OPINION: The report on child abuse in the Dublin archdiocese should be published in its entirety and not in instalments
COMMISSION OF inquiry reports are a bit like buses these days – you wait ages for them and then two arrive almost simultaneously. Last week the Dublin archdiocese report was delivered to the Minister for Justice – almost seven years after the initial commitment to establish a State inquiry into clerical child sexual abuse in Dublin following the Prime Time Cardinal Secrets documentary. And it took a full decade for the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (Ryan commission) to report last May on its findings of abuse of children in institutions.
The wait for the Dublin report, however, is not yet over. Legal obstacles to publication have arisen in the form of criminal proceedings against three individuals named in the report. There is an understandable and important concern that their trials might be prejudiced should the Dublin report be published in full and without alteration.
It is understood that of the 46 priests investigated by the commission, a total of 15 have been named. Eleven of these are convicted child abusers, and the names of the other four are already in the public domain.
That the commission has decided to name publicly so many priests is to be welcomed. The precedent of the Ryan report, where no one was named, was not encouraging in this regard. However, given the very particular reason for this – namely the threatened legal challenge from the Christian Brothers and its potential to impede seriously the work of that commission – it is reasonable to view it as an exception rather than the rule.
The other precedent in this area is the report into the sexual abuse of children by priests in the diocese of Ferns. The majority of clerics involved here were given pseudonyms in the Ferns report, but a small number were named. These had either been convicted, were deceased or were already in the public domain.
The Dublin commission differs, however, from Ferns in several important respects. Unlike Ferns, it is a statutory inquiry, with sworn evidence and full powers to compel witnesses and seize documents. Consequently its powers are much greater. It is also one of the first of the so-called “fast track” tribunals to report, and certainly the first for which a unique part of the establishing legislation may be called into play.
The Commissions of Investigation Act 2004 directs that the reports of tribunals established under the Act must be submitted to the relevant government minister who must then publish them “as soon as possible”.
However, if the specified minister considers that publication may prejudice any pending criminal trials, then “he or she shall apply to the (High) Court for directions concerning the publication of the report”.
It is clear from this that the Minister in question here – Dermot Ahern – has relatively little room for manoeuvre. Given that criminal trials are pending or in progress in respect of three individuals referred to in the report, it appears inevitable that the matter must be referred to the High Court.
The legislation then lays out the further procedure. Notice must be given to the Attorney General, the Director of Public Prosecutions and to anyone who is a defendant in a criminal trial connected in any way to the report.
Each of these may make submissions or present evidence. The court may also decide to hold its hearing in private.
The Act specifies that if the court finds that publication of the report “might prejudice any criminal proceedings”, it can direct that all or part of it not be published for a specified period or until the court decides otherwise.
This is the only course of action presented by the legislation. It is silent on other options, most particularly on the possibility of simply providing those facing criminal trials with pseudonyms in the report. Given that none of the hearings is imminent – April has been mentioned as the earliest date – this would seem to be the most reasonable solution.
It is of course critical that no trials be prejudiced and that justice be done. However, it is worth pointing out that this particular process has not been helped by the inordinate length of time (over seven years) that it has taken so far for one of these criminal trials to be heard.
It is also vital for Irish society to reach a clear and comprehensive understanding of the enormity of the crimes committed against children in the Dublin archdiocese, and of the full extent of the cover-up by many of the most senior members of the Irish Catholic hierarchy. This can best be achieved through the publication of the report in its entirety and not in instalments.
Full publication as soon as possible, even with additional pseudonyms, is also crucial for the victims of that abuse. The prospect for them of delaying the report or even sections of it for months or possibly years is appalling to contemplate.
The worst option is that after such a long wait we should be presented with a truncated report, published in bits and pieces which make no logical sense, dictated entirely by the timing of extraneous criminal proceedings.