09 September 2011

Shattered Hope

Until I watched last night's Tonight with Vincent Brown I was reasonably happy with the de-escalation of the row between the Irish Government and the Vatican.  I was thinking that people were starting to talk sense, and that we might be able to move constructively to address the national scourge of child abuse. Things had looked so promising...

No Threat to the Integrity of the Sacrament of Confession
Despite earlier rhetoric, Alan Shatter, the Minister for Justice, had sought to play down claims that the proposed child protection legislation would endanger the seal of confession, dismissing this as a 'bogus side issue', and saying that:
'The focus of the Bill, the heads of which were published at the end of July, is to ensure that where there are what we describe as arrestable crimes, which include child sexual abuse committed against a child, and where an individual has material information that would assist the gardaí in the investigation of that crime, that they provide it to the gardaí, unless there is a reasonable excuse not to do so.'
I've been saying this for a while. Under the Criminal Law Act 1997 and the Offenses Against the State Act 1998, it's already an offense to withold knowledge of certain serious crimes, unless one has reasonable excuse for doing so. The Criminal Justice Act 2011 extended this principle to include theft, such that for the last month it's been a serious criminal offence for anyone -- without reasonable excuse -- to withold from the gardaí knowledge of any theft whatsoever.* All that's being proposed by the Government is that this principle that the reporting of crimes should be mandatory, save in instances where one has a reasonable excuse for not doing so, is to be extended beyond terrorism and theft to include child abuse and the abuse of vulnerable adults.

Does the seal of confession constitute a reasonable excuse? Probably, yes. It can hardly be specifically legislated against, as leaving aside how such a law would be unworkable, it would be struck down by the Supreme Court and challenged by the ECHR, as contravening protections on freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights; the sacrament of reconciliation is an essential aspect of the Catholic faith. Furthermore, the existing common law and constitutional recognitions of priest-penitent privilege would almost certainly preclude the courts against interpreting the seal as anything other than a reasonable excuse. Whatever the Government may say on this is just crowd-pleasing rhetoric; it won't affect the wording or the working of the law.

The Government's Response as a Face-Saving Exercise
I was happy enough with the Government's response to the Vatican's letter of last week too. Much of the letter was constructive enough, recognising how deeply the Vatican regretted the terrible sufferings that victims of abuse and their families had endured in Cloyne, and welcoming the Vatican's commitment to a constructive dialogue and cooperation with the Irish Government in battling abuse in Ireland. The rest was ridiculous, but I don't see that the Government could possibly have taken any other line, if it wanted to save any face at all.

See, for example, the sentence that says,
'Having considered carefully the Cloyne Report and the response of the Holy See, the Government of Ireland remains of the view that the content of the confidential letter in 1997 from the then Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Storero, to the Irish Bishops, regardless of whether or not it was intended to do so, provided a pretext for some members of the clergy to evade full cooperation with the Irish civil authorities in regard to the abuse of minors.'
That'd be fine if it said that the 1997 could have provided a pretext. I think it could have done. The fact remains, however, as the Vatican clearly showed in its letter last week, that there's not a jot of evidence in the Cloyne Report to support the Murphy Commission's finding that the letter had in fact provided such a pretext.

But what choice did the Government have but to take this line? To have admitted that the Vatican was right would have entailed their admitting that the Murphy Commission was wrong -- it would have effectively entailed the Government saying it did not accept the findings of the Murphy Commission. And then what? Would it have had to admit that the Murphy Commission was blatantly wrong in having claimed that the Irish bishops had sought recognition from Rome for the 1996 Framework Document? Would it have had to admit that the dates in chapters 15, 16, and 23 of the Cloyne Report simply don't tally? Would it then have been tempted to wonder whether there was such sloppiness in the Commission's Dublin Report? Would it have looked at chapter 20 of that report, say, and wondered why a priest who was clearly and correctly described by a Garda chief superintendent as having been a curate (20.92) is referred to by the Commission as having been a parish priest? And would it have wondered what other errors the Murphy Commission had made...

