13 September 2011

Visiting the Front Line

I'd never watched Pat Kenny's show Frontline until this evening, catching up on last night's programme after hearing from a couple of friends that it was definitely worth watching. The topic was mandatory reporting of abuse, and in large part it focused on the question of how such legislation could relate to the seal of Confession. I'm glad I was advised to watch it, as I was pleasantly surprised by how even-handed it was and by how much sense was talked in it.

Curiously, Frances Fitzgerald kept returning to Alan Shatter's recent refrain, that being that the whole issue of Confession is a side issue in this debate, something that's hardly relevant to the discussion. Early on she said:
'What's interesting, Pat, is that if you look at legislation that's been passed already, if you take the Offences Against the State -- for example -- legislation, you have the same requirement on everybody. Nobody's raised the issue of Confession in relation to that. If you look at the recent Criminal Justice legislation, the same applies, that if you have information -- as in Minister Shatter's bill which he will be introducing -- if you have information which is relevant to an offence as it's outline in the legislation, and you don't tell the Gardaí about it, then you are liable under the legislation. That applies in quite a number of pieces of legislation.'
This is all true as far as it goes: a requirement to report knowledge of crimes is mandatory, unless one has 'reasonable excuse' for doing otherwise, in at least three pieces of legislation, these being the Criminal Law Act 1997, the Offences Against the State Act 1998, and the Criminal Justice Act 2011. As I said about six weeks back, if the seal of Confession is threatened by Irish law, it's been threatened for a long time.

To be fair, Ministers, you started this
The problem with the line currently being taken by Ministers Shatter and Fitzgerald, which basically consists of smiling and accusing Catholics of reacting in a hysterical way to something that's never really been suggested, is that the integrity of the Seal was explicitly threatened on the day they announced their planned legislation. The Irish Times reported the following about Minister Shatter on the very day that the Cloyne Report was released:
'The Minister said that there would be no "legal grey areas" when it came to the implementation of this legislation, adding that the laws would also apply to the likes of doctors and priests, even in the case of the latter where this information is revealed in the confessional.'
There's no trace of such a claim in his official statement of that day, so I can only assume that he made this comment in response to a question, along with his saying that victims of abuse would be safeguarded so that they could not be prosecuted under the legislation. Wouldn't things have been simpler if the Minister had deflected any questions then about Confession by saying that that was a bogus issue, and had no real bearing on the situation? No, he went for the cheap anti-Catholic soundbite.

Since then, of course, we've had the Taoiseach blustering about how 'the law of the land should not be stopped by a collar or a crozier,' standing up in the Dáil and casting all manner of aspersions on the Vatican, and then getting huffy with the rest of the Government when the Vatican refuted the Government's charges. Is it any wonder that people don't trust the Government on this?

Disingenuous Posturing
In a manner staggering for its outright hypocrisy, the whole debate has been plagued by mock outrage on the part of the Government and media.

They've responded with fury -- as though this was news to them -- to the fact that the Vatican responded with caution in 1997 to the Irish Church's child-protection guidelines, despite the fact that the letter that warned the Irish bishops had been quoted from in the 2009 Dublin Report (7.13), with nobody getting angry about it then.

They've responded with fury -- again, as though this were a new development -- to the Vatican's 1997 insistence that the Church's child protection guidelines should be in harmony with canon law, despite the fact that that very injunction was quoted in the 2009 Dublin Report (7.13) and the principle was clearly stated more than once in the 1996 Framework Document itself!

They've responded with fury -- yet again, as though they had been unaware of this -- to the reservations the Vatican expressed in 1997 about mandatory reporting, despite these reservations having been quoted in the 2009 Dublin Report (7.13) and having been shared by the Government of the day, which itself chose in 1997 not to legislate to introduce mandatory reporting. That Government, as we all know, included several members of the current cabinet.

They've also thrown around a lot of baseless allegations, something which aside from being immoral strikes me as very unwise, especially given that they're coming from a small bankrupt country with no hard power and with far fewer  friends than it used to have.

Trying to have it both ways
A huge part of the problem now is that the Government is talking out both sides of its mouth in an attempt to look tough while knowing that if it looks barrel-chested that's due not so much to muscle as to hot air. On the one hand, having postured about there being no exceptions, not even in the case of confession, the Government's now trying to convince people that even though Confession won't be explicitly mentioned in the coming legislation, it will be covered by it. This seems to be delighting opponents of the Church in Ireland, and worrying its defenders.

The reality's pretty simple

Confession can't be mentioned in the legislation, as any such law almost certainly wouldn't withstand a Constitutional challenge. This is why it won't be singled out, and we'll have a vague statement to the effect that where an individual has material information that would assist the gardaí in the investigation of a given sexual crime, that they provide that information to the Gardaí, unless there is an undefined 'reasonable excuse' not to do so.

That means the definition of 'reasonable excuse' will be in the hands of the courts. It makes no sense to claim that the seal of Confession is in any way threatened by this. In interpreting the law, the courts will rule based on what the law says, not what its framers claim it says. The framers of laws can say what they like, but their intentions won't be factored into any subsequent legal decisions. Given the centrality of the sacraments to Catholicism, the Constitutional protection of religion, the existing common law protection of priest-penitent privilege, and the need for law to be consistent, there's no way that a court would ever convict a priest for failing to report information received while hearing Confession.

I find it all very depressing, to be honest with you.

I've become increasingly convinced that the Irish Government isn't in any way serious about tackling abuse in Ireland. Part of me doesn't blame it. A serious State-led attack on the problem would require a functioning HSE and an army of social workers and therapists,  and the reality is that the Government can't afford them. The country's broke. Instead, then, the Government's falling back on demagoguery and sabre-rattling.

Faced with the reality of abuse in the Irish Church, the Taoiseach saw fit to blame Irish problems on people almost 1200 miles away. In his speech on Cloyne he never once mentioned the key facts that the Cloyne Report revealed: that two Irish clergy had failed to apply Irish Church guidelines but had broken no laws, and that in failing to apply those guidelines they had potentially endangered children but that no children had been harmed because of them.

For all their talk of tackling abuse, Ministers Shatter and Fitzgerald keep banging on about abuse in organisations -- most especially the Church -- despite the fact that hardly any abuse takes place in organisations, with the overwhelming majority of it taking place in the family circle, in and around the home. Talk of the Church is particularly specious, as it's like grumbling about a tree when you're standing in a forest. Even when clerical abuse was at it's worst, for every child who was abused by a priest in Ireland, fifty-nine were abused by other people; nowadays, the difference would be even more stark. Abuse in Ireland is above all a family matter. I've yet to hear one concrete proposal for dealing with this.

Talk of a 'Sarah's Law' for sex offenders is nonsense, given how few abusers have ever been convicted compared to how many haven't. Remember what the 2002 SAVI Study indicated, that a decade ago, only one abuse survivor in two hundred had seen their abusers found or plead guilty in court. In other words, for every sex offender labelled as such by a Sarah's Law, 199 others will walk free.

Cheering on the Government when it shouts about the Church doesn't help; the reality is that if you're attacking the Church, you're not attacking the problem. I'm tired of the Government trying to make political hay from children having been abused. We have serious problems. We need serious solutions.

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