Ireland's Child Care Institutions during the 20th. Century. Fo'T: The most vivid and passionate stories - banished babies, cruel orphanages, old abuses of power - have concerned things that went unnoticed, or at least unarticulated, at the time. News has often had to be redefined, not as the latest sensation but as that which everybody knew all along yet could not say.

Wednesday, January 31, 1996

Catholic Bishops' Advisory Committee on Child Sexual Abuse

Revelations of abuse by priests and religious has had `an immense impact on Catholic Church'
Summary of the report of the Catholic Bishops' Advisory Committee on Child Sexual Abuse, as prepared by the Catholic Press and Information Office.

THE primary task of the Bishops Advisory Committee on Child Sexual as to recommend procedures for bishops and religious superiors in responding to allegations of child sexual abuse against priests and religious.

Reporting policy
The committee recommends that in all instances where it is known or suspected that a priest or religious has sexually abused a child, the matter should be reported without delay to a senior ranking garda for the area in which the abuse is alleged to have occurred. Where the suspected victim is a child, or where a complaint by an adult gives rise to child protection questions, the appropriate health authority should also be informed. In the case of a complaint by an adult, a child protection question arises if an accused priest or religious holds or has held a position affording unsupervised access to children.

The document says that the complainant should also be advised by the church authorities to consider reporting the complaint directly to the Garda and relevant health authorities. The committee recognises that the reporting policy it recommends to church authorities may cause difficulty as some people who come to the church with complaints of current or past child sexual abuse by a priest or religious seek undertakings of confidentiality. Such people may wish to safeguard the privacy of alleged victims in cases where even their immediate family is not aware of the situation. Their primary reason in coming forward may be to warn church authorities of a priest or religious who is a risk to children.

This reporting practice may deter such people from coming forward or may be perceived by those who do come forward as an insensitive and heavy handed response by church authorities," the report says. Nevertheless, the committee is clear that no undertakings of absolute confidentiality should be given. The information should be expressly received within the terms of the reporting policy and on the basis that only those who need to know will be told. In making its recommendation on reporting practice the committee "considers to be paramount the safety and protection of children and the need to prevent where possible, further abuse".

Paramount concern for victims
The document describes the sexual abuse of children as a grave violation of their right to bodily integrity and an invasion of their physical and emotional privacy. The negative impact of such abuse "should never be underestimated or minimised". It can affect the child victim physically, emotionally and spiritually, both in the short and long term. "Child sexual abuse by priests and religious is a betrayal of their calling to serve others and of the Christian community which has entrusted them with particular authority and responsibility," the report says.

"Instead of their special position in the church being a means through which God's care for people is revealed, priests and religious who sexually abuse children take advantage of the position to gratify their own desires or sense of power." The shattering of trust in a particular priest or religious can destroy trust in the church and confidence in its ministers and may even weaken or destroy belief in God. "Those victims who come forward to the church to talk about their abuse experiences need to be listened to, heard and have their experiences acknowledged in a caring, sensitive manner," says the committee. Every effort must be made to appreciate fully the impact of the abuse experience on the victims and their families, who may he confused hurt and angry". Those responsible for putting into practice procedures for a response must always be conscious of this hurt. Any church response "must contribute to the process of healing that hurt".

The report asserts that it is the victims of abuse and their families who must have the first call on the church's pastoral care. They should be helped in gaining access to counselling services and if such services are not available the church should be willing to assist victims obtain the help they require. "Furthermore, just as the church, throughout its history, has provided services where these have been absent or inadequate, so now it should be prepared to take initiatives, in cooperation with the statutory authorities, to set up therapeutic services which, would be open to all victims off child sexual abuse," says the, report.

Rights of accused
A church response must include respect for the rights of the accused under natural justice, civil law and canon law. "Care should be taken that the good name and reputation of a priest or religious who is accused is not unjustly tarnished. The fundamental presumption of innocence must be upheld and respected, unless the contrary has been established," the report states. "Further, if it is found that an accusation is without foundation, extreme care is to be taken that the person wrongly accused is completely reinstated in good standing and that all blot or stain is entirely removed from his or her character and good name."

