Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh, Northern Ireland, left, attends a Feb. 7 penitential vigil at St. Ignatius Church in Rome to show contrition for clerical sexual abuse. On March 20, the Vatican released an eight-page summary of the findings and recommendations of the visitation to four archdioceses, religious institutes and seminaries in Ireland. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Despite past shortcomings, Irish church is fighting abuse, Vatican says

By  Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service
  • March 20, 2012

VATICAN CITY - A Vatican-appointed investigation of the church in Ireland recognized serious shortcomings in the handling of accusations of the sexual abuse of minors, yet found that bishops, clergy and lay faithful are doing an "excellent" job in creating safe environments for children today.

The investigators found that Irish bishops need to update their child protection guidelines, establish "more consistent admission criteria" for seminarians, and formulate policies on how best to deal with clergy and religious accused of abuse.

In a summary of findings from the probe, formally known as an apostolic visitation, the investigators also warned of a "fairly widespread" tendency among priests, religious and laity to hold unspecified unorthodox views.

"This serious situation requires particular attention, directed principally toward improved theological formation," the visitors found, stressing that dissent from the church's teaching authority would only hinder its renewal.

On March 20, the Vatican released an eight-page summary of the findings and recommendations of the visitation to four archdioceses, religious institutes and seminaries in Ireland.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said "there is no large, more extensive document" giving details of the visitation.

Rather, he said, "the summary is a synthesis of all the reports, materials," observations and recommendations made by the visitors as well as further observations made by the Holy See and Vatican offices involved in the investigation.

"The Holy See re-echoes the sense of dismay and betrayal which the Holy Father expressed in his 'Letter to the Catholics of Ireland' (2010) regarding the sinful and criminal acts that were at the root of this particular crisis," the written summary said.

Through their many face-to-face meetings with members of the church, including victims of abuse, the visitors saw "just how much the shortcomings of the past gave rise to an inadequate understanding of and reaction to the terrible phenomenon of the abuse of minors, not least on the part of various bishops and religious superiors," the summary said.

But investigators said they were able "to verify that, beginning in the 1990s, progressive steps have been taken toward a greater awareness of how serious is the problem of abuse" and how urgent it is to respond adequately and prevent abuse in the future.

The summary report said the church's current norms -- "Safeguarding Children: Standards and Guidance Document for the Catholic Church in Ireland" -- were being followed and implemented with "excellent results." Irish archbishops assured the visitors that new cases of abuse are quickly brought to the attention of civil authorities and the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Yet the report said the guidelines must be amended and updated in accordance with the doctrinal congregation's churchwide 2011 mandate; regular audits should be carried out promptly; and the guidelines should be re-examined periodically to make sure they stay effective.

The report said a shortage of canon lawyers in Ireland calls for a reorganization of church tribunals there to help expedite cases of abuse still waiting for a resolution. In addition, the National Board for Safeguarding Children should be supported by all bishops, religious superiors and lay faithful, and should continue to receive adequate funding and personnel, it said.

The seminaries' visitation showed there were "clear child-protection norms in place" and education programs for future priests on child protection were taken seriously, the report said.

Aspects of seminary life that still require improvement included: formation "rooted in authentic priestly identity" to prepare men for a life of celibacy; better governance of seminaries by bishops; "more consistent admission criteria" and a more thorough examination of a candidate's suitability for the priesthood; and child protection education as a part of seminarians' academic studies.

In regard to religious institutes, the Vatican recommended that bishops lead a "process of renewing dialogue and concrete collaboration in the field of safeguarding children, while also seeking to bring about a more effective and deeper communion" among the different religious orders.

The orders also "should perform an audit of their personnel files" and regularly monitor their implementation of national child protection norms.

Bishops, religious superiors and members of the board for safeguarding children should continue to update policies on dealing with priests and religious falsely accused of abuse; dealing with suspected abusers when civil authorities decline to prosecute; and determining where and under what conditions convicted offenders should live.

Pope Benedict XVI ordered the visitation in response to an abuse crisis which Irish government reports said had gone on for decades within a "culture of secrecy."

The investigation, which began in November 2010 and ended in the spring of 2011, was not meant to deal with past or present allegations, but to monitor how the anti-abuse guidelines established in 2009 by the Irish church were being followed, and how effective they had proven.

At a news conference in Dublin, the Irish primate, Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh, Northern Ireland, told those present, "In expressing true sorrow and regret, we make our own the heartfelt plea for forgiveness from the victims, and from God, for these terrible crimes and sins."

Cardinal Brady also praised the fact that the report notes the "continuing vitality of the Irish people's faith ... the human and spiritual bonds among the faithful at a time of crisis ... the exemplary way in which many priests and religious live out their vocation and ... (the) remarkable level of lay involvement in the structures of child protection" within the church.

The abuse victims' support group One in Four criticized the report, insisting that "the Vatican is still not accepting responsibility for its role in creating the culture of purposeful cover-ups of the sexual abuse of children."

Executive Director Maeve Lewis said that "while we welcome the findings of the visitation that the Irish church now has good child protection practices in place, we feel it is a lost opportunity to address the role played by the Vatican in perpetuating the policy of protecting abusive priests at the expense of children."

She said she also welcomed "the recommendation that the bishops and religious superiors should devote much time to listening to survivors and attending to their needs.

"We have had grotesque situations where senior churchmen meet with survivors, assure them of their remorse for what happened while at the same time are instructing their legal teams to file full defenses in relation to civil compensations suits. This only compounds the pain and hurt of survivors. It brings into question the authenticity of the church's repentance," Lewis said.

The archdiocesan visitors were British Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, retired archbishop of Westminster, who investigated the Archdiocese of Armagh, Northern Ireland; Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, who examined the Archdiocese of Dublin; Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto, who conducted the visitation to the Archdiocese of Cashel; and Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa, Ontario, who examined the Archdiocese of Tuam.

The pope appointed four religious to conduct the visitation of Irish religious communities. U.S. Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, secretary of the Vatican Congregation for Religious, and Jesuit Father Gero McLoughlin, promoter of Ignatian spirituality for the Jesuits' British province, visited men's religious orders. U.S. Sister Sharon Holland, a member of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and Irish Sister Mairin McDonagh, a member of the Religious of Jesus and Mary, conducted the visitation of the women's communities.

New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan led the visitation to seminaries.

The visitation's conclusions have been communicated to Ireland's archbishops, church leaders, and superiors of religious life. The summary report was to be sent to the country's bishops via the apostolic nuncio to Ireland, U.S. Archbishop Charles Brown.
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Contributing to this story was Michael Kelly in Dublin.

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