'Horrifying ... much worse than Ferns'

The private official inquiry into clerical sex abuse is likely to reveal a level of abuse and cover-up far worse than anything revealed so far . By Mary Raftery


“Horrifying ... much worse than Ferns” is the prediction of one influential cleric as to the nature of the findings of the Dublin Archdiocese Commission of Investigation when it reports later this year. The views of Fr Vincent Twomey, Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology at NUI Maynooth, carry considerable weight within the Irish Catholic Church. His own mentor in moral theology was the current pope, Benedict XV, whom he knows well.

Twomey is no radical, and would be regarded as firmly in the conservative camp on most issues. So when he speaks publicly, as he did on RTE Radio last month, about the damage being done internally to the Irish Church by “blind obedience” and “careerism” among its priests, it is a sure sign of the seismic impact of the recent events within the Dublin Archdiocese.

With public and clergy alike bemused by a Cardinal who issues such a dramatic and public challenge to both the State and the Archbishop of Dublin, only to withdraw it somewhat ignominiously ten days later, it is clear that any last vestiges of Church authority in Ireland are fast vanishing.

The overwhelming silence from almost all Dublin priests and from the Hierarchy in the face of these events was one of the more notable aspects of the fiasco. Their failure to speak out against Cardinal Connell's legal attempt to hide over 5,000 files from the Commission of Investigation was striking.

The notable exception was Diarmuid Martin, current Archbishop of Dublin. It gave him yet another opportunity to confirm his commitment to openness and honesty. But it did give some indication of how isolated he may be. So far, only the dioceses of Ferns and Dublin have had to face the rigours of State inquiries on this issue. All of the others have escaped relatively unscathed and there is reason to believe they hide secrets just as damning.

While the inquiry into Ferns was non-statutory, largely because of the commitment of full co-operation from the Church, it was clear from the beginning that Dublin needed a much firmer approach. There was substantial evidence that unearthing the full truth here would be a more difficult business, and that co-operation might not be as forthcoming.

The establishment of the Dublin Commission of Investigation on a full statutory basis was announced in November 2002 by the then Minister for Justice Michael McDowell. It was in direct response to the public outcry caused by RTE Prime Time's ‘Cardinal Secrets', the documentary on the sexual abuse of children by Dublin priests. The Dublin inquiry was to be one of the first of the new, fast-track commissions, an initiative instigated by McDowell in an attempt to combat the cumbersome nature of so many of the tribunals currently sitting.

However, it became bogged down in internal government arguments over funding, and was not formally established until 2006. When it finally got down to business, under Judge Yvonne Murphy, it became the country's most silent tribunal, sifting documents and hearing evidence entirely in private, as required by law.

The row which catapulted this most retiring of inquiries into public view centred around a body of over 5,000 documents dealing with legal advice to the Archdiocese and also with the insurance it had taken out to protect its assets against those who were sexually assaulted and raped as children by priests. These are likely to be the most sensitive of the files on record, indicating the state of knowledge within the Archdiocese of the predations on children of several of its priests and showing what action, if any, had been taken on foot of such knowledge.

Cardinal Connell argued that he alone had the legal right to determine whether or not these documents should be released to the Commission of Investigation. Archbishop Martin had already agreed to waive privilege on most of them. It is, however, noteworthy that the Commission had nonetheless felt it necessary to seek a discovery order compelling Martin to release all relevant files.
Given the blanket confidentiality surrounding the Commission of Investigation, it is impossible to be certain of the precise contents of the files in question. We do know, however, that the insurance issue was highly fraught within the Archdiocese.

Insurance had first been taken out in 1987, a startlingly early date in the time-line of official “awareness” of child abuse both within the Church and society generally. It was, after all, not until 1994 and the case of Fr Brendan Smyth that there was any publicity surrounding clerical child sex abuse in this country.

However, the Catholic Church itself knew much more than it was prepared to share with its flock. And rather than warning families and protecting children, the bishops opted instead to protect Church assets by insuring against future claims.

But in 1995, its insurance company, Church & General, pulled the plug. This particular year was marked by an avalanche of revelations about priests in Dublin and elsewhere who had raped and assaulted children. The details of precisely what it was that Church & General discovered which led it to dramatically alter the conditions of insurance for the Irish Church have never emerged. It is likely that the truth is to be found among the documents which Cardinal Connell sought to suppress.

This is just one of the areas on which the Dublin Commission of Investigation is expected to shed considerable light. It emerged during Connell's abortive legal challenge last month that the Commission has identified a sample number of 46 priests against whom allegations of child sexual abuse have been made. It will report on how complaints against these priests were handled by the then Dublin Archbishop Desmond Connell, and by his predecessors, Kevin MacNamara, Dermot Ryan and John Charles McQuaid. Another name to look out for is that of Monsignor Alex Stenson, Chancellor (or administrator) of the Dublin Archdiocese for several decades, spanning the tenure of several archbishops.

A number of other bishops will also be in the firing line, as they had in many cases detailed knowledge of crimes committed against children by priests and yet took no action other than telling their own immediate superior. These include Donal Murray, Bishop of Limerick, and James Moriarty, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin – both of whom were Auxiliary Bishops of Dublin when complaints were made to them about particular priests abusing children. Two other auxiliary bishops of Dublin were also aware of a number of cases of abuse – Dermot O'Mahony (retired) and James Kavanagh (deceased). In addition, Willie Walsh, Bishop of Killaloe, and John McAreavey, Bishop of Kilmore, had detailed knowledge of further incidents of clerical child abuse in Dublin.