The searing revelation that the very highest levels in Rome knew of the litany of shame will rock the Church. But an inquiry into clerical misconduct in the diocese has found that not only did they know of the scandal, they also did nothing to stop it. Irish news sources have learned that the report highlights staggering inaction by the Church, several departments of state and the gardai. In one case a priest sexually assaulted 10 girls on the altar of his church.
The paralysis by those in authority enabled widespread assaults to continue. The number of priests cited in the findings runs into double figures. Evidence of a shattering saga of systematic abuse of boys at St Peter's College in Wexford town has also emerged. Similar abuse took place at several other parishes within the diocese. The Government-backed report is the result of the first-ever investigation by the State into how the Catholic Church managed cases of child sexual abuse.
It will show that abusers were left in charge of children and will present substantial evidence of previously unreported incidents of abuse. The vast majority of priests within Ferns are known to have been beyond reproach. The fallout from the findings has thrown a pall of sadness over the diocese. One of the most shocking offenders was Fr Jim Grennan. He sexually assaulted 10 girls on the altar of the local church in Monageer, Co Wexford. The South Eastern Health Board examined the girls and confirmed in writing to Bishop Brendan Comiskey that there was a case to answer.
There was a Garda investigation but victims statements went missing and astonishingly the DPP was never informed of the case.
However, it is understood that many within the Church were simply overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. The gardai are strongly criticised for their handling of the Grennan case in the inquiry report. But in other cases they were found to have acted appropriately and professionally. Reports on the Grennan investigation went to the health board and the Department of Education but it was generally seen as a local issue and left to the authorities in Ferns. The report makes recommendations for changes in child protection codes and other legislation.
Despite the horrific revelations, it is believed highly unlikely that any members of the diocesan hierarchy will be prosecuted as a result of the negligence.
The legal opinion is that no existing legislation provides for prosecutions. The inquiry, under the chairmanship of judge Frank Murphy, interviewed over 200 witnesses. What emerged was a devastating picture of the level of abuse in the diocese from the 1960s onwards. And despite claims of contrition on the part of the Catholic Church, inquiry chairman Judge Frank Murphy says that he sometimes came up against a brick wall in his investigations. The report is critical of the lack of co-operation from the Church at most stages of the inquiry.
Other cases investigated by Judge Murphy include Fr Sean Fortune, who committed suicide in 1999, Fr Donal Collins and Fr James Doyle, both of whom were convicted of child abuse, and Monsignor Michael Ledwith, President of St Patrick's College, Maynooth. The file is expected to go to Health Minister Mary Harney early next week and she will pass it on to the Attorney General. A Government minister, possibly Brian Lenihan, is to be appointed to oversee the public response to the revelations. The intention is to publish the document before the end of the week.
But one of the most surprising findings is that the Vatican was aware of the abuse.
The report highlights the level of communication that existed between the Church and the State authorities, how much they knew and how little they did. It shows the degree to which the Church put Canon Law above the law of the land. At present, there is no statutory obligation on a bishop - or anyone else - to relay a complaint or a suspicion of child abuse to the State; whereas Church law contains rigorous rules and sanctions. Such crimes may be tried by an ecclesiastical court in Rome.
They are given the status of "pontifical secret". This means that they are dealt with in the strictest confidentiality. Canon Law sets a statute of limitations of 10 years from the age of 18, not - as civil law accepts - from the time the victim becomes aware that a crime has been committed. Yet there is evidence from both Ireland and the US that the Vatican was aware of specific allegations over very many years yet failed to remove the abusing priests.
The Murphy inquiry was set by the then Health Minister, Micheal Martin, in 2003 following the resignation of Ferns Bishop Brendan Comiskey.
Sarah Murphy Irish Independent