The spiritual and emotional well being of the accused person must be given careful attention.

Impact of revelations
The committee says that the sexual abuse of children by priests and religious has "shocked and angered" church members and Irish society generally. It says a debt of gratitude is owed to those who have had the courage to come forward and reveal the abuse they suffered. "Their courage has resulted in a breaking of the secrecy which is a particular feature of child sexual abuse. The greater degree of openness that now surrounds the issue means that other people who have suffered abuse but have kept it secret may now feel enabled to come forward."

The committee recognises that the revelations about the sexual abuse of children by priests and religious has had "an immense impact on the Catholic Church in Ireland and has provoked a crisis of faith and confidence among many of its members. But, it says, there must be hope that "this time of crisis may be also a time of opportunity for renewal and that from the current upheaval a better church will emerge".

This would happen only if all its members worked with considerable energy and commitment. "There must not be any complacent belief that the time of crisis will pass, after which, and without any special effort on anybody's part, life will be back to normal again." The greater degree of collaboration and shared responsibility required for the future "will place significant demands not just on those who occupy leadership positions but on all members of the church".

Procedures for dealing with complaints
The definition of child sexual abuse used in the committee's report is that adopted by the Law Reform Commission in the Republic for the purpose of a proposed mandatory reporting law. The committee recommends' that each diocese and religious' congregation adopt a protocol for responding effectively to complaints. This should be communicated to all priests and religious and be available to the public. The recommended procedures reflect eight "guidelines to action" . The safety and welfare of children should be the first and paramount consideration following an allegation of child sexual abuse

  • A prompt response should be given to all allegations of child sexual abuse
  • In all instances where it is known or suspected that a priest or religious has sexually abused a child, the matter should be reported to the civil authorities
  • Care should be given to the emotional and spiritual well being of those who have suffered abuse and their families There should be immediate consideration, following a complaint, of all child protection issues which arise, including whether the accused priest or religious should continue in ministry during the investigation
  • The rights under natural justice, civil law and canon law of an accused priest or religious should be respected
  • An appropriate pastoral response should be provided for the parish and wider community, with due regard to the right of privacy of those directly involved and to the administration of justice
  • Adequate positive steps should be taken to restore the good name and reputation of a priest or religious wrongly accused of child sexual abuse.

The report recommends that each bishop and religious superior appoint a delegate to oversee the implementation of the protocol, including the reporting policy, a support person to be available to those who suffered abuse, and an adviser to be available to the accused priest or religious. Each should receive appropriate training. Bishops and religious superiors should also appoint an advisory panel which would be available for consultation on a confidential basis as required. The panel should include lay people with qualities and expertise relevant to the issue of child sexual abuse.

Information exchange
The report calls for exchange of information between a bishop and a religious superior where a complaint has been made about a member of a religious congregation. It recommends that diocesan bishops adopt a system of "formal referencing" for accepting priests from elsewhere for service in their dioceses.

Parish and local community
If an allegation is made against a priest working in a parish, and he is given or takes leave of absence, the bishop should appoint a priest to replace him as soon as possible, even as parish administrator as an interim measure. The committee recognises an understandable desire" of parishioners to be given the facts when a priest has been accused of child sexual abuse. However, a public statement should only be made where the bishop is satisfied that the privacy of any suspected victim will not be jeopardised and the right of the accused priest to a fair trial will not be jeopardised.

At an appropriate time, the bishop should make a pastoral visit to affected parishes. A programme of pastoral support and spiritual renewal for the parish could be jointly prepared by the bishop, the local priests and pastoral council. A spiritual retreat/mission aimed at healing and reconciliation in the light of concerns expressed by the community, might be arranged. Religious congregations with expertise in this area should be invited to develop suitable programmes.

Assessment and treatment
The committee recommends if, as a result of clinical assessment, an accused person is deemed to require treatment, the opportunity should be offered to him or her.

