The devil is in the detail of this depraved vision of hell

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Medb Ruane: The devil is in the detail of this depraved vision of hell

By Medb Ruane
Monday November 23 2009

Visions of hell have long been used to control human behaviour, but no Dante or Hieronymus Bosch could paint the depravities described in the report of the Dublin Archdiocese Child Abuse commission, which will be released on Thursday.

Coming just seven weeks after the anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s 1979 visit, the report will state that four successive Catholic Archbishops of Dublin consistently covered up allegations of child sexual assault and rape by priests for a period of at least 40 years.

Archbishops Connell, McNamara, Ryan, and McQuaid exempted themselves and their priests from proper scrutiny by civil authorities while preaching vocally about the wrongfulness of sex before marriage, divorce, homosexuality and women priests.

Why they did is a matter for canon law experts and students of how power corrupts. Why they got away with it questions the real loyalties of politicians and civil authorities, who mostly did not challenge them until the evidence was so strong that public opinion would not tolerate any more.

The devil is in the detail. A priest wipes the scent of a girl from his hands after assaulting her in a confessional. He uses the holy water in an altar bowl. Another wields a crucifix to penetrate his victim. The ready supply of children — altar boys, children’s Masses — let one priest abuse over 100 children and another pluck a fresh child every fortnight.

Boys were especially desirable and were abused twice as often as girls.

Some were assaulted by more than one priest, although the commission stops short of concluding there was a paedophile ring.

These are only a sample of the cases Judge Yvonne Murphy’s team spent almost 10 years investigating.

The team received the full support and co-operation of Dr Diarmuid Martin, current Dublin Catholic Archbishop who replaced Dr Desmond Connell — the man in charge when many of the abuse victims went public and insisted on being heard.

Dr Martin deserves respect and acknowledgement for refusing to collude on the side of abusers.

However, more important is the courage of the ordinary men and women who had to endure denial, isolation and belittlement when they tried to tell what was done to them as children — and not by strangers, but by dominant men who were trusted by Catholic families because they were Catholic priests.

Judge Murphy’s report nails some of the cover-ups the former Dublin authorities tried to maintain.

It proves that there was knowledge of allegations at least as long as 25 years ago, with considerable anxiety about the diocese’s public relations and financial exposure.

The diocese took out an insurance policy with Church and General in 1987 to cover compensation claims, and the legal costs, if priests were prosecuted.

The insurance company shredded the detailed files when the arrangement concluded.

The overriding consideration seems to have been to protect the Church’s reputation at all costs and no matter what risk to children elsewhere.

Authorities moved priests away from areas where complaints had been made — without notifying parents, civil or religious leaders that the man was a possible abuser and likely to do it again.

The significance of these findings is that ignorance was the official line for most of the time — officials claimed that they were on a learning curve about child abuse, like the rest of the population, and had no idea how pernicious it was.

That may be true for ordinary people. In the 1990s for example, the nation was genuinely shocked by sexual scandals about Bishop Eamon Casey who had fathered a son with a young American woman called Annie Murphy and then resumed business as usual.

But the Murphy report, coming so soon after the Ryan report on abuse in residential settings, is another piece in the jigsaw showing a pattern of denial and obfuscation as well as delay.

It is telling that this report was itself delayed because prosecutions are still pending against some of the alleged perpetrators. The real effect of such delays is that no one will be surprised at the findings, however shocking they are, which weakens their political power.

The drip-drip about child abuse by some Catholic clergy has blunted the edge of outrage and led some people to wonder if the public could be “abused-out”.

Yet this is only one diocese of many in the Catholic Church’s medieval administrative systems and the victims only a handful of the thousands of children abused by adults in family and other settings, with a series of reports underlining the State’s failure to act.

The Murphy report will query yet again the State’s failure to challenge vested interests and, at least, to insist on and enforce child protection guidelines.

Yet like Ryan, it falters at challenging the constitutional provisions on family that put children’s rights beneath the legal radar by failing to identify them as individuals.

That is the legacy of Church-State collusion as influenced in 1937 by Eamon De Valera’s colleague, John Charles McQuaid.

If children are to be really protected, it must be changed.

– Medb Ruane

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