he to leave Ireland without meeting, in dialogue, a representative gathering of survivors, this could only be regarded as a papal endorsement of that betrayal and as final proof that our church leaders pay only lip service to the principle of the equal dignity of all members of the church.

Such a visit would therefore signal not a revival of the Irish church but the final triumph of denial and evasion, and the end of any prospect of a ‘New Evangelisation’ in Ireland in its aftermath.

Yours sincerely,


Acting Coordinator, p. p. those named below

Carol Brady, Patrick McCafferty (Rev), Patricia O’Conaill, Pat Callan, Connolly McLaughlin, Sean O’Connor, Siobhan Carroll, Teresa Mee, Martin Ridge, Marie Collins, Bryan Maguire, Sean Walsh, Marie Crowley, Gerry Mulligan, Bernadette Wyer, Kevin Kelly, Irene O’Beirne-Maguire, Danny Duddy, Margaret Kennedy, Sean O’Conaill