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?

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  1. The best thing to do is preach about the sacredness of the Eucharist, the church etc… in a homily. You don’t have to reach every fish but when you do, lots of fish will be listening who need to hear it as much as those two.

  2. So you would rather leave priests accused of abuse in place until all matters are concluded, would you? You have stated only a few complaints are false – which means that the majority of prests accused have assaulted children. What you’re trying to say is these men should remain in ministry in contact with kids? Isn’t that so selfish! As bishop Martin rightly said, there are dark forces still at work in the church.

  3. Jo O'Sullivan says:

    Two young people stayed deep in conversation during Mass. Paddy Banville uses this as a springboard to ponder on the desperately difficult position some priests find themselves in – genuinely fearful that, if they rebuke such behaviour (which is, what I presume you had in mind, Paddy?) vengeance might be wreaked by the young people by means of a false accusation of abuse.
    First of all, it saddens me to read that anybody has such a low opinion of our young people, but I’ll allow that it was only meant as an extreme example and that it doesn’t reflect his opinion of young people in general.
    But what worries me more is the fact that Paddy’s concern was with the lack of respect being shown to the sacrament rather than the fact that the young people were not feeling included enough in the Mass to be attentive and involved.
    For me, that is the question that needs to be addressed. Why was what was happening during the celebration of the Eucharist so irrelevant to the young people that they didn’t engage with it?
    It’s very easy to answer at one level. They had no understanding of the Eucharist; they perceived the whole affair as being a man in silly clothes up there droning on and on and saying words that meant absolutely nothing to them in their lives. (This is not meant to be offensive – it’s simply looking at the situation through the eyes of a lot of the young people I know)
    With the greatest respect, Martin, giving a homily about the sacredness of the Eucharist is ‘saothar in aisce’ in this situation – your ‘audience’ isn’t listening!
    So, to find a solution, I think we need to ask different questions. How do we help people to see that the celebration of the Eucharist is relevant to them in their everyday living? If we agree that, at its core, it is an on-going reminder of the way our loving Creator wants us to relate in this world – to be Christ’s hands and feet and eyes, ears to each other – and nourishment to sustain us in our efforts to do just that, how does our daily/weekly celebration mirror that relationship?
    If it is simply a ‘one man show’ with the priest giving and the congregation receiving passively, then it is not mirroring real relationship.
    Surely, for a celebration to actually be such, it has to involve the whole attending community in an active way.
    I can imagine that many of your good selves are tearing your hair out at this stage saying “Ah yes! I’d love my parishioners to engage in an active way with the Sunday Mass, but they just sit there!”
    So, my friends, you cannot do it alone. You have to begin by realising that you need your community and you need them as equals- not as a ‘flock’ you are responsible for and have to keep in line, but as co-adults whose wealth of experience can only add to our Christian relationship. I suggest there are many, many lay people in your parish who are full of energy and enthusiasm and ideas about how their parish celebrations can be more participative – if they are given the freedom to initiate change.
    As an example, can I ask you to look at what a first-time visitor experiences when s/he walks into your church for the celebration of the Eucharist? Is s/he greeted with impersonal, empty silence (you will describe it as a reverential atmosphere, but think of the first-time visitor!) or is there an atmosphere of warm, open, smiling welcome? Such an atmosphere can only be generated by the people who are already in the pews greeting each other and acknowledging the newcomer.
    Which would Christ want – a rather cold and austere beginning to his feast or a warm and friendly welcome to all comers?
    And when the bell goes to announce the start of Mass, is it a signal for the congregation to go to sleep and let the priest do his thing or is it the beginning of two –way interaction between the celebrant and the congregation? As I think of this, I realise it must be so difficult for a priest to maintain enthusiasm, to keep life in his part of the proceedings when, more often than not, the responses from the congregation are, at best, lukewarm.
    But again, is it possible that the reason it’s so lukewarm is that the members of the congregation don’t feel they have anything to offer – their views and opinions are not sought?
    I care deeply about the plight of priests as demonstrated in Paddy’s article. I truly do emphasise. But I think that the solution does not lie in changing Child Safeguarding policies. The safety of the child is paramount and has to trump other concerns.
    In my humble opinion, the solution involves priests re-imagining their role and relationship with their parishioners.
    Picture this. Paddy is deeply troubled by the lack of respect shown by the young people. Instead of setting out to rebuke them, he approaches them after Mass with a big, warm smile on his face and says something like “I’m delighted to see you here this morning. You’re very welcome and I’d love to see you back here every week. But, tell me something. It’s really, really important to me that people get a lot out of Mass and I couldn’t help noticing that you weren’t really too interested in what was going on – you must have had great things to talk about! Are there things we could do that would make Mass more interesting for you so that you’d want to come back again? I’d really value your opinion.”
    The reaction would probably be jaw-dropping amazement! They probably wouldn’t be able to say a thing! But, I guarantee you they’d remember that the priest actually asked for their opinion. And another thing; It wouldn’t even enter their consciousness that they should accuse this man of abuse!

