Is our child protection system open to grave injustice?
While visiting another parish to celebrate Mass on Christmas morning I noticed two young adults in deep conversation – quite an animated conversation too, with facial expression and full hand movement. They hardly drew a breath for the duration of Mass!
In seconds I had thought of addressing the issue there and then but considered it too heavy-handed given that it was Christmas and my two visitors had at least made the effort to be there. But this was Holy Mass – the God-designed point of contact with God in Jesus Christ, God offering God-self and the whole work of salvation, including the momentous Incarnation event we were celebrating, and my two visitors weren’t even interested. I felt it for my God so generous in pouring out God-self in Holy Mass while my two friends ignored the wonder of the mystery. So I considered addressing the matter with both at Communion but just as quickly it occurred to me that they might not come to Communion. I decided to take the matter up with both privately – sorry kids, not on my watch!
Suddenly I shivered; I almost froze at the thought. The ‘kids’ could make a false allegation of abuse against me. What would happen to me then? I would undoubtedly have to step aside. Immediately fear invaded my body, I thought of the personal trauma, the unjust media attention, the monumental struggle to clear my name, the trauma my family would endure, I thought of my friends and my people. I thought of the ‘there’s no smoke without fire brigade’. I thought of civil and canonical investigations that could take 6 months or 6 years! I played it safe and said absolutely nothing. I failed the Christ who gave Himself so wonderfully to us that Christmas morning in the presence of my two unsuspecting visitors.
You see, I don’t trust the process. Some months ago I asked Ian Elliott if the civil and canonical processes worked, if the investigative processes reached a definite conclusion. To be fair to Mr. Elliott that’s not his remit and it’s a question only the bishops can answer. When the investigative processes have run their course and the only available evidence is one person’s word against another, or where the alleged victim refuses to proceed further than making an allegation, what happens to the accused priest? Where the allegation is ‘unsubstantiated’ meaning there is insufficient identifiable evidence to prove or disprove the allegation, what happens to the accused priest? Will the individual bishop and his advisors kick for touch? Will the individual priest be sacrificed? I’d like to hear the bishops answer the question; what exactly are you going to do with these men? Now that the bishops are safeguarding children how are they going to safeguard their priests and their priest’s families against false allegations? The fact that few allegations are false is not an answer – neither is dropping the word ‘accused’ in favour of ‘respondent’! Is it a case of guilty until proven innocent? If there had been no child in the Fr. Kevin Reynolds case where would Fr. Kevin be right now? If the PSNI investigation of the allegation made against Fr. Sean Cahill had returned something less than ‘unfounded’ meaning the evidence disproves the allegation – quite a strong and I suspect rare finding – where would Fr. Cahill be now?
Of course, like any right-minded citizen, I fully support robust child protection practices and the punishment of criminal actions, but there’s something fundamentally wrong with a system that appears so open to grave injustice. The assertion made by the National Board for Safeguarding Children that “while the allegations are being investigated the presumption of innocence applies” will need to be communicated somewhat more forcibly. I suspect most frontline priests consider the current status of the presumption of innocence to be spatial thinking! It’s an ‘ivory tower’ assertion and does nothing to alleviate the growing fear and unease among priests at the coal-face. There is real potential here for a grave miscarriage of justice. Let’s face it, it’s inevitable, and when it happens it’ll happen in the name of child-protection! That’s if it hasn’t happened already. Such an injustice will only undermine the good work already done. There’s an irony here that troubles me – we protect our children only to unjustly ‘step-aside’ a tiny minority in adulthood – permanently!
The Catholic Church may already have the best child protection services in the world because apart from the army of trained lay safeguarding volunteers on the ground, the current leadership of the Catholic Church, at least at local level, may be willing to sacrifice individual ‘employees’ unless the ‘employees’ or the various investigative processes can prove their innocence rather than their guilt.
Child protection is undoubtedly paramount but should that mean we sacrifice innocent men on the altar of child protection – even a tiny minority? Paramount – yes, but should it be so paramount that it trumps Justice?