28 November 2009

The Murphy Report: From an Email to a Friend

I spent all last night reading the 700 or so pages of the Murphy Report from home, and while this probably wasn't the most productive or healthy use of my time, I couldn't really stop myself, given the rather strong personal interest I have in the matter. I've been thinking about it ever since the news broke, and trying to get my thoughts in order, and largely did so when writing a comment on a Guardian article. Expanded and ordered a bit more carefully, I thought they might interest you.

To be honest, I've mixed feelings. Although it's horrific, I don't think it's hugely surprising. We knew this happened. We knew it was badly handled. Given my own experience of big instiutions closing ranks, I'm far from startled to read that mishandling on this scale takes a combination of machiavellian self-preservation, naivety, misplaced hope and mercy, and sheer incompetence. About the only thing that's new in the big picture is the scorn cast upon the idea that the Hierarchy was on a 'learning curve' until the late nineties - and I'll get to that.

But still, in a tactile way, it's painfully real to read of one abusive priest living for years in a house around the corner from that of one of my closest friends while we were in school, of another having ministered in my own parish and been to a degree protected by a curate who was there through my childhood, of others having ministered the two nearest parishes to my own, and of the bishop who confirmed me having handled this matter worse than, well, almost anyone.

Still, I do think it's important to stress two broad points: firstly, any thoughts on the report in the media simply cannot be regarded as deeply considered given how big the report is and how it only came out yesterday, and secondly, the whole thing is monstrous and Diarmuid Martin's response over the last couple of days is the best and only hope for the Church.

The Report is not a Statistical or Sociological Survey
For all that, though, I think it's worth stressing that this whole report is anecdotal rather than statistical in nature. That's not to say that it's not accurate in its findings - I think it surely is, but I'd be wary about drawing certain conclusions based on it. The Guardian has a piece about how Catholics supposedly attribute the abuse problems to gay clergy if they're right-wingers and to clerical celibacy if they're left-wingers. One thing the Murphy Report doesn't do, as far as I can see, is throw any light whatsoever on that question.

The Report says that male victims of clerical sexual abuse seem to have outnumbered female victims by 2.3:1, so they seem to have made up about 70% of all victims (1.10, 11.12). It's difficult to be sure, though, as the report itself, while based on a statistically representative sample of priests about whom credible charges of abuse were made, is far from statistically useful on the subject of victims. It cites some priests as having claimed hundreds of victims, so reading it all I kept wondering how many victims there were (1.9). After all, it only cites I think 440 complaints from 1975 to today, so there must have been hundreds of other victims.

It also doesn't systematically consider the ages of victims and so forth, which is hardly surprising, given that a demographic breakdown of the victims wasn't in the Report's remit; it'd probably be possible to make some rough generalisations, but you'd have trouble doing Excel charts, putting it bluntly.

The report's also not much better on the question of what percentage of  priests were reported to the authorities, though it looks like me it's between 3 and 4% of those who served in the archdiocese over the period. It'd difficult to tell, given that there's no clear picture given of how many priests served in the Dublin archdiocese at the time, but it looks as though the Report reckoned 102 priests out of a possible c.180 priests were within its remit (1.8), and that perhaps 3,000 priests served in the diocese over the period. That's based on 1,350 being ordained for the diocese from 1940 on, 1,450 clergy from religious orders being based there, and there being an unquantifiable number of supply priests from outside the diocese, &c.

