Lessons learned from Clerical Abuse within the Irish Catholic Church


To avoid confusion may I say from the outset that I am not a member of the Catholic Church, nor do I hold any animosity towards that body.  I am a Christian and a member of the Presbyterian Church. What motivated me to take the post of Chief Executive Officer for the newly formed National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland, was and remains my passion for safeguarding vulnerable children and protecting them from harm. In my presentation I will identify some errors of judgement that were made by members of that Church but I do so with the sole desire of highlighting what can be learned from those situations to ensure that they are not repeated in the future.

I want to set out for you from the beginning the main assertions of my presentation today. They are:-

  • If you safeguard children within Church, you will also safeguard the Church itself
  • Safeguarding standards within faith communities should be higher than they are in the secular world
  • Safeguarding practice within faith communities should be principle based in line with the values held by the community itself
  • Unsupervised power within Churches is vulnerable to misuse


If you look at the recent history of the Catholic Church in Ireland, it is full of tragedy and sadness. Its struggles with the issue of clerical abuse have made world headlines on a number of occasions. The social standing of priests, bishops, and others in the Church have diminished greatly. I grew up in Dublin in the fifties and sixties when it was a very different place to what it is today. This was the height of Catholic Ireland. The political system was dominated by the thinking of the Catholic hierarchy to a very great extent. There is the famous example of an elected Taoiseach who described himself as being Catholic before he was anything else.

I mention this because when clerical abuse was uncovered within the Church in the Republic of Ireland it was often not reported to the appropriate authorities. The motivation for many who took that decision was to protect the Church from falling into disrepute. This was the thinking behind the culture of secrecy and cover up. We need to hide problems as by so doing we will protect the Church.

The first lesson that any examination of the management of safeguarding cases in the Catholic Church in Ireland reveals is that if you wish to protect the Church, then it is necessary to protect all within it, especially the most vulnerable and at risk. If you safeguard children you will safeguard the Church as well.

I am not suggesting for one moment that you should protect children primarily so that you can protect the Church. What I am highlighting is the importance of starting with the child and ensuring that in all circumstances they are protected. If risk is identified then it has to be addressed. You cannot do this by following a policy of secrecy and cover up.

A priest friend of mine captured this thought very well when he wrote to me saying:- 

“How can we expect the message of the love of Jesus Christ for us all to be considered credible if it is delivered by an institution that has consistently failed to protect its most vulnerable members?”

When abuse takes place within faith communities, there is an added dimension of suffering for the victim. Not only are they abused at the physical and emotional levels, but also spiritually. I have spoken to many survivors of clerical abuse who have shared with me their anguish at their loss of faith as a consequence of the abuse they suffered. In some instances, the perpetrators will actively seek to exert greater control of their victims by using their faith beliefs.

I can recall one tragic story shared with me by a young woman who was a survivor of clerical abuse. Her perpetrator was a priest who had been well known to the family and a frequent visitor to the home. He had sexually abused her both in her own home and elsewhere. The family were devout Catholics and she could never bring herself to tell her parents what had happened to her. To increase his control and power over her, the perpetrator had told her that when he died he was going to heaven as he was a priest and that he would be waiting for her there. When she died he would resume his abusive relationship with her and therefore there was no escape from him either in this life or in the next.

Tragically, that approach by the priest is not unique. Perpetrators will use all the means available to them to exert maximum control over their victims including misusing the beliefs held by the victim within their faith community. Any safeguarding strategy that does not embrace the principles of transparency and accountability leaves itself open to such an abuse.

Survivors of clerical abuse have suffered at the level of their faith. This has often resulted in them entering into a situation where they have feel unable to re-enter any faith community because by so doing they see themselves as being at risk again. Most of us would view the places that we worship as being a safe and reassuring oasis for us to visit in our lives. This is fundamentally different for those who have been harmed within faith communities. They do not view Churches in the same way as most of us do.

Clerical abuse leaves scars not just physically and emotionally but also at the spiritual level that have a profound effect on the life of the victim. For this reason, safeguarding standards that apply within faith communities should be even more stringent than in the secular world because the impact of clerical abuse has an added dimension of suffering to it that does not apply elsewhere in society.

