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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

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  1. Frank Gregg says:

    I find that I am in total agreement with Seán Ó Conaill. It seems now te previous pope that after all the church crises which we have endured, basic lessons of accountability , transparency, and openness as promised by the previous pope have not been learned in relation to the choice of bishops, and in proper engagement with the laity.
    I suspect that the fear of loss of control and of power , which has permeated or rather poisoned, the Irish hierarchical church since the advent of “clericalism” is the root cause of their dysfunctionality.
    It also appears that they are victims of “groupthink” which clouds their judgment.
    This is a sad anachronism of what their proper pastoral Christian function should be, and it looks like they have learned nothing since 1994.
    The Holy Spirit appears to be passing them by, but they should dwell on the word of Scripture which assures us that the Word of God does not return to Him empty, and His Kingdom might just be building elsewhere.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    There a bit of “he-said, she-said” character to this squabble. “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.)” Others seriously question the justice of the Cloyne Report and especially the over-the-top demonization that it kindled in the media and popular rhetoric,

  3. Con Devree says:

    There are grounds for concern.

    Who actually authored the report on Down and Connor as published, the Bishops or the NBSCCC?

    Mr Elliot’s threatened court case seemed based on his claim that the report does not reflect his fieldwork, combined with his claim to have informed the Bishop of this. “They haven’t given you the report I would have given you. Sort them out.” When did he inform the Bishop?

    My understanding was that the NBSCCC is a totally independent body impervious to any incursion by the Hierarchy. Is it up to the hierarchy to referee the internal workings of the NBSCCC? Are there provisions in its constitution which allow for the Bishops to reject its report one way or another?

    Apart from the provision of more information and funding, what do you see as the remedy? If the NBSCCC issued the report, what about its continued existence? Is there now a need for a new or existing independent body to rule on the NBSCCC report? Or does the NBSCCC need to be reconstituted and newly staffed?

    Given the complexity of the issues and the timescales involved, perhaps this is not the moment for total transparency. Is it reasonable to suspect that there is a certain amount of related work going on in some solicitors’ offices?

  4. Martin Murray says:

    I guess we shouldn’t be surprised to see regression accompany transformation in a large institution like the RC Church. I don’t say that to excuse it, but rather to stress how important it is for us to expect and demand more, particularly in this context. We need a whole new system of leadership in which accountability is not an optional extra dished out or withheld on a whim. Thank you for you vigilance Sean.

  5. #3 Con Devree
    On the issue of a questioned NBSCCC report on Down and Connor in December 2013, Michael Kelly has a balanced article on this in the Irish Catholic at:
    My understanding of the review process is that before the NBSCCC can publish a final report on a diocese the report must be submitted to the diocese for checking of issues of fact. It appears that Ian Elliott is questioning the delay that took place after the audit in May and his departure in July, before the NBSCCC report was published in December.
    As the NBSCCC was set up by the Irish bishops, and is funded by them, and by the bodies representing the religious orders, the question of its funding is inseparable from the question of its independence. That latter question can therefore only be resolved, it seems to me, by complete transparency on funding. And the latter issue is not connected with the Down and Connor issue, so it does not need to wait on a legal resolution of that.
    Elliott’s Furrow article explaining his concerns on the funding issue, and on other matters, can be found at:

  6. Elizabeth says:

    It might be true that wherever male people come into close contact with children there is a risk of children being sexually abused and raped. Not just men of the church (but the church has a great responsibility as they are working for God) but all men.

  7. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Perhaps it is long after time for all the mere “male people” on this website to take a Class Action against the likes of “Elizabeth”@6 who feel free to come on here to utter anonymously the sort of outrageous bilge she has just come out with. Dressing up such charges against half the population with such vagueries as “It might be true”, “close contact”, “there is a risk” should be no defence. Weasel words. “Elizabeth”, I have been in close contact with the children of four nations for 50 years of my adult life and I haven’t raped one of them yet. You want to debate the risk factor of my doing so in the years or maybe even decades left to me?
    I’m not normally in favour of censoring or heavy moderation in the sites I visit, but “Elizabeth” seems to be a prime candidate for the chop. Of course, once again, if the merely male ordained people who should be populating this forum were actually here, there might be less room or tolerance for the sort of crap that occasionally surfaces.

