Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Cardinal Connell takes sex abuse tribunal to court - an unwelcome blast from the past

This is the text of my article in the Evening Herald on Friday 1st February on Cardinal Connell's (pictured above) surprise High Court intervention in the work of the tribunal investigating sex abuse by clergy in the Dublin archdiocese. Since then, on Monday 4th, the High Court adjourned the case for a week. Hopefully the Inquisition is working on Cardinal Connell in the meantime.

Update: On Monday 11th February, Connell withdrew his High Court action. I guess the Inquisition did its work alright.

“Saddened but not surprised” has so far been the reaction of victims of clerical sex abuse in Dublin to the court challenge by Cardinal Desmond Connell to the examination of files over which he claims privilege.

The files, reported as numbering 5,000, could help Judge Yvonne Murphy and her Archdiocese Commission of Investigation to arrive at the full truth of clerical child abuse in Dublin. Perhaps more importantly, they will reveal just what the Church did and did not do about the abuse when it learned what was going on.

The Archdiocese of Dublin has a great deal to fear from the inquiry headed by Judge Murphy. Those who have had dealings with her are aware that she has an incisive mind, capable of homing in on the relevant details in a mass of documents – even in 5,000 documents. The former journalist expresses herself with a sort of clarity that is foreign to the Church and especially to the Church of Cardinal Connell.

We know the general nature of the details that will hurt the Church when her report is eventually published. They will concern priests moved from parish to parish and therefore put in positions of moral authority despite their misbehaviour. They will also concern the legalistic response to abuse victims and their families which left them frustrated, angry and hurt.

As a journalist who attempted to cover such issues in the 1990s, I still recall the pain of people who believed the Archdiocese had little or no interest in them except to make their allegations go away. Their experience of dealing with the Church deepened the hurt already done.

I expect those in charge of the affairs of the Archdiocese at the time believed they were acting in the best interests of the Church and that their handling of these cases was entirely in accordance with the law.

But anyone who saw the pain of victims and their families at facing what they perceived to be a closed door when it came to having their complaints dealt with could only have welcomed a searching inquiry into the actions of those churchmen.

Such an inquiry, as we all know, can only be effective if it has access to documents outlining the actions and opinions of these churchmen at the time.

The Church already faces some very dark days indeed when Judge Murphy’s report is finally published. It is unlikely that the details of what went on will differ greatly from what we know already. It is the scale of abuse and the inadequacy of the Church’s response that will deepen the harm already done to its reputation.

To weather this storm in any fashion, the Church needs an archbishop like Diarmuid Martin who can demonstrate full cooperation with the inquiry and who represents a break with the past.

But now along comes Cardinal Connell who, by his legal challenge, will lead sceptics – and even those who are not sceptics – to believe that little has changed when it comes to the Church’s attitude to attempts to clear up this mess.

More importantly, his challenge reopens old wounds and old memories for victims of clerical abuse and their families. It is like a challenge from the past to the present. But Cardinal Connell is not in the past. Like the other men who ran the affairs of the Archdiocese when he was its head, he is very much in the present. Moreover, he is a man of authority in the Church, outranking Archbishop Martin.

When Judge Murphy’s report is published, this challenge will loom large in the minds of an outraged public. It will render more difficult the job of Archbishop Martin in convincing us all that the old Church has been replaced by a new one that deserves our trust.

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