Friday, July 31, 2009

On right path but sins of the Church not forgotten

THE Government's post-Ryan Commission child protection blueprint marks the most important step in a tortuous process of draining the murky landscape of abuse which has mired Church and State since the foundation of the Irish State in 1921.

On top of accepting the 20 recommendations made by the commission headed by Mr Justice Sean Ryan, the Government's 99-point plan pledges legislation making it obligatory for state agencies and voluntary bodies to report complaints of suspected child abuse.

Though stopping short of mandatory reporting, it would become a criminal offence not to report suspicions of child abuse, and failure to comply will make the agencies and bodies subject to criminal prosecution and the cutting of State funding.

Of immediate relevance in the current economic crisis is the announcement by the Minister for Children Barry Andrews that in spite of An Bord Snip he has Government backing for the recruitment by the HSE of 270 social workers at an estimated cost of €25m a year.

From next year, child residential centres will be inspected by the Independent Health Information and Quality Authority. Improved counselling and aftercare of children is to include those with disability.

Welcomed by child support groups as a positive step towards a national child protection policy, uniformity of application is to be made statutory throughout the country of the Children First guidelines introduced a decade ago, but found to be inconsistently implemented and inferior to child safeguard procedures pioneered by the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, and extended to other diocese by the Church's own protection watchdog.

On paper, this initiative moves in the right direction at long last, but tragically it has taken 80 years for an elected government to confront the evil of child abuse that first came to the attention of the Cumann na nGaedhael government led by WT Cosgrave in 1929.

A committee under William Carrigan, a lawyer, reported horrific evidence about spiralling sexual crimes against children which were confirmed by Garda Commissioner Eoin O'Duffy. It found that, "there was an alarming amount of sexual crime increasing yearly, a feature of which was the large number of cases of criminal interference with girls and boys from 16 years downwards, including many cases of children under 10".

This explosive report lay unpublished by Cosgrave when in 1932 Eamon de Valera came to power as head of the first Fianna Fail government -- and suppressed the report's findings as too horrendous to publish. Its contents remained secret until the son of WT Cosgrave, Liam Cosgrave, gave a copy to the social researcher Finola Kennedy, who published its murky secrets in 2000.

"If Carrigan had been debated in public would public awareness of the prevalence of child sexual abuse have ensured that the relevant authorities took appropriate action?" Dr Kennedy pointedly asked, just five years before the shocking Ferns Report and nine before the Ryan report's finding of systematic physical, sexual and emotional abuse of children in religious-run institutions.

The already shaken Irish Catholic Church is to be rocked to its faith foundations by the horrendous scale of clerical sexual abuse of children in the Dublin archdiocese and by revelations of equally systematic cover-ups by 19 bishops of serial priest rapists dating back to the 1940s.

Archbishop Martin has identified 450-500 children as possible victims of abuse by paedophile priests in Dublin -- and nationwide this could be thousands. He has warned that the Dublin Report "will shock us all".

Just how shocking Judge Yvonne Murphy's report is can be gauged by Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, who is in legal limbo by postponing its publication until he takes guidance from the Attorney General and possibly the High Court.

Three of 15 priests identified in the report face further criminal charges in court which may not be settled until next spring. By then, Judge Murphy should have completed her inquiry into Bishop John Magee's inadequate protection of children in the Diocese of Cloyne.

Since Ryan reported in May, gardai are investigating over 100 new complaints, and support groups want a delay in publication of the Dublin report to allow space for traumatised victims.

Public anger remains directed against the 18 religious orders who signed the €127m indemnity deal that falls short of the €1bn-plus bill facing the taxpayer. Disquiet has grown at their missing deadlines in producing an audit of their financial assets.

The horrible vista of 80 years of concealed abuse still needs to redress victims of Magdalene laundries and psychiatric institutes, as well as giving children constitutional recognition. The Catholic Church's future role in education is under review.

Mr Andrews is confident of cutting a just deal with the religious orders and of instituting an annual day of remembrance for victims. But he has years of hard labour before him to undo the sins of Church and State.
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