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THE CHURCH AND CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE

1994 was the year when paedophile priests were finally forced out of the closet. But the Church is still refusing to answer the vital questions. Report: Eamonn McCann.

Eamonn McCann, 14 Dec 1994



ON THE morning of the 18th of last month, a Friday, I phoned and then faxed a series of questions about alleged child sex-abuse by a priest in Derry to the Catholic Press and Information Office (CPIO) in Dublin. The details of the case don’t matter for the moment. What I’m concerned about here is the way the Church refused to answer the questions, and the implications of this refusal.

I’d contacted the CPIO after being advised by the bishop’s residence in Derry that this was the appropriate path to the people I wanted to speak with: the diocese couldn’t deal with such queries themselves, that’s what the CPIO was for.

My enquiries were directed to three Derry bishops – the current bishop, Seamus Hegarty, the former bishop Edward Daly and the auxiliary bishop, Francis Lagan – and to Cardinal Cathal Daly and to the head of the church institution where I believed the alleged child-abuser was living. I was hopeful of reasonably speedy replies: Cathal Daly and various bishops had been protesting for weeks that while they may have secreted away such scandals in the past they were now willing to face up to the unpalatable facts.

By late afternoon the same day I had had no response. I phoned the CPIO again and spoke with its director, Jim Cantwell. He told me he was sorry, but that he hadn’t been able to contact any of the church leaders I’d mentioned.

I said I thought this was strange since it had been widely publicised that the Irish bishops were meeting that day at Maynooth: Cathal Daly and Seamus Hegarty at least had been there and would surely have been relatively easy for the CPIO to contact?

Jim appeared not to have thought of that. At any rate, he said, the bishops were all now “scattered” and there was no way of finding them until after the weekend. Which again seemed odd, given that weekends are when Churchmen are most predictably available.

Anxious to make progress, and with a deadline to meet, I went to the bishop’s residence in Derry and handed in copies of the quetions to the three locally-based men and was assured by a pleasant woman that they would receive them by next morning. The questions to each of the three were along the same lines:

Whether you are aware of allegations by a family from - - - of sex abuse of a member of the family by Father X, formerly of - - - parish? What action is currently being taken ny the Church authorities in the diocese in response to these allegations? When was Fr. X transferred from - - - parish, and what were the circumstances surrounding his departure? To where was he transferred? What is his status and function within the Church now? And whether, prior to his appointment to - - - parish, the Church in the diocese was aware of any reason for concern about his likely behaviour towards children?

The deadline passed with no response, and I filed no story that weekend. Over the following week, the questions set out above and variations on them were again, repeatedly, conveyed by phone, fax and/or hand-delivered letter to all the men mentioned. None was answered. I knew by this stage that Seamus Hegarty at least had received and read my communications and had discussed them in some detail with advisers and with clergy who had been serving in the diocese at the time of the alleged offences. But it proved impossible to obtain even an acknowledgement from his office.

On the 24th of last month I phoned Jim Cantwell again at the CPIO and protested that this silence sat strangely with the new public position of the Church with regard to openness. He replied: “We can’t handle this. It has gone beyond this office now.” Did he mean that there was no point my trying to work through the CPIO anymore, that I would have to persist in efforts to make direct contact with men concerned? Yes, he told me. I had, of course, been told exactly the opposite at the outset.

On the following day, yet more faxes and telephone messages to the Bishops, the Cardinal and the Abbott went unanswered. So I wrote a story abotu the case for that Sunday, 27th, necessarily without comment or rebuttal from any Church source. Within hours of publication, Seamus Hegarty had rediscovered his tongue.

He invited a television interview in which he expressed disapproval of any “cover-up” of allegations of child sex-abuse by priests, claimed that it had been priests who had first informed the RUC about the allegations in the case I had asked about (this was untrue), and promised full cooperation with any official investigation.

Four days later I contacted Seamus Hegarty yet again, substantially repeating some of the questions previously posed, and asking whether he stood by the claim that priests had informed the RUC about the allegations against their fellow priest. My fax had been placed directly into his hands. But again, and by now not unexpectedly, there was no response.

This increasingly tedious pattern of my forwarding phone messages, faxes and hand-delivered letters to Seamus Hegarty et al, and his refusing to respond was repeated the next day. I made a final effort, in a fax timed at 5.15pm, Friday December 2nd: “As you know, I have been trying for a fortnight now to speak directly with you . . . If it is the case that you have decided not to respond to my questions and that you have decided not to grant me an interview I have repeatedly asked for, I would be grateful if you would make contact and tell me this straight, so that I can proceed on that basis.” He received and read this message. It scarcely needs saying that he didn’t reply.

Openness, transparency and accountability are the new buzzwords in both Church and State. But this experience suggests to me that, in practice, still, none of these qualities informs the attitude of the Catholic Church to the issue which has seized the attention of the land in recent times and in relation to which the Catholic Church at the highest level has been most insistent in proclaiming a new approach.

That is a conclusion from the general tone and shape of the “exchanges”. There’s a conclusion to be drawn, too, from the response of Hegarty on the one detail of the case which he chose to pick up on when he did, very belatedly and on his own terms, talk publicly about the matter.

The question of whether Seamus Hegarty was telling the truth when he said on November 27th that it had been priests of the local parish who had informed the RUC of the alleged child sex-abuse by a fellow priest is important.

This was the only detail of the case which he chose to deal with in specifics. Eveyr other aspect was dealt with in broad generalisations – compassion for victims, the readiness of the Church now to cooperate with the civil authorities in any formal investigation and so forth.

Hegarty’s version is contradicted by the priest of the parish who had been in closest contact with the victim and her family at the relevant time. This was Fr. Eamon Graham, whom I interviewed on December 3rd. He told me that the victim had named Fr. X to him as her abuser and that he had advised her family to contact the RUC and had assured them that he would cooperate personally in any RUC investigation which followed. He did not claim that he or any other priest had themselves informed or made contact with the RUC.

The matter is further complicated by the fact that the family cannot recall Fr. Graham – or any priest – advising them to contact the RUC or offering to cooperate in an RUC investigation. This was, of course, a period of great turmoil for all concerned. Perhaps Fr. Graham did offer the advise he says he did but the family didn’t “take it in”. Perhaps.

But Fr. Graham doesn’t claim that he or any other priest took the course Seamus Hegarty says that priests took.

This is important because the question of the extent to which the Catholic Church has regarded itself as being effectively fenced off from the civil law, specifically with regard to cases of child sex-abuse by priests, is at the heart of the present crisis in Catholic Ireland. In giving a version of events in this case which depicts priests acting speedily and of their own volition to involve the civil authorities, Hegarty was contributing weightily to the Church’s defence against the key charge which has been laid. It was a politically significant claim and, I believe, false.

If I am wrong about this, Seamus Hegarty should have no difficulty showing me my error. One of the questions I tried repeatedly to put to him was: Who were the priests who reported this matter to the RUC and when did they report it? The question must surely be very easy to answer. No priest would likely forget phoning or writing or calling to the RUC barracks to make a complaint of this nature against a fellow priest.

Hegarty is very new to the Derry diocese, having been installed last month following the retirement of Edward Daly. His claim may well have been based on information supplied by members of, so to speak, the old regime. He may have spoken in error but in good faith. If so, who had put him wrong, and for what reason?

More than six years after a child was allegedly sexually abused by a priest, was the Church, in the person of the local bishop, still spreading falsehood about it? If Seamus Hegarty has a version of events which does not lead to that conclusion he should produce it in public. If he doesn’t he should resign.

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