Sunday, July 17, 2011

Bishop’s history of lip service to child protection policies (Contribution)

In 2008, Bishop John Magee and his cohort asserted their commitment to child protection.

After the release of the Cloyne report, his words seem insincere.

THE BISHOP sat across the mahogany table from us, flanked on either side by his closest aides.

It was just myself and my Editor, Tim Vaughan, facing the Cloyne hierarchy; the delineation clearly marked — we were the other side.

Among them sat Fr Bill Bermingham who had just been appointed child protection delegate after the appalling tenure of Monsignor Denis O’Callaghan had been laid bare by the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church (NBSCCC) report.

Director of the Catholic Communications Office, Martin Long — down from Dublin the night previous night — was on the other side and I believe a number of the vicar forane.

All were man who had proven their loyalty to Dr Magee. The monsignor was not present.

The room was dominated by solemn, heavy mahogany furniture and dated wallpaper. It was carpeted. Bizarrely, I also remember a single artificial flower in a vase on console table in the lobby area.

There was something poignant about that dated artificial flower and the whole building: This was very much a house stuck in a 1970s timewarp a structure deprived of the nesting instincts of a woman. And yes, it screamed Father Ted.

The clergy had all shook our hands politely and nodded their welcome when we arrived through the heavy wooden door of the Bishop’s Palace in Cobh that December morning in 2008. 

Just half an hour earlier, we’d received a call to the newsroom to say that the bishop wished to see us. In many ways, it felt like being summonsed.

For three days previous, the Irish Examiner had run front-page stories lambasting the diocese and the children’s minister for failing to publish the NBSCCC report. We didn’t know what to expect and there was an air of nervous expectation, each side comically falling over itself in its efforts to "out polite" the other.

Immediately, I was aware of my role as the only female in the room; that I was the stereotypical pesky reporter causing trouble.

We were asked not to take notes and to keep the meeting private. We were then told how the bishop — despite his committee’s threats to sue the NBSCCC earlier that year — was very anxious to publish the Ian Elliot report.

The bishop did the lion’s share of the talking with the others only piping up when he mentioned their particular role in supporting his continued commitment to child protection. 

He spoke slowly, a man who clearly believed in the importance of his every utterance.

I was barely acknowledged in that room, any answers to my questions were directed at my Editor. As a woman, I didn’t seem to register as an equal. As Tim quipped later, I was like a "black girl picking cotton in the southern states in the 1950s".

Dr Magee, to me, seemed like a man who was not used to having his actions questioned; a man who knew little about humility.

Constantly, we were led to believe he was obliging us. There was an air of unreality about that encounter as he waxed lyrical about his commitment to child protection.

There was no mention of the past; it was just the present. After 15 minutes, it emerged that he was going to give us the NBSCCC report as "you are our local paper".

There was this distinct air of unreality about the meeting, about the overly deferential relationship between this man and his subordinates. Not once did the bishop make reference to the scale of disregard for child protection that was contained in that report.

When we skimmed the contents in a hotel in Cobh minutes later, we just stared at each other in disbelief.

Fast forward three years, and more sordid revelations are pouring out about the bishop and his right-hand man, Mgr O’Callaghan. 

The bishop hadn’t the courage to face the press after the Cloyne report and I doubt he has learnt humility. 

I doubt he still even "gets" it, as Thursday’s comments from Mgr O’Callaghan show he certainly hasn’t.

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