The Government reply didn't stop there, of course. In response to the Vatican's comprehensive refutations of allegations made about it in the aftermath of the Cloyne Report, the Government said:
'The Government of Ireland notes the comments in the Holy See’s response on the political debate which ensued in Ireland after the publication of the Cloyne Report and in particular the statements made by the Taoiseach and other political leaders. The Government of Ireland must point out that the comments made by the Taoiseach and other political leaders accurately reflect the public anger of the overwhelming majority of Irish people at the failure of the Catholic Church in Ireland and the Holy See to deal adequately with clerical child sexual abuse and those who committed such appalling acts.'
Which seems to be code for, yes, well, whether or not we lied is hardly the point: we were angry, and you need to understand that. We were reflecting popular anger. This, of course, is something the Vatican had already acknowledged in its response, saying that it understood and shared the depth of public anger and frustration at the findings of the Cloyne Report, as expressed in Enda's speech. Still, it looked as though the Government wasn't defending Enda's lies, so much as saying that we was angry, and the Vatican should allow for crazy things said in a rage.

It really looked as though it'd be possible to move forward together.

Unfortunately, then Vincent Brown pressed Alan Shatter on the issue...
And Alan Shatter was only too happy to respond. In fact, I'd say he was delighted to do so. Government ministers don't face Vincent Brown all that often, so the fact that Shatter accepted the invitation to show up is a pretty clear sign that he wanted to say something. Vincent didn't beat about the bush, and opened by asking Shatter to explain what the Taoiseach had meant when he had told the Dáil that:
'It's fair to say that after the Ryan and Murphy Reports Ireland is, perhaps, unshockable when it comes to the abuse of children. But Cloyne has proved to be of a different order. Because for the first time in Ireland, a report into child sexual-abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See, to frustrate an Inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic.as little as three years ago, not three decades ago.'
As Archbishop Martin said the other day, 'this merits explanation'. And indeed it does, given the conflicting and blatantly false explanations offered thus far. Our Minister for Justice smiled calmly, and began to offer a very specific explanation, one that wholly belied the Taoiseach's own spokesman's admission last July that the allegation hadn't been made with any particular incident in mind:
'Very easily answered, Vincent, in the context of the Murphy Commission investigation into Cloyne. The Murphy Commission wrote to the Papal Nuncio -- the Papal Nuncio was written to as the Vatican's ambassador in Dublin -- to ask him, and I quote, "does he have any information about the matters under investigation by Cloyne." That request was asking him, as the Vatican's representative in Dublin to make available any information the Vatican had to assist it in its inquiry. The Commission got a very simple response, an entirely inappropriate response, and a response which was intended to frustrate the Commission's work. The response simply was that the Vatican does not determine the handling of cases of child abuse in Ireland, and is therefore unable to assist in the matter.'
Now, the first thing we should all pick up on here is that if this had been what the Taoiseach had been talking about when he made his speech, it would have been very easy for his spokespeople to have said so; it wouldn't have been necessary to witter about the Taoiseach having had no specific incident in mind. It also conflicts quite sharply with what Andrew Madden informed the Irish Examiner the Taoiseach's people had told him back in July. It's very obvious that this is something the Government has recently come up with in an attempt to deflect criticism of the fact that the Taoiseach defamed the Vatican and misled the Dáil.

The second is that the claim that the Nuncio 'intended to frustrate the Commission's work' is a very serious one, and one which I doubt the Minister for Justice would be able to substantiate in court; putting it another way, this almost certainly constitutes defamation.

