Irish bishops have reverted to regime of ‘secrecy, aloofness and unaccountability’
Beginning 20 years ago in 1994, the Irish Catholic church was struck by the greatest ever blow to its morale and survival – the revelation that not only could Irish Catholic children suffer life-threatening abuse from a small minority of their clergy, but (far worse) that other ordained men who carry the church’s symbol of pastoral care, the shepherd’s crook, could fail to exert their canonical power to protect those children – and could use that power instead to conceal the crime of the erring priest. In the years that followed, and especially in 2002, it became clear that this failure, and the secrecy that masked it, would follow a pattern affecting even Ireland’s most populous diocese, Dublin.
So serious was the ensuing loss of trust in their commitment to the safety of Catholic children that Irish bishops set up in 2007 the National Board for the Safeguarding of Children in the Catholic Church – to monitor their own safeguarding performance. In recognition of the depth of scepticism that the clerical church could ever be trusted to monitor itself, the NBSCCC’s first CEO was Ian Elliott, a highly experienced child care professional – and a Presbyterian layman.
Elliott soon proved his determination and integrity by not only finding serious failings in the child safeguarding provision of the diocese of Cloyne, but by withstanding the threat of legal action against him by the diocese’s child protection team. He went on to train the child safeguarding personnel, and to develop the clear safeguarding guidelines, that allow the Irish Bishops’ Conference to claim today that their church in every diocese in Ireland is a model for child safety that the wider world could learn from.
However, Irish bishops have never sought to measure how far the growing trust in the NBSCCC was dependent not on themselves but on the continuing association of Ian Elliott with its direction and progress – and on the lay people he had personally trained. Since he left that office in July 2013 observant Irish Catholics have wondered if the power of clericalist ‘damage limitation’ has really been permanently overcome by Elliott’s six-year tenure – and how the credibility of the NBSCCC might fare after he had gone.
The first serious blow to that credibility came in January 2014, when Elliott alleged in an article in the Maynooth journal, The Furrow, that the funding of the NBSCCC has been progressively reduced over the previous four years. He went on to say that he could see no reason for this reduction ‘ other than a desire to limit the role of the Board by covert means’.
There was no immediate detailed response from the Irish bishops to this charge. Just before they met for their spring general conference this year another blow fell – the revelation that Elliott is seriously questioning the objectivity and validity of an NBSCCC report on child safeguarding provision in the diocese of Down and Connor, issued by the board in December 2013. (He had personally directed the fieldwork for that report in May 2013, before his departure in July.)
How would the Irish bishops’ conference respond? Would they offer any degree of transparency and detail on the funding issue, or seriously set out to allay fears that the board had already lost its independence with Elliott’s departure from it?
They issued an eleven-line statement on 12 March saying only that they remain fully committed to child safety in the church, and that this ‘includes our wholehearted support, financial and otherwise, for the work of the National Board for Safeguarding Children, the implementation of the National Board’s Standards and Guidance Document at a local level, and the on-going audit and review process of all dioceses and congregations.’
This signals that the new crisis concerning Ireland’s NBSCCC has significantly deepened – and so has the crisis of trust between bishops and people. Nothing erodes trust like lack of transparency – and transparency on the funding of the NBSCCC has been totally denied by Irish bishops – as it has been on all financial matters in all dioceses.
There is no sign yet that Irish bishops will respond to clear signals from the centre of the church that a different style of leadership is possible. As a body they have instead reverted to the old regime of secrecy, aloofness and unaccountability that endangered Irish children for generations – and seriously threatened their relationship with their people.
Irish Catholic parents now need to wake up and see the possibility of losing everything that has been gained for the safety of their children – and demand financial transparency from their bishops as a sine qua non of trust. They should also ensure that NBSCC diocesan reports not be subject to substantive pressure by bishops before publication, and that the board be empowered to enforce safeguarding standards where these are found wanting.
Anything less will inevitably take us right back to the worst of times – just when we were beginning to believe that the worst could be over. It was Irish Catholic parents of abused children who first broke the infernal rule of secrecy on clerical child abuse. We now need to break it again on the issue of the financing and powers of the NBSCCC.
There is no doubt that many Irish bishops have understood the need for an unquestionably independent body to monitor child safeguarding in the church, and have collaborated fully with Ian Elliott’s ethos of putting children first. The new papacy and Evangelii Gaudium surely provide an opportunity for those bishops to use their influence to end the culture of secrecy in the Irish church and to lead it into a new era of open collaboration between bishops, clergy and the whole people of God. When all Irish bishops have obeyed Pope Francis’s direction ‘to develop the means of participation proposed in Canon Law’ and ‘to allow the flock to strike out on new paths’ (Evangelii Gaudium 31) there will come a day when any Irish Catholic will be able to ask, and have answered, any question he might want to ask of his bishop – in open assembly – about the funding and independence of the NBSCCC. As things stand that cannot happen, and the continuing non-transparency of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference again seriously challenges the trust that is indispensable to the recovery of our church.
Sean O’Conaill, Coleraine, N. Ireland BT51 3JE