The perceived failure to protect vulnerable children within the Irish Catholic Church has been very damaging to the institution’s reputation and standing in society. It is even more disturbing to note that it is not a new phenomenon but one that has persisted for many years. There have been numerous crises and some public inquiries all of which have reported mistakes, errors of judgement, and repeated bad practice. When all this is reflected upon, it is both surprising and frustrating to find that the necessary lessons from the past have still not been fully learnt in my view.

In July of 2007, I came into post as the inaugural Chief Executive Officer for the newly created National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland. Prior to my arrival, I had been assured that there was universal support for the creation of an effective safeguarding framework within the Church in Ireland. Past mistakes had been painfully learnt from and the Church was now looking to enter a new era based on transparency and accountability. There was a desire to bottom out the problem and establish as quickly as possible a new robust approach.

Within six months of my arrival, I was engaged with the diocese of Cloyne where unacceptably bad practice was taking place. This experience would put to the test those initial assurances. It did not take long for me to realise that what had been shared with me did not fully equate with reality.

The experience of attempting to review practice in that diocese was a formative one for me. I began to realise that on occasions there was a difference between the spoken words and the actions taken. This was first encounter with the practice of “mental reservation”. It was a time of great testing for me and I began to come to terms with the realisation that change would not come easily within the Church but if children were to be safeguarded effectively it had to come.

Although I was very disappointed and frustrated by what was happening in the diocese of Cloyne, I was equally concerned with the failure of the statutory agencies tasked with the effective protection of children to address the bad practice. In no small way, I felt that they significantly contributed to keeping the situation stuck and in not advocating strongly enough for change.

It was from this context that a request was made by the hierarchy to the National Board to undertake a comprehensive review of safeguarding practice across the Church in Ireland. I recall clearly at the time being quite surprised by the request and asking myself the question as to whether this was genuine or if once again there was going to be a difference emerge between what was being said and the actions taken. Despite my doubts, I saw this as a valuable opportunity to start to address history, declare it, and establish a new beginning. With that end in mind, terms of reference were drawn up and I devised a methodology that drew on my previous professional experience both within the Social Services Inspectorate in Northern Ireland and also with the NSPCC. This was submitted to the Irish Bishop’s Conference, Conference of Religious of Ireland, and the Irish Missionary Union for their approval.

The process of gaining their approval proved to be very difficult and also drawn out. Legal concerns were raised and attempts were made to amend the methodology but eventually we reached a position where we had agreement and could schedule some reviews.

Each Church authority had to issue a request to us to undertake a review of their practice. We had no right of entry other than on a consent basis. Nor did we have any right to share the findings of any review with anyone else other that the head of the subject Church authority without their consent. Despite this, I believed that the process could be valuable and also prove to be a credible alternative to repeated statutory intervention which was I saw as being too costly, slow, and often not informative beyond what was known or suspected already.

Through negotiation, we established an initial group of six dioceses that offered to open themselves up to review by the National Board. The process of review could at last get underway.

We worked through the review process and provided each of the bishops included in the initial tranche with a redacted report. They had all given a commitment to publish their report and this they dully did. The anticipatory anxiety experienced by each of these bishops prior to release of the reports was high. Some felt they would be torn apart by a vicious and unforgiving media. In fact, when they did release the reports the opposite was the case. Rather than being criticised, they were generally commended for their willingness to be reviewed. The apologies offered for previous errors were accepted in a way that they had previously not been. Also, many of the bishops reported back to me that after the publication they received a number of positive emails, phone calls, and letters from their priests and the lay faithful praising them for having participated in the review.

We are now preparing for the third tranche of reviews to be released. They have not always contained evidence of improving practice. Some have been bad but they have all been received and have helped to advance a positive safeguarding agenda in the Church. One of the bishops described the experience as being liberating. He felt for the first time, the previous bad practice had been dealt with and it was now possible to make a new start.

It is interesting to note the positive experiences of those directly involved which contrast sharply with those who are not. Some in positions of authority in the Church have commented negatively on the reviews. They are seen as doing great damage to an already wounded Church. I could not disagree more with that view.

In essence, the review process is modelled on the scriptural cycle of confession, repentance, and forgiveness. So often in the past apologies have been offered with no detail as what is being apologised for. What the reviews do is to provide some flesh to the bones of the apology offered. In that context, the apology has greater meaning. If added to it is a credible assessment of the adequacy of current practice then there is also a basis for emerging forgiveness. The lay faithful in each Church authority has then a foundation on which they can build trust.

It has to be understood that when trust has been lost, you have to work at rebuilding it. You cannot simply require it without making an effort. The commitment to the review process is evidence of a willingness to face the past, deal with it, and build a new and better future. For that to happen there are some essentials that have to be in place. I will discuss each of these.

Firstly, the review process has to be managed by an independent body that is credible and is seen as being robust. The review should be standards based and as transparent as possible. Therefore the methodology which should be declared from the outset is critically important. The review should have access to all the documentation that exists in relation to each case. If there is a sense that anything is being withheld, consideration should be given to ending the process altogether. The findings should be widely shared regardless of whether they are good or bad. There should be a commitment to act on the findings and address any deficits in practice that emerge.

In essence, for it to be credible the review process needs to speak to all the criticisms that have been made of the management of clerical abuse by the Church in the past. There can be no denial, no cover up, no excuses, and no blaming someone else. It should be seen for what it is which is a principled approach to addressing a problem that has existed in the Church for far too long.

In my view, the review process needs to be strengthened and supported by those in authority in the Church. It needs to be seen as a permanent presence underpinning practice in this area, and not something that has to be endured to get us over an unfortunate hump that will ultimately disappear. Those who hold this opinion need to examine the evidence upon which they base their view. I would suggest to them that there is insufficient evidence to support their case.

Holding people accountable within the Church, as is the case in most organisations, is difficult to achieve. Through its actions the National Board now occupies a position that it was never intended to hold. It has acquired some degree of moral authority. Power is an important element in the Church and ironically the fact that the National Board is now seen by some as powerful is a significant problem for it to overcome. In the end all that it has done is to fulfil the remit that was given to it.

In conclusion, as I withdraw from my role with the National Board it is my sincere wish that what has been achieved over the last six years will be built upon and fully supported in the future. It would be a tragedy if there was any attempt to further limit the resources available to the Board or to change its remit. The Church needs it to continue to do what it has been doing and to do so without further hindrance.