  8. Joe O'Leary says:

    Eddie, if you were to write of women in the scathing tones in which Elizabeth writes of men, you would become a social pariah!

  9. Angela Hanley says:

    Uninformed and ignorant comment is not the privilege of any particular gender. ‘Elizabeth’s’ sexist remarks are as obnoxious as the misogynistic rhetoric that has travelled in the opposite direction, and which is so entrenched in the tradition of the Church.
    As offensive and outrageous as ‘Elizabeth’s’comments are, I would not be in favour of censorship. Prejudice,of whatever sort, needs to be challenged. Too often in Ireland we’ve had people give one face in public and another in private. We need to know the thinking going on beneath the public veneer, especially as it pertains to Church.
    So, Eddie, take heart – while your anger is wholly understandable and justified, when you know what some people are really thinking, it is an education in itself. “By their fruits, you shall know them.”

  10. The above comment @6 is a prime example of why we do not need two theologies one for men and one for women. What is needed is a new theology of mutuality based on love respect and equality. I agree with Eddie @8 it is an outrageous comment.

  11. Good point Joe and Eddie. What I find VERY interesting is that in a recent Hollywood film, an A-list actress made a comment that perhaps they should kick a man in the ba**s as part of the film script. Now if I, a man, made a joke or comment about kicking a woman anywhere, let alone in the groin, it would be totally, totally unacceptable (and rightly so) but somehow, violence against men by kicking them in the most sensitive area is still seen as funny and something that can be said with abandon and humour. It’s a glaring inconsistency and hypocrisy in these times that certain people, mainly women, can still feel free to say such things. Anyone else agree with me?

  12. Eddie@8, I`d reserve the chopper solely for offences against the use of language. People should be free to hold whatever daft, depressing, antediluvian or even plain offensive opinions they like to, as indeed we see they do, frequently, in the pages even of this site. Illiteracy, however, is easily identified, and, mostly, objective standards can be applied to testing it. So, anyone who undertakes to advance their opinions about the complex matters discussed here, should accept that they have to meet certain basic standards in their use of language, otherwise, to Room 101 with them! Or should it be 102?

  13. Kevin Walters says:

    mjt @13
    to Room 101 with them! Or should it be 102
    I looked up on .wikipedia.org/wiki/Room_101, as I had never heard of room 101 before.
    Extract; room 101 is a place introduced in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. It is a torture chamber in the Ministry of Love in which the Party,,,,,,,
    Thank you mjt,
    I now know the address of where I have been living for the last thirty five years. During that time, I have observed in sadness, as our Shepherds in their ministry of love slept, while so many Christians were been rebranded as they passed through room 101, while others, courageously in their tears, have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  14. Willie Herlihy says:

    I think the reason why our Bishops have reverted to a regime of ‘secrecy, aloofness and unaccountability’ is because of the template provided for their selection,
    by Pope John Paul 11 and continued by Pope Benedict.XV1.
    It did not include people with leadership ability,original thinkers,or People who would put their heads above the parapet on any issue.
    So People, I fail to understand,why you are all surprised because they have reverted to type.

  15. This whole affair points to a complete lack of consciousness in the Hiearchy of the Catholic Church in Ireland which is self evident to the continuing disenchantment that most Catholics feel in Ireland.The crisis of attendance will continue amongst the populace who are conscious .It is not the Catholic populace who have a lack of faith,but the heiarchy who still maintain their self serving views.The continuing decline will be guaranteed by this attitude,which is at odds with the views of Pope Francis ,which those of little faith ignore.Their attitude hasn’t one iota in common with the teaching of Christ,which is obvious to everybody. ,but the Heiarchy of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

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