Sadly, it is also the case that this dimension of spiritual harm is mostly ignored when abuse occurs within faith communities. Certainly the experiences of survivors of clerical abuse within the Irish Catholic Church would speak with great sorrow of the fact that they have felt forgotten about by the Church. In many cases they feel that they are being blamed for what happened to them. Rather than being accepted and helped to heal, they often feel re-abused when they seek to contact the Church to speak about their abuse.

It is for these reasons that I would assert that the safeguarding standards that apply within Churches should be higher than those that apply in the secular world because there are risks of spiritual harm that exist within Churches that do not arise in the same way elsewhere.

Sexual abuse is ultimately about the misuse of power. By creating authority structures that invest great power in specific individuals, you also create a vulnerability to having that power misused. This is what occurred within the Catholic Church in Ireland. Priests were given immense power and status and some misused these to abuse children and also to remain immune from prosecution in wider society. They were seen as being closer to God than anyone else, and were to be revered rather than criticised.

There may be some who feel that my criticism of the performance of the Catholic hierarchy in responding to this problem is unfair. I am very aware of the many positive words that have been spoken recently with regard to the desire to address the problem. However, there is a need to distinguish between words spoken and actions taken. To underline this further I would cite the example of the acknowledged inadequacy of the Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church to specify clear penalties for offending priests to face. At the highest level in the Church there would be an acceptance that the Code needs revised in this area and the Pontifical Commission for Liturgical Texts was tasked to undertake this work. It began the task in 2008 and it has not yet completed it or produced any interim solutions! Six years and counting does not convey any credible sense of urgency to me with regard to addressing the problem.

For me this highlights a major issue in the Catholic Church. If you make public statements about priorities and want these to be credible, then you have to back them up with actions that evidence that fact. Taking this long to come up with a clear set of penalties for offending priests to face is simply not good enough. If you look at scripture, you will find clarity regarding how those who harm children should be viewed. What can be so difficult about coming up with a set of sanctions that should be applied in these cases?

From very early on in my work with the Catholic Church in Ireland, I felt very strongly that there should be a single safeguarding strategy adopted across the whole Church. This should be based on the foundational values of the Church. It should be principle based, drawn from the Gospel itself. My belief was that if this was to happen, then there would be no one who could oppose it from within the Church. Sadly this was on reflection a naïve belief on my part as significant resistance to the initiative was experienced.

Let me state the elements that for me are key in this task of developing a principle based safeguarding strategy. They are:-

  • Paramount safety of the child
  • Transparency
  • Accountability
  • Justice
  • Truthfulness

There is no doubt in my mind that each of these are central to the framing of an effective safeguarding strategy for any Church. If you place the safety of the child at the centre of your thinking then you will be drawn to urgently addressing any issue that impinges upon it. Ensuring that offending behaviour when identified is speedily responded to and those who have harmed a child are prevented from doing so again, follow as a natural consequence of adopting this position. Actions of this nature will receive the highest priority.

The importance of being open and transparent with regard to safeguarding practice should be emphasised. The desire to hide and cover up abuse should be seen as counterproductive to achieving the stated aim of effective safeguarding.  For this reason, I would suggest the decision making involved in the management of safeguarding cases within churches should be regularly monitored by a competent, independent body. Their findings should be placed in the public domain and available to all the members of the Church.

During my time in working for the Catholic Church in Ireland, I tried to get this latter point of independent monitoring accepted by the hierarchy. An attempt was made to introduce a system of safeguarding reviews based on objective safeguarding standards. What was looked for was the authority to undertake reviews across the Church where and when they appeared to be required. In other words, if issues came to light regarding the practice of a specific Church authority then the National Board could decide to undertake a review of their practice or to specifically look at the way in which they handled a particular case. Sadly this was not accepted by the hierarchy who insisted that a review could only be undertaken if consent for it was given by the head of the individual Church authority. What we ended up with was a compromise.