Third, and this is a subtle but very important point, the Minister here is blatantly not quoting from the letter the Murphy Commission wrote to the Nuncio; it surely wasn't the case that the Murphy Commission addressed the Nuncio in the third person. Rather, he seems to have adapated a partial quotation from the Report. This matters, because if we look at the Dublin Report, which quotes from the Commission's February 2007 letter to the previous Nuncio, the Commission asked that Nuncio to supply all relevant documents 'which documents have not already been produced or will not be produced by Archbishop Martin'. That, of course, makes perfect sense, as the Commission would hardly have wanted to plough through heaps of duplicate documents in its investigation of how matters were handled in Dublin; it's difficult to believe that it was any more willing to do that in connection with Cloyne. You'll see the significance of this in a bit, if you haven't already guessed it.

Fourth, the Minister appears to be wrong when he says that the Nunciature claimed that the Vatican did not determine the handling of abuse cases in Ireland. At least according to the Cloyne Report, it claimed that the Nunciature itself does not determine the handling of abuse cases. The Report doesn't suggest for a moment that the Commission asked the Nunciature for any information held by the Vatican, or that the Nunciature was answering on behalf of the Holy See rather than on behalf of itself. This may have been the case, but unless the original letters are produced we can only go by what the Cloyne Report says, which belies the Minister's claims.

Sure while the waters are muddy, why not kick them up some more?
Anyway, the minister carried on:
'We know this isn't correct in a number of respects. For example, the notorious letter of 1997 -- I was going to say 2007 -- the notorious letter of 1997, that was sent by the Papal Nuncio's predecessor to the bishops in Dublin and the rest of the country. That made reference to what was called the Framework Document, a document in 1996 that the bishops published which set out guidelines they said they themselves were going to apply in addressing issues of child abuse, which guidelines included a commitment to make reports to the civil authorities. The letter which was distributed by the Papal Nuncio made it very clear that the Vatican didn't approve of those guidelines, a warning was issued that they were contrary to canon law, and quite clearly expressed substantial reservations with regard to the reporting to the civil authority.'
Let's leave aside the technical point that it wasn't the bishops, but an advisory group for the bishops, that published the Framework Document, and start by noting that the fact that the guidelines outlined in the Framework Document were, at least in principle, adopted as official policy in every diocese in Ireland, despite the reservations expressed in the 1997, conclusively demonstrates that it was not the Vatican -- much less the Nunciature itself -- that determined the handling of abuse cases in Ireland. It's worth stressing too that the 1997 letter by no means made it clear that the Vatican disapproved of the guidelines, which is hardly surprising given that it had had input into them. On the contrary, it merely indicated that one Vatican department had concerns about how the guidelines might be applied, not least because that one department felt they could be applied in a way contrary to canon law, such that they could lead to disciplinary decisions having to be overturned; the concern, in essence, was that the guidelines might lead to genuine abusers getting off the hook on procedural grounds.

Or, if you like, that they were potentially not strict enough.

It's again completely wrong to misrepresent the letter as having 'quite clearly expressed substantial reservations with regard to the reporting to the civil authority'. It expressed concerns about mandatory reporting, not reporting in general, and it was not alone in this. The Irish Government of 1997 was just as troubled by the idea of mandatory reporting, such that after a wide consultation process it decided against legislating for it. That government, it's important to note, included six people at its cabinet table who hold full ministries in the current government, these being Enda Kenny, Richard Bruton, Michael Noonan, Brendan Howlin, Ruairi Quinn, and Pat Rabbitte, who used to participate in cabinet meetings despite being a junior minister. Shatter's pot is calling the Vatican's kettle black on this one.

Because what need for truth, when there's political kudos to be won?
Alan continued:
'The Papal Nuncio, when receiving the request from the Murphy Commission, could have furnished that letter. The Papal Nuncio could have sought the assistance of the Vatican to provide to the Murphy Commission information it had about the abuse of children in Cloyne. It did none of that. And essentially, instead of co-operating, and assisting with the work of that commission, it frustrated its work, and that's the simple point the Taoiseach was making.'
Now, again, ask yourself this: what exactly did the Commission ask the Nunciature for? Did it ask it for everything, or did it ask for everything it hadn't already been given or wasn't going to be given by the Diocese? And if it did ask for everything, which I doubt, did it need duplicate copies of documents that already had or was due to receive from the diocese? Why should the Nuncio have passed over a letter which the Diocese -- as we know -- itself passed over? Why should the Nuncio have sought the assistance of the Vatican in providing for the Murphy Commission duplicates of documents connected with the five priests whose cases were passed on to Rome, documents the Commission openly acknowledges were all passed on to it by the Diocese?

