Clerical sex abuse: They knew, they insured and then did nothing

The Catholic Church imposed secrecy about its clerical sex abuse under pain of excommunication. By Vincent Browne


In 1986 the then Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Kevin McNamara, enquired of legal advisers what legal liability there would be for him and his diocese arising from clerical sex abuse. A senior counsel gave two pieces of advice. The first was that if a priest who had sexually abused a child were restored to ministry, without there being a categorical assurance from a professional that the priest in question was "cured", then there was a potential liability for damages that would ensue. The senior counsel also advised that a bishop would have a duty in law to withdraw a priest from ministry if there was shown to be a basis for an allegation of child sexual abuse.

The senior counsel advised Archbishop McNamara to take out insurance and in 1987 the Dublin diocese took out a limited form of insurance cover with Church and General insurance company, to guard against damages being awarded to a victim for clerical sex abuse.

In the following years, in 1988 and 1989, Church and General informed all other bishops in Ireland of the availability of a diocesan policy. The legal opinion of the senior counsel who advised Archbishop McNamara was made generally available. By 1990 most dioceses had taken out insurance cover.

Therefore, from at least 1990, the Catholic hierarchy was aware of the phenemon of clerical child sexual abuse and was aware that the sexual abuse of children caused grave damage to children (otherwise damages would not have been relevant or at least significant). Yet no procedures were put in place to deal with allegations of such abuse and no arrangements were made to protect children from the dangers of such abuse and to provide counselling and therapy for children abused. The only initiative taken by the Irish Catholic hierarchy between 1987 and 1990 was to protect the financial assets of dioceses.

In 1917 the first Code of Canon law contained specific "canons" condemning what was known as "solicitation", which related to the solicitation of sexual favours in the context of the confessional. In 1962 the much revered Pope John XXIII issued a special procedural law for the processing of "solicitation" cases. The document was sent to a number of bishops throughout the world (according to the Ferns report) and these bishops were directed to keep it in secret archives and not to publish it or comment on it.

The John XXIII document specifically dealt with priests who had abused children and, in the words of the Ferns report, "imposed a high degree of secrecy on all Church officials involved in such cases". According to the report: "The penalty for breach of this secrecy was automatic excommunication. Even witnesses and complainants could be excommunicated if they broke the oath of secrecy".

From an early stage therefore the concern of the Church was not the protection of children but the maintenance of secrecy to avoid scandal, as stated in the Ferns report.

The secrecy requirements were relaxed in subsequent years but even by 2001 the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, decreed the Congregation was to continue to have "exclusive competence" regarding certain "grave" offences, including sexual offences with a minor under the age of 18. The significance of the claim of "exclusive competence" was that civil authorities had no competence in such matters.

In a book quoted in the Ferns report, The Sipe Report, the author, Dr Sipe observed there was "widespread knowledge of existing sexual misconduct with minors by Catholic clergy by the late 1960s and early 1970s". He concluded: "Bishops of the United States, individually and collectively were, by the 1970s, well aware of certain psychological problems of priests, including sexual involvement with minors, and were also aware of alternative modes of addressing psychosexual problems, other than spiritual renewal and geographic transfers".

He wrote that Catholic treatment centers were on the "cutting edge" of psychiatry and psychology in the use of sophisticated treatment techniques for the treatment of priests who had sexually abused children.

There is also evidence produced in the report that the Irish Catholic bishops were aware of similar treatment techniques for abuser priests and that bishops were aware of the problem and had a realisation of its scope.

It quotes a report of the Irish Bishops' Committee on Child Abuse as stating "some awareness of the problem must have existed among clergy, most likely senior members of the Church, for some time... (but) the emphasis was on the moral implications for the offending cleric and a confessional approach was used".

The Ferns report shows that the unwillingness of hierarchical authorities to deal with allegations of clerical sexual abuse was not confined to the diocese of Ferns but extended wider.

In dealing with the case of Monsignor Michael Ledwith, later President of Maynooth College, the report records that in 1983 the then senior dean at Maynooth, Fr Gerard McGinnity, was approached by a number of seminarians who made complaints about Monsignor Ledwith (then Vice President of the college) concerning the latter's "extravagant lifestyle" the apparent absence of a "prayerful" dimension to him and his sexual orientation and propensity. There was a suggestion that Monsignor Ledwith may have had "improper" sexual relations with some of the younger seminarians (even if these were true, it is not clear how sexual relations with an adult are relevant to an inquiry into clerical child sex abuse).

Fr McGinnity spoke to three of the most senior bishops at the time (all since deceased) Cardinal Tomas O'Fiaich, Archbishop Dermot Ryan (the Archbishop of Dublin) and Bishop Kevin McNamara (then Bishop of Kerry, later Archbishop of Dublin) and conveyed to them what the seminarians had told him.

Fr McGinnity was later confronted by Bishop Eamon Casey, who had heard of the complaint made by Fr McGinnity. Bishop Casey demanded Fr McGinnity produce even one victim of sexual abuse perpetrated by Monsignor Ledwith, and when Fr McGinnity was unable to do this he was sent on sabbatical from Maynooth for a year and then never reinstated. Fr McGinnity was merely conveying concerns expressed by seminarians and was dismissed for doing so.

It seems that some of the concerned seminarians also contacted several of the bishops including Cardinal O'Fiaich, Cardinal Daly, Bishop Edward Daly and Bishop Casey. But again what seems to have been spoken of had to do with "sexual orientation", not special sexual activity, let alone child sexual abuse. However a sense of unease was communicated concerning Monsignor Ledwith.

Cardinal Daly told the Ferns Inquiry there were worries among the hierarchy about Maynooth in general at the time and specifically about Monsignor Ledwith, but in spite of these reported misgivings Monsignor Ledwith was appointed President of Maynooth shortly afterwards. He served as President of Maynooth from 1985 to 1995. From 1980 to 1997 he was on the International Theological Commission and was also secretary of three Synods of World Bishops in Rome.

However, the dismissal by the entire Catholic Hierarchy of Fr McGinnity for merely conveying concerns of seminarians was a signal of the disposition of the bishops to the reportage of concerns about the conduct of senior clerics.

In1994, a man, called "Raymond" in the Ferns report, approached the then Bishop of Limerick, the late Jeremiah Newman, alleging that when he was 13 years of age he had been sexually abused by Monsignor Ledwith. According to the report "Bishop Newman dismissed Raymond abruptly". The bishop's secretary advised Raymond to see Cardinal Cathal Daly, who on being informed of the allegation, referred the mater to Bishop Comiskey of Ferns (Ferns was the diocese which theoretically had jurisdiction over Monsignor Ledwith). An investigation was established and Bishop Comiskey sought to have Monsignor Ledwith's priestly faculties removed. But the investigation was frustrated by a settlement entered into by Monsignor Ledwith with Raymond, which had a "confidentiality" clause, on the basis of which neither Raymnd nor Ledwith would cooperate further with the investigation.

Subsequently, another person, "Shane" alleged he had been raped by Monsignor Ledwith. He later withdrew the charges and the Garda considered prosecuting Shane for making a false allegation.

An inquiry was then instituted by the Trustees of Maynooth and in the course of its work Monsignor Ledwith resigned as President of Maynooth and as a Professor in the college. p