Some Possible Flaws in the Report
Before getting to what the Murphy report gets right, I think it's worth looking at what it gets wrong. It is, after all, broadly right, I think, so I think it's better to do the caveats first rather than detracting from the findings afterwards. In no particular order, then:
  • I think the entire section on Canon Law is unfair (4). The problem seems not to have been that Canon Law is murky (4.6, 87-93), though it clearly could have been somewhat clearer on this issue (and probably would have been clerical sexual abuse had historically been as huge a problem as it now is), as that Canon Law simply wasn't applied. This is one of the most important points, I think.
  • In connection with this Crimen Sollicitationes predictably comes up (4.6, 17-28),  but it is presented unfairly. In the first place, Murphy stresses the secrecy required by the procedures for investigating solicitation, but completely omits the canonical obligation to report solicitation. Secondly, Murphy takes no account of how CS deals purely with confessional solicitation, and does not preclude the involvement of the civil authorities in instances where crimes have been committed; indeed it indicates that the mechanisms must be modified in such instances. Its sole comment on extra-confessional sexual misconduct, whether criminal or otherwise, is to say that judicial or administrative mechanisms should be implemented to deal with it. In light of this it's worth noting that only one of the priests cited in the Report, the late Father Donal Gallagher, seems to have been accused of conduct which would have constitituted confessional solicitation (22.7,8).
  • I'm deeply uncomfortable with the implication that Murphy could find 'no direct evidence' of there having been a paedophile ring among priests of the Archdiocese (1.76). This seems to suggest that there is indirect evidence of this, but while I did indeed spot two or three worrying overlaps in the sections on the 46 priests, I'd be wary of inferring intentional links between them or suggesting further involvement.
  • The whole issue of 'mental reservation' bothers me (58.19-22). Murphy reports that one of the abuse survivors was angered by the Church's use of this in dealing with complaints, that Cardinal O'Connell explained what the concept entailed, and that the aforementioned survivor and another survivor gave independent examples of this. I've been looking this up, and as far as I understand it, mental reservation was an idea that was basically condemned by Innocent XI more than three hundred years ago. The instances described by the two survivors strike me as common or garden legalese, where people say something true without revealing the full truth. I'm not saying this is good or admirable or anything akin to who priests ought to behave, as I really think it isn't, just that I don't think these are instances where doctrine can be blamed.   
  • I don't believe Murphy makes sufficient allowance for individual incompetence, weakness, or naivety. McQuaid's abysmal handling of the Father Edmondus case in 1960 might be a good example of this, where Murphy finds his own recorded justification for his deeds incredible, and concludes that he must have been acting simply to avoid scandal (13.11). I'm not entirely convinced by this, as it does seem possible that McQuaid could have been won over by the explanation offered, risible as it seems to me, by Edmondus. After all, even now, after more than three years of institutional mistreatment by You Know What,  keep on seeking to rationalise away behaviour I've experienced and continue to experience that is, on the face of it, utterly wicked. It's as though I'm desperate to avoid facing the reality that some people are flat-out evil and some things are monstrous and cannot be painted otherwise. Painting McQuaid's actions as self-serving and wilfully negligent strikes me as a classic hindsight bias, and one marked by a willingness to apply to McQuaid charges that might more fairly be put to his successor.
  • There seems to be an attempt being made to assume that there can be a blanket explanation of what happened across the period, most clearly the thesis that the Irish Church was, quite simply, willing to do anything in order to preserve itself. I think this approach is flawed. A consideration of the role of the three canon lawyers who advised Cardinal Connell rather shows its weakness: the former chancellor Msgr Gerard Sheehy believed the Church should deal with these things internally but was opposed to applying and penal processes and interfered in others' handling of things; Msgr Alex Stenson, chancellor from 1981 to 1997, was a far less machiavellian figure, and handled accusations very well, but was pretty much incapable of enforcing his decisions; Msgr John Dolan, who replaced Stenson and is still chancellor, was neither as cynical as Sheehy nor as weak as Stenson, but he took a while to find his feet in an initially chaotic situation.
  • It seems to me that there is a recurring inaccuracy in the case of the unnamed priest considered - with redactions - through section 20. The priest in question apparently served in my parish at some point, though I'm having difficulty discerning when. It seems to have been at some point before 1972. Difficulties arose with this priest when visiting the parish in 1982 and again in 1986, and in both occasions, seemingly, the Parish Priest, Father Con Curley, was brought onboard (20.64-66, 92-102). The thing is, though, Father Curley was never Parish Priest, to my recollection. Father Daly, I think, was PP at the time of my First Communion in 1982, and he was succeeded by Father Kelly. Father Curley was a curate under both priests as far as I can remember, and only became a Parish Priest when he moved out to an inner-city parish. He died a few years ago. Granted, this may not be important, but it bothers me. If such a detail can be wrong in the only bit about which I could speak with any authority, I can't help but wonder what the rest of it is like.

The Bigger Picture
These difficulties doesn't take away from the bigger picture, of course, and that is absolutely damning. I don't see a conspiracy to cover things up, but there was certainly a tendency to do this and the same patterns of behaviour happened time and time and time again.. The end result was the vicious abuse of hundreds if not thousands of children, and this is convincingly shown throughout the report. Granted, lots of individual accusations probably wouldn't stand up in court, but that doesn't mean they're not true; the consistency of the disparate allegations from independent sources leave no real doubt about what happened.

One of the most intriguing details is the decision in the late eighties to get insurance against future abuse claims. Was this decision made in expectation of claims based on diocesan experience, as Murphy and all commentators seem to believe, or was it made following the example of American dioceses. Did other Irish dioceses do the same thing? Other dioceses anywhere? It's astonishing that there seems to be little evidence here of high-ranking prelates being asked to explain the reasoning behind their actions.

So without their analysis, the question remains: why?

There are some who are seizing on this as a newly varnished stick with which to beat the Catholic dog, asking whether there's something in Catholicism that invites this kind of behaviour, but I don't think we need go down that road. I've read in the Guardian that half of all Swedish girls who were taken into care over the last century were raped; and if this is even close to true, it shows that secular organisations can be just as wicked. It's also important to remember that the vast majority of sexual abuse occurs in the home, conducted by family or friends of the family. That's not to excuse what happened in Ireland in any way, just to say that the Catholic Church does not have a monopoly on sexual abuse in any country, and that we should be wary of scapeboating it.

One important clue to all this comes in the Primetime panel discussion on RTE, where, about half an hour in, Archbishop Martin, who is clearly having trouble dealing with this, despite having done as good a job as could be hoped for over the past few years, notes that something changed in the sixties. He says he's been through the files, and that the Diocese had acted decisively against abusive priests in the 1930s, the 1940s, and the 1950s. And then, he says, something changed. If we must seek an explanation then I think that's where we should look. The SSPX crowd would say, of course, that with Vatican II the smoke of Satan entered the Church, and though they may have something there, I think that is, in itself, an utterly facile explanation.

