Monday, January 24, 2011

Would You Believe on clerical sexual abuse

Mick Peelo looks at some internal Vatican letters that appear to paint a different picture of the Vatican’s response to clerical sexual abuse.

Dialogue Ireland comment:

Two days ago we republished an analysis by John L Allen Jr that purported to cast doubt on the 1997 letter unearthed by RTE, and to cast doubt on the interpretation of such given by RTE journalist Mick Peelo in the above Would You Believe documentary.

Allen presents three pieces of ‘context’ that he argues undermines the 1997 letter as a smoking gun. 

In order, these three pieces of ‘context’ were:

- 1) He suggests that “a main concern of the letter is to ensure that when a bishop takes action against an abuser, his edict should stick – suggesting a fairly tough line on abuse, rather than a drive to cover it up.

- 2) He suggests that “Instead, it communicates the judgment of one Vatican office that mandatory reporting policies raise concerns. It’s not a policy directive, in other words, but an expression of opinion. Though the letter does not spell out what the “moral and canonical” concerns were, a Vatican spokesperson initially suggested the fear was that such policies might intrude on the seal of the confessional.

- 3) He suggests that “…the 1997 letter seems less a statement of Vatican policy than an expression of what would eventually be the losing side in an internal Vatican power struggle.

Allen is himself guilty of ignoring relevant context, and as a result we find each of the three points above deeply unconvincing. 

Taking each point in turn:

1) Arguing that the letter’s intention was to “ensure that when a bishop takes action against an abuser, his edict should stick”, and to further argue that this suggested a “fairly tough line on abuse, rather than a drive to cover it up” is flatly contradicted by facts present by Peelo during the course of the Would You Believe documentary.

Firstly, the Irish bishops appeared to interpret the letter in the same way Peelo did, and not in the way Allen did. In the wake of the letter the Irish bishops held a conference. From handwritten notes scribed during the conference, as was shown in the documentary, one bishop’s interpretation was clearly at odds with Allen’s – “We have received a mandate for the congregation of the clergy asking us to conceal the reported crimes of a priest”.

Secondly, the interpretation offered by Peelo is further substantiated by the 1998 meeting between Hoyos and the Irish bishops, which was detailed during the documentary. Similar is true for the 1999 meeting in Rome, again with Hoyos, with the sentiment that bishops should “be father to their priests, not policemen”.

Thirdly, Peelo added much historical context to the 1997 letter. After discussing the case of Stephan Kiesle, and how the Vatican refused to defrock him, Peelo makes the following sobering observation: “So it was the priest’s age that was the problem for the Vatican, not that he was a convicted child abuser. And it appears that the harm to the faithful wasn’t that their children might be unsafe, but that they might be scandalised if the Vatican allowed such a young man to leave the priesthood. He was only 38. Nowhere in any of this correspondence is their mention of the needs of the victims. Not only were they not a priority, they weren’t even a consideration.” After discussing the Lawrence Murphy case, Peelo further comments: “And the people responsible for that decision [not to defrock Murphy] are now the two most senior men in the Vatican – the pope himself and his secretary of state cardinal Bertone. They did exactly what the Irish bishops are now being blamed for doing. They didn’t follow the long established norms of church law, and they put the reputation of the church and the good name of the priest above justice for the victims.” 

Given this historical context, it is difficult to find Allen’s interpretation of the 1997 letter credible.

2) There are two major problems with Allen’s reasoning here.

Firstly, the suggestion that a ‘strictly confidential’ official letter from the Nuncio communicating the views of the Congregation Of The Clergy is merely “an expression of opinion” is difficult to understand. This becomes even more difficult to understand when the portion of quoted text from the Congregation Of The Clergy is noted. The 1997 letter is reproduced in full below, and underlining has been added to quoted Congregation Of The Clergy text  for clarity.

Secondly, the issue of confessions appears to be a red herring. As shown in the documentary, the thrust of the ‘mandatory reporting’ was spelled out in the press conference given on 30th January 1996 thusly: “We decided, at this meeting, to adopt forthwith the central recommendation of this report. Namely that we report all serious allegations of child sexual abuse.” 

It seems clear that the context motivating this action does not involve the confessional, but allegations received concerning child sexual abuse.

3) This argument is somewhat bizarre in that it seems to undermine Allen’s earlier points. If Allen’s earlier reasoning is to be believed, then through the 1997 letter the Vatican was “suggesting a fairly tough line on abuse, rather than a drive to cover it up”. 

If, as Allen now contends, this letter represents “the losing side in an internal Vatican power struggle” does it mean that Allen is concluding the winning side of this internal power struggle are not committed to “a fairly tough line on abuse, rather than a drive to cover it up”?

This is a pretty glaring inconsistency. Allen simply cannot downplay the 1997 letter by both claiming it represents a tough line on abuse while simultaneously claiming that it represents a view no longer in force. As the phrase goes, one cannot have their cake and eat it too.

Returning full circle to why Dialogue Ireland is covering this issue, it is worth emphasising the importance of this topic within the Dialogue Ireland mission. Our role is to help educate the public on the issues of cultism. Instances where undue adherence to hierarchical structure can lead to abuses are an example of the cultism phenomenon, and exactly this situation occurred here. 

Even though the Irish bishops’ moral judgement was that clerical child sexual abuses should be reported, and even though those bishops fought with their superiors on this issue, it nevertheless transpired that adherence to hierarchical structures was sufficient to override their sense of duty.

We hope that by highlighting the cultism aspect involved in this instance that lessons can be learned, and that such knowledge can help prevent similar situations occurring in future. 

Passion for justice, such as that of Cardinal Connell as discussed in the documentary, can be stifled by undue adherence to a disagreeing hierarchy. 

We hope that an understanding of this dynamic can help empower those caught up in such situations to do the right thing – even if such actions might go against the organisation you have adherence towards.


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