  4. Fear i hate it: you have the right to speak On God’s behalf, am so so sorrowful at the 1st paragraph I read, that you were taken by fear to say anything, i wish i was there!!!

    Please, its not you speaking, the grace of God is on you, and so the devil should not intimidate you to speak out!!

  5. Jo, thank you for that excellent piece — so full of common sense and wisdom. All your points hit the nail precisely on the head.

  6. Jo, in the early Church, folks weren’t permitted to witness and participate in the sacred mysteries until they were fully catechized and initiated into the life of Christ. Perhaps we need to restore these practices into the life of the Church so that we can more faithfully and truthfully *be* Christians, both at Mass, and in the world once we leave Mass.

  7. Certainly in my experience in England our hierarchy (and some religious superiors) have not and still do not take sufficient care to investigate the reliability of complainant accusers. They listen, but fail to warn them that such allegations are an extremely serious matter.

    I happen to know (rather well) two priests who have been accused of sexual abuse. One is a young priest in his 30s at the time who was “fancied” by a woman parishioner. The priest is gay and sexually active in casual relationships with adult males at the time; he simply wasn’t interested in her. So she accused him of grooming her toddler son. Administrative leave.. The police were informed and after investigation said there was no case. He was then sent for extensive and highly rated secular and religious assessment/therapy, lasting in all some 18 mths. Both clinics were convinced that he had no interest in children. By then, the Bishop did not find himself able to “place” him, (nor to laicise him) and advised him to get a secular job, which he did. The parishioners knew both the priest and the complainant family, and did not believe the priest guilty, but this counted for nothing. Incidentally the child concerned has no recollection of the former pp and has grown up into a rather nice, apparently balanced lad.

    The other case concerns an old religious priest who has had an extensive and widely appreciated pastoral career, mostly with young adults. Thirty years after the event a woman complained that he had sexually abused her during a brief relationship when she was a disabled young adult seeking spiritual help and he a religious in his 50s. The police were informed, the priest forbidden to return to his religious home, and a major police investigation was undertaken to investigate and find other incidents connected to this priest. After a year’s fruitless trawling, the police declared the priest no danger to anyone and found him in no way guilty as charged. He has admitted knowing the (then young) woman, but denied their connection was in any way physical.

    Notwithstanding the police investigation and verdict, the Safeguarding Officer has confidently declared that the priest is lying, and has decreed that he is never to be allowed to serve as a priest again, nor is he permitted to set foot on diocesan property! His Superior has seen fit to email all present and past persons who have been in the Institute’s care, and named the priest as having been accused, though not found guilty. The press picked this up and his name has been unjustly besmirched in a national publication. As a result, the Superior has received over nine hundred letters protesting this vilification which is based solely upon the “recollection” of a (at that time wheelchair-using) vulnerable adult. Justice?

    What do you think these 900 letters said? They told the Superior he was wrong and that they value the pastoral care the priest has given themselves and/or their offspring. What do you think the priest’s relations say, especially as the Superior expects them to house, feed and support this man without even handing over his State Retirement pension? What should the priest do? He would never sue his Order, never. Justice?