Those who abuse
In cases where a priest or religious has been found to have abused, the report recognises that some people may feel that any care and concern for the abusers misplaced. This feeling is understandable, given the gravity off child sexual abuse and the knowledge that offenders may continue to offend even after the discovery of their abuse. However, it says that priests and religious who offend are members of a church "which is founded on the Gospel message means that those who have offended can be helped to hope for and work towards "healing and regeneration in their lives".

The hope of renewal and reform should mean that those who offend should be supported in whatever efforts they make to effect a change in their behaviour which would enable them to live a life free of abuse," the report says. Offering therapeutic help to offenders is vital in helping them cease their abusive behaviour. "It is thus an important element in the prevention of abuse and the protection of children."

But the report states that because of the grave breach of trust involved the options for the future of an offending priest in the ministry are greatly curtailed. Reassignment to some form of limited ministry which would not involve unsupervised contact with children may be possible, but only in exceptional cases and under very strict conditions.

Such a decision could only be made after careful consultation with professional clinicians, trained and experienced in assessing sexual deviancy, and when morally certain that this reassignment will not present any danger to children. "The protection and welfare of children must be always the paramount and over riding consideration in arriving at a decision."

Selection of candidates
The selection and screening of candidates for the priesthood or religious life is seen by the committee as immensely important. Candidates should have an affective maturity which includes awareness and acceptance of their sexuality and an ability to relate to both adults and children. The selection process should be guided "by the signs of a real vocation and not by any shortage of candidates". The screening of candidates should normally include a full assessment by an experienced psychologist, well versed in and supportive of the church's expectations of candidates for the priesthood or religious life, especially in regard to celibacy.

Seminary and religious house of studies
Seminaries and religious houses of study "should enable candidates to be open about their inner struggle towards fuller maturity". Formation "must be evenly balanced between the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral," the report says. It should "foster an integration of human sexuality and the development of healthy human relationships within the context of celibate living. The committee recommends the involvement of trained lay men and women in the formation of priests and religious. The report recommends that candidates have reasonable access to counsellors. Those responsible for formation should be informed, with the candidates' permission, of any factors which become apparent during counselling which would have a bearing on their suitability for the priesthood or religious life.

On going formation
The committee says that the complex emotional and social nature of ministry in present day Ireland requires a deepening of faith, a renewal of commitment and a readiness to examine existing approaches to ministry among priests and religious. Good spiritual direction and counselling are invaluable for priests and religious since "serious personal inadequacies can hide behind questionable spirituality". On going education promoting psycho sexual maturity, healthy living, and human wholeness is essential. Dynamic leadership of the Christian community demands greater collaboration between bishops, priests, religious and lay people. Priority needs to be given to adult religious programmes in which each person in the church can be offered the possibility and challenge of on going formation.

Towards greater awareness
The committee maintains that despite recent media and public attention on child sexual abuse many people have difficulty accepting that it is present in all strata of society. People may also be unaware of how they should respond when faced with child sexual abuse. To overcome this, it calls for the promotion, especially at local level, of increased awareness and better informed attitudes about the multi faceted issues surrounding child sexual abuse.

It says church authorities should focus especially on their responsibilities in respect of priests and religious, those working with children and young people in educational or other institutions run or managed by the church, and others occupying leadership positions within church organisations.

Among the proposals the report makes are
  • In service training for priests and religious on the nature and effects of child sexual abuse.
  • The continuation of information days/seminars already in place for priests and religious, ideally with input from health authorities, Garda/RUC and other professional bodies.
  • Wider dissemination of information about policies and procedures in force from statutory and church sources.
  • Priests and religious be alerted to the necessary links between their role and that of agencies with statutory obligations for child protection.
  • Programmes of information and awareness about child sexual abuse for students in seminaries/religious houses.
  • Information days in Catholic schools.
  • School based programmes be encouraged to enable children become aware of their right to say no to certain behaviour by adults and of their right to disclose having been abused. Such programmes should be developed in the light of emerging information and out of the experience gained from those currently in use.
  • Diocesan adult religious educators should consider how they might contribute to public understanding of child sexual abuse issues.

The Irish Times
- Wednesday, January 31, 1996