However, the fact that reviews could be undertaken when consent was given by the Church authority was a step forward. The findings would be made available to the head of the Church authority who would have the power to suppress them or place them in the public domain. This is what we finally got accepted in Ireland. Despite the compromise, the emergence of safeguarding reviews was seen as a massive step forward for the Church and they received a great deal of praise for allowing them.

Of course, the existence of several public inquiries into the bad practice of parts of the Catholic Church in Ireland had a great deal to do with preparing the way for the introduction of a monitoring process which was aimed at increasing openness and introducing some element of accountability for specific Church authorities. It should not have been so difficult to achieve even the limited steps that were allowed by the hierarchy. There is still a long way to go before a position is reached where the Church can say that they have an effective monitoring framework in place with regard to their safeguarding practice.

I have already made reference to the fact that the leaders of the Catholic Church in Ireland have regularly made public statements with regard to their sorrow over what happened in the past and their commitment to a better and safer future for children in the Church. These have to be welcomed but what matters are not the words spoken but the actions taken. If there is a real desire to learn the lessons of the past then evidence that would support this would be the introduction of an appropriately empowered and resourced monitoring body. Relinquish the necessity of consent being given by a Church authority before it can be reviewed. Give the authority to an independent body that has the resources and the ability to undertake investigations of complaints about the practice of individual Church authorities as it sees fit and when it believes it is appropriate to do so. This is not in place yet in the Irish Catholic Church and its introduction has been strongly resisted.

The fact of the matter is that if you give the right to an independent body to monitor practice you are altering the balance of power within the Church itself. This has the effect of reducing the established power of the hierarchy which I would suggest explains why it has been so strongly resisted in the Irish Church. If you invest a great deal of unsupervised power in individuals, you are creating a situation that is vulnerable to abuse. Sadly this is what happened on occasions within in the Irish Catholic Church which led the whole Church into a situation where immense damage was done both to individuals and to the institution itself.

So what can be learned from looking at the experiences of the Irish Catholic Church? Let me conclude by summarising for you what I would list as the key lessons that should be drawn from the recent history.

  1. A strong Church places the safety and wellbeing of all of its members, particularly the most vulnerable, at the forefront of their thinking. If you safeguard children in Church you will safeguard the Church itself. If you attempt to reverse the priorities, you will end up doing immense damage to individual lives and to the institution itself.
  2. Clerical abuse creates damage beyond the physical and emotional levels but also at the spiritual. This represents an extra element of risk that Church communities need to be aware of and to address when responding to safeguarding concerns that arise within their midst. It is often ignored and rarely treated with the same attention as other consequences but its impact can be just as devastating.
  3. If you allow safeguarding practice to be anything else other than fully compliant with the principles upon which the institution is based, you are courting disaster. Safeguarding practice within Churches should reflect the values that pertain within the faith community itself in all respects. It should be principle based and in the case of the Christian Churches, it should be drawn from Gospel values.
  4. Sexual abuse is ultimately the misuse of power. If you create structures within Churches that give unsupervised power to individuals it should be understood that you are also creating the means by which that power can be misused to harm rather than to help people. Therefore, Churches should also create the means by which the exercise of power can be critically and independently scrutinised to ensure that it is not being misused.

I would suggest that these are some of the main lessons that can be learned from reviewing the recent history of the Catholic Church in Ireland in regard to clerical abuse. Their relevance to other faith communities is something that others can determine for themselves. I would strongly assert that the presence of abuse is a matter that all faith communities should consider and not view themselves as being immune from. The Irish Catholic Church has been forced to do this but all Churches should be learning from their experiences and considering how well do we safeguard the most vulnerable amongst our members.

There is no room for complacency. The existence of a religious faith should not be allowed to give rise to any naivety which would see sin as stopping at the front door of the Church and not being present within it.  Such thinking is fundamentally flawed and will ultimately lead to tragedy. Those who seek to harm children will be found within our Churches just as they are present in wider society. This should be realised and should inform all of the decisions that we make when creating safeguarding structures within our Churches.











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