    The assertion that false allegations are very rare may be true. But they are not unknown. Mistaken allegations are not unknown. Mistaken memories are not unknown. Not all false allegations are malicious.

    Try proving a negative – eg “I have never smoked a cigarette.” Or even, “I have never visited a strip club.” It’s impossible for such assertions to be definite beyond challenge. Justice?

    Not in England, and probably not in Ireland. Fr Paddy, I understand your dilemma. You may feel you let down the inattentive pair, but your church has let down you and your colleagues. It will continue to do so until Truth and Justice are paramount, rather than a putative victim. Take care.

  8. Sheila McHugh says:

    To follow on Jo Sullivan’s piece. I cannot say it any better than this from Sr. Joan Chittester and published in this month’s Spirituality Magazine. Details at end of article.

    “The Eucharist Dilemma

    The major problem of eucharistic theology in our century is not that people do not understand and value the meaning of Eucharist. The problem is that they do.

    The Eucharist, every child learns young, is the sign of Christian community, the very heart of it, in fact. And who would deny the bond, the depth, the electrical force that welds us together in it? Here, we know, is the linkage between us and the Christ, between us and the Gospel, between us and the Tradition that links us to Jesus himself and so to the world around us. No, what the Eucharist is meant to be is not what’s in doubt.

    What’s in doubt is that the Eucharist is really being allowed to do what it purports to do—to connect us, to unify us, to make us One. The truth is that as much as Eucharist is a sign of community it is also a sign of division. For the sake of some kind of ecclesiastical political fiascos centuries ago between the East and West, we close the table between Orthodox and Uniate—though the faith is the same and the commitments are the same and the vision of life and death are the same.

    What’s in doubt, too, is that the divisions posited between baptized men and baptized women can possibly witness to what we say is the faith: that men and women are equal; that women are fully human beings; that God’s grace is indivisible; that discipleship is incumbent on us all; that we are all called to follow Christ.

    At the end of one presentation after another, women make it a point to continue the discussion with me. ‘I used to be Catholic,’ they begin. ‘I was a Catholic once,’ they say. ‘I’m a recovering Catholic now,’ they announce. It’s a sad litany of disillusionment and abandonment by a Church they once thought promised them fullness of life and then let them know that it is their very persons that deny them that. They are to get out of the pronouns and off the altars of the Church, they read in its latest dictums. They may want to follow Jesus but Jesus, they’re told, does not want to be followed by them.

    Call it ‘holy’ communion if you want, they tell me, but it’s not. Not like that. Not under those conditions.

    So they go away to where Jesus waits for them, arms open, in someone else’s Christian church. There’s something about it all that simply defies the lesson of Mary Magdalene or the Woman at the Well or Mary of Bethany or Mary of Nazareth. They go where every minister at the altar, every bishop, every lawgiver, every homilist, every member of every Synod on the planet is not male. They go where they can see ‘the image of God’ in themselves in another woman. They go where eucharistic theology, which we’re told makes us one, is palpable.”

    – from “Eucharist” by Joan Chittister, Spirituality Magazine. Volume 18, March-April 2012, No 101. Dominican Publications: Republic of Ireland.

  9. I sympathise with the celebrant’s frustration in the face of the two members of the congregation who weren’t paying attention. I can’t comment on the actual celebration because I wasn’t there. However, I feel strongly that, generally speaking, in our Eucharistic celebrations, we need to get back to the Jesus of the gospels and the gatherings of the early Christian communities. Young participants were valued and there was a place for their stories to be heard. I am encouraged and enlightened by the contributions of Jo, Paddy and Sheila – thanks for the link to Joan Chittister.

  10. Paddy Banville says:

    I’m glad to be able to say that we now have a little more evidence to suggest that the investigative processes are working. This weekend Fr Tadgh Furlong has returned to full time ministry after standing aside for 2 years. The allegation against Tadgh is being reported in some quarters as unsubstantiated (meaning the evidence doesn’t prove or disprove the allegation) but I suspect it’s more likely the allegation was proved to be unfounded (meaning the evidence disproves the allegation).