Making the Perfect Storm
No, I think we're dealing with a range of prosaic elements which together combined to make a perfect storm. The issue, of course, is not why some priests abused, but why they were able to get away with it for so long. 

As Primo Levi says, pondering his time in Auschwitz, in his afterword to If This is a Man, which must be one of the last century's essential books, 'Monsters exist, but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are…the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.' This, of course, has always been my issue with You Know What --  it's not what She Who Must Not Be Named did, so much as how others let her do it! But I digress...
  • Clerical loyalty is a factor, of course. It seems precious few priests were willing to act independently, or against the wishes of their bishops. Granted, you might say that they have taken oaths to obey their bishops, but it's striking that no former clergy spoke out.
  • It also seems to have been the case that this loyalty was horizontal as well as vertical, with priests simply being unwilling to believe the significance or seriousness of allegations against their fellows. That's an important point - even when allegations were believed, they were often dismissed as trivial.
  • This tendency to downplay the significance of allegations was tied with an unwillingness to believe that priests could really be so wicked as was being alleged. This was simple naivety, I think, and in many cases claims that abusive priests had reformed were gratefully accepted: call it an excess of mercy, if you like. Such naivety is disastrous when dealing with child abusers, who tend to be highly manipulative.
  • Some clerics appear genuinely to have been determined to defend the Church at all costs. They seemed to have confused the institutions of the Church with the members of the Church, and to have regarded the former as far more important. I don't see much evidence of this beyond a small number of key individuals, but they had an immense influence.
  • An absolutely crucial element was the clericalism that was the hallmark of Irish society. Not merely did this allow the abusive priests into what strike me as bizarre conditions of proximity to children, but it led members of the Guards, for example, to hand over to the Church matters which they ought to have investigated themselves. Indeed, it also meant that the parents of abused children in many cases tended not to go to the Guards, but instead to complain to the superiors of the priests about whom they were complaining.
  • A key new element in the mix, and this may be the something that 'changed' as Archbishop Martin put it, was a new aversion in the aftermath of Vatican II to the application of Canon Law to deal with offenses such as this. It seems that Canon Law in the post-conciliar decades was largely limited to issues of marriage and annulment, and that its penal aspects fell into disuse. It looks as though the Church was trying to shake off its legalistic image in the freer age the Council ushered in, though the net result was to allow abusive priests a freedom they had never previously had.
  • Linked with this unwillingness to use penal mechanisms was an unwillingness to apply punitive solutions if pastoral ones were available. This was particularly the case in situations were abusive priests were regarded as classic paedophiles, given that Canon Law seems to regard paedophilia as a form of insanity or mental illness, which of course opens the possibility of whether paedophile priests should be regarded as truly culpable for their actions (4.59, 28.119). The Church seems to have felt it had a responsibilty to clergy it regarded as ill.
  • While looking after these 'ill' clergy, the Church attempted to protect further children from being abused, but it seems to have been utterly incapable of enforcing its own disciplinary measures. A factor in this, of course, was silence; without letting all priests know the medical and personal history of priests accused of abuse, and without having a special internal police force, as it were, I don't see how this could really have been done. Of course, abusive priests, being highly manipulative, proved most adept at evading whatever safeguards were put up to restrain them. 
  • Linked with this there seems to have been some confusion over the ultimate internal sanction, that being laicization. In the first place, there's a pragmatic argument for not defrocking priests, however wicked: this may be summarised as 'keep your friends close, but keep your enemies even closer' (13.57). This may simply have been a way of seeking to protect children, but however it works now, it seems not to have worked in the past. Furthermore, there is a reluctance to laicize priests, given the questions of whether the grace granted through the sacrament of Holy Orders can actually be withdrawn.
  • Secrecy - or a culture of confidentiality - seems to have been a big factor in this, too, though I doubt it was a new one. 
So it's a combination of cynical rank-closing, secrecy, a culture of clericism, an excess of mercy, simple incompetence and human weakness, and - and this is new - an unwillingness to use the Church's own legal procedures against its own servants.

What Now?
Granted, things sound very tense at home, though I don't think this will be nearly as devastating for the Church in Ireland as some expect, though. The guts of this has been known for years, after all, and I can still remember some of the jokes about paedophile priests from fifteen years back, back when the mishandling of an extradition warrant for the man who may have been the worst of them all led to a government falling. So there's not a huge amount that's new, other than how certain individuals handled things they no longer have responsibility for.

And mass attendances, seemingly have been rising this year, even after the horrors of the Ryan Report.

From the point of view of protecting children, things began to improve from the mid-nineties, with the Church's internal mechanisms if anything implicitly denying the accused the presumption of innocence, taking the line that 'Caesar's Wife must be above suspicion'. 

It's not particularly fair, but then again, neither is child-rape, and the Diocese now seems to be taking the view that it's worth shaming a priest unfairly if doing so can save children. The current Archbishop of Dublin has been exemplary in his handling of the situation since taking office. His statement from yesterday is well worth reading. 

There is hope for the future, but the past needs to be faced first.

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