The Basis for Trust


The dilemma facing the hierarchy of the Irish Catholic Church is how they create trust. Assurances have now been given that children will be safeguarded within their care but can these be accepted? They were often given in the past and it was later shown that they were not adhered to. If you were basing your answer to the question of trust on past experience then it would not be very difficult to come up with evidence that would suggest that they should not be trusted. But I hear you say that they are not all like that and I would readily accept that this is true. However you also then have to establish who can be trusted and why. For me as someone who has faced that challenge in my work, I can assure you that it is not an easy or straightforward task.

One of the reasons why this is difficult is because the players have all learned a new script. They know the presentation that is required in order to appear truly caring and committed. They have seen how those who have not achieved this have fared in the face of public scrutiny so they are motivated to conform. But spoken words alone are not sufficient, it is actions taken that matter.

For children to be as safe as possible within the Church there are a number of elements that need to be in place. The first involves an effective safeguarding structure through which services can be delivered that create and maintain risk free environments for children. The operation of that structure needs to be subject to review to confirm that it is delivering what it exists to do. The final element is the opportunity for all to examine for themselves the robustness and effectiveness of the system that exists to safeguard children.

At first sight, it may appear that the Irish Catholic hierarchy has achieved a great deal in putting in place these essential elements for effective safeguarding. I disagree and let me explain why.

Why would it ever be seen as acceptable to misinform people or to misrepresent a situation when the safety of a child or young person is at risk? When this happens, it raises serious issues about the values that underpin any system where this is thought to be excusable. This is not a hypothetical question for me as can be understood by referring to the content of the Report issued by the Commission of Inquiry into the Management of Child Abuse within the diocese of Cloyne. In that situation, I met with misinformation and misrepresentation which shocked me then and still does today. However, what is even more shocking is the fact that when the reality of what was discovered and known to have taken place was discussed by the Irish Bishops when they held an Extraordinary Meeting on the crisis at the end of 2008, less than a handful of them, four to be precise, felt that Bishop John Magee should resign. In short, the vast majority felt that what had taken place was not a sufficient reason for him to step down from his post.

I found that incredible then and I continue to do so now.  This seems to indicate a value position that may be described as “situation determined”. By that I mean that an action should be considered to be wrong only if it is discovered and revealed to a wider circle as such. If on the other hand it can remain hidden and produce an outcome that is desired by the person undertaking the action, it is acceptable. What other explanation could there be for not seeing what took place as a basis for resignation and something that was inherently wrong.

I would also suggest that this belief, if we accept that it exists, helps to explain the emphasis that is placed on the maintenance of secrecy in these matters in the Church.   From this viewpoint the fewer people who know about what took place the better – the fewer people there are then to make a judgement and exercise their own consciences! There is a suspicion in my mind that this attitude is still very much in force today.  It appears to me that too many of those in positions of power in the Church do not want others to be able to form a view on the correctness or otherwise of their actions by being in possession of all of the known facts.

If you apply this thinking to the management of safeguarding cases in the Irish Church, you can see a pattern emerging:  of change taking place only where it is forced rather than actively sought; of minimal responses and empty gestures to convey an impression of something that is not truly felt. If change was sincere then there would be less need for public relations consultants or media managers. The responses would be spontaneous and would not need to be scripted by a third party professional.

If the Irish hierarchy wish to be seen as truly committed to the safeguarding of children and the vulnerable in the Church then I would suggest that they create a means by which their safeguarding practice can be independently examined, and the uncensored findings made available to the lay faithful at least. When they set up the National Board they refused to give it these powers and have forced it to operate its review function on a basis of consent alone. This is not good enough. It can be misused on occasions to create an impression of a reality that is not in place.