  11. Paddy Banville says:

    Just hours before my piece (above) was published in the Irish Catholic a fellow priest on leave from ministry took his own life.

    Those who knew him well say that from the moment the allegation against him was placed in the public domain, it was as if he retreated into an enclosed room, no doors or windows, a room impenetrable by another human being. He became unreachable.

    This is particularly poignant because this was a man who was greatly loved, admired and respected. He was a man blessed with many friends – that even the immensity of their love could not reach him is truly remarkable.

    I suspect most priests cannot imagine a greater personal tragedy than being accused of the abuse of a child / minor / vulnerable adult. In making this point I am in no way denying or attempting to lessen the suffering of victims – in fact, I have adopted the policy of always presuming that the person I’m communicating with may have been abused. It makes for much better communication. I think I would rather be told I am terminally ill than face an (unfounded) allegation of abuse. The pressure must be horrendous and I have no doubt that an accusation of abuse is the one event that will ask serious questions of every priest’s mental health.

    In light of this I must ask if the current practice of publicly naming priests stepping aside while an allegation is investigated is humane and appropriate to a caring and civilized society?

    Surely it’s time enough to publish details when the investigation is complete and a decision has been made to prosecute or otherwise.

    NOTE: I do not know the details of the allegation against this man, merely that he was asked to step aside, and I make no judgement of the allegation or the person making the allegation.

  12. I have to admit to laughing at elements in this. I would agree that much is not about understanding what the young people are supposed to be involved in.

    But what stuck me, saddened me, was the death of this priest, this person – human being. Taking his life for whatever reasons. This is a real tragedy.

    How do you reach through those impenetrable walls to someone trapped there. That overwhelming anxiety, terrifying fear and darkness he must have been caught up in.

    I have on occasion heard of a priest going through something like this and would loved to have been able to go sit and talk with him.

    I have experienced if ‘from the other side’ if you will. Known that sense of utter despair that would have pushed me so easily over the precipice and for similar reasons – terror, fear, a sense of being accused, condemned, hounded like an animal – all of it.

    Whatever going on – to reach that soul and really let him/her know – you are not alone. You will get through this.

    If any of you out there are ever in that situation – give me a call.

    If this is really a ‘Church’ it should never be ‘us’ and ‘them’ – sides. How do we break down those particular barriers too ?

    Sorry for your loss too Paddy.

    It is ridiculous that things get to this stage. I remember some years ago out in some big shopping place and this young child was standing there seemingly losing her little mind. No sign of the parents. I instinctively reach out – especially to children. But for an instant in that open public place I did wonder. Then went over to the her and we stayed with her till her mother came. Poor woman was demented.

    It must be really difficult. And it’s very disturbing that you are left to assume everyone has been abused to aid communication.

    May your friend rest in peace and may God help all his family and those left behind.


  13. Reading of this man’s death reminds of another young man who took his life. I had been thinking about him earlier today too. What in God’s name happens in any of these things that they are left to that.

    I wonder how much support your friend might have had. How much if anything explained clearly to him. That legal stuff is absolute and pure hell. A lawyer, experienced man too, said to me once that some of these kinds of cases should not be dealt with through lawyers and courts. It created far more suffering with no real prospect for resolution or healing for anyone. Obviously there are cases that have to proceed a certain way. Once that door opens there is no closing it.

    I don’t know your friend but can empathise to a degree with what he might have gone through in some of this – and that makes me wonder what support he actually got. It can be very much a case of having someone who has gone through it too with you – someone who can understand and help you understand what you are dealing, or trying to deal, cope with.

    If a priest were accused, how much support does he get from the bishop and his fellow priests ? I don’t mean phone calls. Really there with him through it.

    You would not wish that kind of stress on your worst enemy if you had one. If you are innocent it’s an evil in itself.