Of these five cases, for what it's worth, it seems that only one of them was handled by Rome in any sense during the period covered by the Cloyne Report, that being the case of Father Caden, whose case was reported to Rome in 2005; the Vatican ruled that 'Father Caden' should be barred from ministry. The Commission notes how it has received all documentation on this matter, which, as it happens, is the only incident in Cloyne which has led to a conviction, this being an eighteen-month suspended sentence. The names of four other priests who had been risk-assessed were passed on to Rome in late January 2009, but it appears that no data was passed to Rome about them until February and March of 2009, a period beyond the Murphy Commission's remit. One of these was 'Father Ronat', who had been barred from ministry by the Diocese since 2005. It's worth noting that the State was for a long time incapable of pressing charges against him, and when he finally went to court, he was acquitted of the crime for which he was accused. If anything, it seems the Church has been rather more strict in these matters than has the State.

I don't think Vincent has ever gone so long without interrupting anyone...
Given his tendency to bully and hector his panellists, it was amazing to watch Vincent Brown actually listening, and waiting before following up. In a daring break with tradition, he allowed Shatter to finish what he was saying:
'But it isn't the most important issue. I mean, at the end of the day, what the Government is focused on, and what the Government's statement it issued this evening again emphasises,  is that our concern as a government is to protect the welfare of children, and what we want to ensure is that on the civil side -- in the context of action we take as a Government -- we put in place all of the extra provisions and protections that are necessary, but we also want to ensure that in the future those who become aware that children have been abused inform the Garda Síochána, they inform the HSE, and ultimately the new childcare protection authority that's going to be established, and that we're not in a position where abuse occurs and subsequently a report is made to someone, be it a member of the Church or indeed to another individual in any other organisation, and they don't act, they say nothing, and that abuser is left to continue to abuse again, either the same victim, or other victims.'
Now, it would be nice if all this were true, but I really don't believe it is. Shatter talks here as though most child sex abuse in Ireland were institutional -- and indeed, primarily clerical -- in nature. This simply isn't true. As the SAVI study showed, and as the Gardaí and the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland have said, almost all abuse in Ireland takes place within the family circle, being perpetuated by immediate and extended family, family friends, neighbours, and babysitters. By targetting the Church as the Government has done, it has directed the attention of the country away from where the real danger to Ireland's children is to be found. By doing so, it puts Ireland's children at risk, and it shows a deep contempt by the overwhelming majority of Ireland's abuse survivors.

Child abuse is far too important and heinous a thing to be exploited for political advantage by the Irish Government. We need a better solution that this, and not one that seeks to turn people far away into a scapegoat for our problems.

* Yes, that apparently means that if you ever witnessed a schoolmate shoplifting when you were a teenager yourself, and didn't report it, then you may well be a criminal. Best get yourself down to the Garda station before it's too late.


Anonymous said...

Is Shatter the guy who looks like the poor man's Jimmy O'Dea?
And did Brown have nothing to ask by way of follow up?
Is it all self-deception or conscious mendacity?
Do you feel like throwing up your arms and turning your back for good on the whole shower of them?

Donum Vitae said...

Well written, once again. I couldn't bring myself to watching #vinb or Shatter - there'd be no point as we have no way of countering it. However, you've done a great job that has filled me in fully - with the full truth of the situation. :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your superb analyses of these matters. You are doing great service to the Cause of Truth.
Fr Patrick McCafferty