I’ve mentioned in the past that Ireland, which gave the Catholic church more privileges and greater deference than almost any other country in Europe, was rewarded for its devotion with one of the highest per-capita rates of child rape by priests than any other nation else in the world. That scandal continues to unspool, and today there’s another big update.
In 1996, in response to public outcry, a committee of Irish bishops drew up a policy which would have made it mandatory to report suspected sex predators among the clergy to the police. As I wrote back in January, the Vatican expressed strong reservations about this policy, warning that full disclosure of accusations to the civil authorities could interfere with internal church investigations (which, of course, it considered more important).
As a result, the mandatory-reporting policy, although it technically remained in force, was shelved by the bishops and never enforced. What happened next is no surprise: predator priests continued to abuse children, and the church continued to do nothing. As recently as 2009, parishioners were lodging complaints of abuse and molestation by members of the clergy. An independent investigative committee has just released its most recent report, which only covered the rural diocese of Cloyne; but even so, it turned up allegations against 19 priests since 1996.
“That’s the most horrifying aspect of this document,” Frances Fitzgerald, Ireland’s minister for children, told a news conference on Wednesday. “This is not a catalogue of failure from a different era – this is about Ireland now.”
The Irish government is furious, as well they might be, but as usual, the Catholic church has shown little sign of concern. Bishop John Magee, who resigned last year but was in charge of the diocese during the period covered by the Cloyne report, offered more empty apologies but nothing else. In response, Ireland’s prime minister Enda Kenny summoned the Vatican’s ambassador for a harsh dressing down. As Ophelia Benson put it so aptly, reading these words was like music to my ears:
“There’s one law in this country. Everybody is going to have to learn to comply with it. The Vatican will have to comply with the laws of this country,” Gilmore said after his face-to-face grilling of the ambassador, a rare experience for the pope’s diplomats anywhere, let alone long-deferential Ireland. (source)
This is great stuff. Even better was the announcement that the government plans to introduce a law which would make it a crime for anyone, church officials included, to fail to report allegations of sex abuse to the civil authorities:
“The law of the land should not be stopped by a crozier or a collar,” Kenny said.
These are good first steps, but Ireland needs to go further. When the abuse scandal first broke, the government made a disastrous decision to protect the church by assuming almost all the liability for settlements to abuse victims. I hope they’re giving serious consideration to reversing that decision by seizing and auctioning church property to pay compensation to the victims. (And if it hasn’t occurred to them yet, I hope some freethinking Irish voters will suggest it.) I also hope that Irish officials will consider following the lead of the Philadelphia grand jury that recently returned indictments against church officials for protecting child molesters. There ought to be more than enough evidence already to file charges.
These are harsh measures, but the bishops have proven again and again that nothing less will suffice. They’ve shown countless times that they’ll never act against child molesters on their own initiative. Their only loyalty is to the institution of the church, not to the people who attend it, and whenever anything happens that could embarrass the church, their first response will always, always be to deny, delay and cover up. They’ll never take action unless they’re forced to by the threat of criminal sanctions – arrests and prosecutions of bishops, seizure of church property to pay compensation to victims, and the like. The Catholic authorities are in need of a sharp reminder that they’re subject to the law like everyone else, and I hope Ireland gives it to them.