    It makes me wonder about mismanagement and lack of support when lives are lost, especially before it ever gets as far as the court.

    I am only raising this as a highlight to any of you on that importance – how critical it is to really rally and support anyone in this position. Each other.

    It’s just so sad, so needless, so tragic this loss of life.

    I have a certain empathy, compassion for the despairing, suicidal.

    Don’t rightly understand it but loss of life is always a real loss.

    Praying for his family anyway.

  14. “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?”

    I could ask you if a tiny minority of innocent children are worth less than this ‘Justice’ you aspire to.

    What is ‘justice’ anyway !

    I have wondered about that one myself. I was wholly innocent and made no false allegations. I was treated worse than an animal and near driven to my death on at least two occasions. I might have died but for another innocent who could take no more, gave up the will to fight and live, and inspired me to fight on and live. The priest had the resources of the Church – money to pay for not one but two lawyers to come after me. I had nothing and I mean nothing but what little faith I’d been left with – and an ability to write letters. There is no ‘justice’ in so much of it.

    I wholly understand now the expression, “The law is an ass.” A huge percentage of sexual crimes are not reported or taken through the criminal ‘justice’ system because of the abuse, trauma and suffering for the victims. If raped – like being raped all over again.

    I have a friend a psychologist in America. She works with many victims of sexual crime/violence. She told me once that the women who come to her are asked what THEY want to do that is best for them – their recovery and healing. And the courts are not always what they want. But they can feel serious pressure to report and go through the trauma of criminal courts for the sake of all others so violated – abused. Lori gives them a choice.

    A clinical psychologist I knew told me of two cases he worked on. Two people – male and female, raped and abused; one by family member and the other by a cleric. Both cases went to court. Both ‘won’ and the abusers were convicted and went to prison.

    Both victims were awarded large amounts of money as ‘compensation’. The two of them were so re traumatised by the whole criminal ‘justice’ system that they drank themselves to death within two years of winning and getting ‘justice’.

    I don’t know what ‘justice’ is – but for me it must involve some level of understanding, reconciliation and healing. One reason I am trying again to re connect with Christianity and Christ’s message – maybe even within the Catholic Tradition.

    No human being should be sacrificed on this ‘altar’.

    I know from experience what true hell it can be. But children or anyone else expecting everything being done to protect and make them safe is not the problem – the ‘altar’ of sacrifice.

    Bishops and others not knowing what the hell they are doing can be part of it.

    If I knew of anyone, lay person or cleric, facing something like this, I’d be more than willing to sit and talk to him/her.

    I walked blindly into a lion’s den and very nearly did not come out the other side.

    Herod to Christ, “Quid est Veritas ?!” What is Justice.

  15. Something else I find very disturbing in all of this.

    Why does it have to be about innocent against innocent – priest or lay person ? Who is doing this, creating this division and making it all worse ?

    If a person, as a member of the Body of Christ, becomes a victim in any sense, an innocent – the ENTIRE Body should be rallying to their aid. It should never have been,should not and never again be about a priest and a lay person pitted against each other.

    That is a cornerstone of this ‘altar’ that needs demolishing. It’s sick and an evil in itself or beginnings of same.

    I can see, sense that already on this site – clerics and lay people – victims either ‘side’.

    That is very, very wrong and helps no one.

    If one of you were innocently accused of something and being put through the beginnings of that legal HELL, I’d be more than willing to walk with you as I might be able, and try, in my limited way to encourage you to hold on and be strong, to keep faith. Cause it is a hellish trip.

    Like your friend who sadly lost his life.

    It should work both ways and I have no doubt and know it can and does. I know a wonderful priest who was willing to take me to the police only I’d already been. He is a good man and his job is not an easy one in all of this.

    You are not my enemy and I am not yours. So stop creating problems where there should not be any. We should be building bridges – not demolishing them.

    I am not meaning this to you personally or only. You are a product of the lack of trust and insanity of all of this.

    I would ask that you all reflect on it though for all our sakes.


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