VOTFI meeting with Ian Elliott of the NBSCCC, May 2009

Those present: Sean O’Conaill and Fr Paddy McCafferty for VOTFI; Ian Elliott and Sister Colette Stevenson for the NBSC

We began by raising the issue of the reporting of abuse by child safeguarding personnel trained by the NBSC, to ascertain whether allegations would be reported straight away to the civil authorities.

Ian Elliott insisted that all personnel were being instructed that the safety of the child must be the first consideration, so that any allegation that suggested that any child might currently be in danger must be reported to the proper civil authorities, and that these personnel must consider themselves personally accountable and responsible for taking this decision. There should not be a ‘referring up’ of issues in the event of any doubt. He believed all child-safeguarding personnel in the church had by now understood this. It is people of God who protect children – no one should forget this.

On the question of what was meant in the NBSC guidelines by saying that self-audit should be the primary means of ensuring compliance with the guidelines by child safeguarding personnel, Ian Elliott said that ‘primary’ meant ‘the first thing all child safeguarding persons must do to ensure they are doing what they should’. It did not mean ‘most important’. All personnel would still be subject to external audit. Given the numbers of such people, and the complexity of the church’s structures, self-auditing must come first sequentially to bring all personnel up to speed as soon as possible.

Asked about the issue of the naming of dioceses found to be in default of the guidelines, Mr Elliott confirmed that those dioceses defaulting would be named in the event of continuing failure to comply.

We then asked whether it wasn’t obvious that church canon law needed to undergo serious revision if the ‘culture of accountability’ promoted by the NBSCCC report was to take firm hold. Was there any prospect of that? What progress had been made in getting all dioceses signed up to the ‘memorandum of understanding’ (MOU) that they would be bound by the guidelines (mentioned by IE to SOC in an email in February)?

Ian Elliott told us that all 26 dioceses and all but one of the religious orders and missionary societies had by that date signed up to the memorandum of understanding that they must comply with the guidelines, and that they would be named if they did not, on the NBSC’s website. The only order that hadn’t so far signed up was a small contemplative order ‘down the country’.

He told us also that he NBSC was seeking from the church a canonical recognition of this memorandum of understanding – which would acknowledge that the terms of the MOU were binding on church personnel and could not be overridden by canon law.

We wondered if the independence of the NBSC could be permanently secure. Could it not be ended with the appointment as CEO of someone prepared to see the NBSC as co-operative with the obvious desire of the Irish bishops to ‘move on’? Was there a fixed term to Ian Elliott’s contract, and if so, what was it? What if the funding and resourcing of the NBSCCC were to be gradually reduced?

Ian Elliott told us that his present contract would run until June 2010. So far he had detected no feeling on the part of bishops that his contract might not be renewed. As the work done so far had taken longer than anticipated, he expected his work to continue beyond June 2010. He referred good humouredly to reported opposition to him in the diocese of Cloyne, but in a way that suggested he did not think it a real threat to his position. He expressed confidence that change was underway that would not be reversed.

We then asked why the first NBSC report of February had been written in a way that permitted e.g. The Irish Catholic to claim that the NBSC had declared all dioceses to be now compliant with the ‘Our Children, Our Church’ guidelines – given that the situation in Cloyne would not have been revealed by the self-reporting that the NBSC report was based upon? Why had the NBSC not said that, given what had happened in Cloyne, it could not be certain that any diocese was compliant that had not been the subject of a thorough independent investigation?

Mr Elliott confirmed that the Irish Catholic’s interpretation had not been correct. The NBSC had not declared all dioceses to be compliant with OCOC guidelines – only with the procedures to be followed in the event of new allegations against serving priests.

We asked about the remit of the NBSC re the religious orders (e.g. the ‘Brothers of Charity’)? What progress had been made towards ensuring compliance by them with guidelines?

He replied that the Brothers of Charity had not been brought to his notice – i.e. the NBSC had not received any allegations relating to the BOC. He commented at this point on the sheer variety and complexity of the church’s various structures and said it was the most serious obstacle to be overcome in ensuring proper practice in all cases. When we raised the issue of members of the religious orders being moved about, even between countries, he expressed concern over this issue – and mentioned a case brought to him by Archbishop Martin of a member of a religious order being moved to Dublin without informing the Archbishop.

We wondered about the prospects for a thorough investigation of the many questions that had arisen over Eugene Greene in Raphoe and the absence of diocesan records, as well as the non-disclosure of Greene’s medical records to the court that had found him guilty. Were there priests still serving in Raphoe against whom there were outstanding allegations?

He replied that two issues relating to Raphoe had recently been brought to his attention, and that these were under investigation. He had serious concerns about treatment centres where priests had been sent ostensibly for treatment for alcoholism, and recognised the issue of the records they could be holding that might shed light. In the case of Cloyne, the records that had been disclosed to the NBSC revealed the absence of other documents that had not been disclosed – and he had been able to oblige the diocese to disclose these.

He also said that since the publication of the NBSC’s report on Cloyne a total of about 50 issues had been brought to his attention from all over the country, and these were being investigated.

At that point we presented our letter to Mr Elliott on the issues of healing and reconciliation, enclosing a copy of our letter to the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference of February 2008.

Ian Elliott and Sister Colette Stevenson assured us that the NBSC recognised the connected problems of accountability, reconciliation and healing, and especially the spiritual impact of abuse upon victims. Ian said that he had impressed upon the bishops his belief that their primary role must be pastoral, and his conviction of the need for open dialogue and open engagement with survivors.

He said he had been disturbed initially by the degree to which many bishops had prized legal opinion on such matters, but had detected change there also. For example, the legal firm that had advised Cloyne was no longer as far as he knew employed by any diocese. Bishops should lead on the issue of pastoral care and outreach. He hoped that the obstacle of legal opinion that had to some extent inhibited this could now be overcome.

When we told him that when we had raised the issue of accountability in the church with Cardinal Brady, and had been referred by the cardinal to the NBSC as the answer to the issue of accountability, Ian Elliott said that any such expectation was ‘unrealistic’. The NBSC could not be the decisive solution to the problems of accountability, outreach and empathy that survivors generally had encountered.

He also agreed to read our unanswered letter to the ICBC (which we formally presented to him) and to respond to our covering letter to him personally, asking for clarification on the issues of reconciliation and healing.

We were impressed by the time given to hearing all of our concerns – over 90 minutes – and the open, friendly and patient treatment of these concerns.

We felt confirmed in our belief that the connected issues of healing and accountability in the church could not be resolved by the NBSC alone. A major initiative on both – involving direct contact with survivors – was needed from the Irish Catholic church leadership if healing and reconciliation were to be advanced. The ‘culture of accountability’ the church needed to ‘move on’ also needed to become a structured reality.