I was more than a little surprised to hear the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern announce in the Dail the morning after the Ferns Report was published that he was still committed to an Inquiry into the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin. I wasn't aware he was even interested. Indeed Mr Ahern's comments on a Dublin Inquiry were the first such comments he has made on the subject since he rejected a request for an Inquiry back in 1998.
By that time there was already enough information in the public domain to cause concern about the Catholic Church's practice of moving priests against whom allegations of child sexual abuse had been made onto new parishes. I know that because I helped put it there. This practice had the very obvious effect of putting other children at risk of abuse from priests already known to be a danger to them.
It was on that basis that I wrote to the Taoiseach in March 1998 calling for an Inquiry into the way allegations against priests had been handled. The Taoiseach rejected my request on the following grounds:
a) The Church is not a public body.
b) Tribunals of Inquiry can only be established into definite matters of urgent public concern.
c) It would be unfair to focus on the Catholic Church and they might challenge it in the courts.
d) Such an Inquiry would be so huge it would be ineffective.
In response I ask:
a) How was it subsequently possible to establish the Ferns Inquiry if the church not being a public body was such an issue?
b) How can the sexual abuse of children and its subsequent cover up by anyone not be described as a definite matter of urgent public concern?
c) Why would it be unfair to focus on the handling of allegations against priests after so many allegations were in the public domain but not unfair to have an Inquiry into the Irish Amateur Swimming Association after only two coaches had been the subject of similar allegations?
d) If the Taoiseach realised as far back as 1998 that the number of possible allegations to be investigated was so huge why is he claiming to be so surprised this week at the extent of child sexual abuse by priests in the Diocese of Ferns?
The Taoiseach has correctly and speedily anticipated the public outrage at the findings of the Ferns Report and now he’s jumping on the back of that outrage promising inquires and “audits” nationwide. Never underestimate a populist!
Now the Ferns Report has been published. It represents excellent work by the Inquiry team and details not only shocking accounts of the sexual abuse to which so many children were subjected but consistent facilitation of that abuse by the Diocesan Bishops' practice of protecting the priest and the institution of the Church instead of the children.
Anyone who thinks this outrageous scandal is unique and probably not repeated elsewhere needs to wise up - fast. There have been two Grand Jury investigations into the Archdioceses of Boston and Philadelphia in the United States. The Boston report was published in 2003 and eventually led to the resignation of Cardinal Law and the Philadelphia report was published in September this year. Both make similar reading to the Ferns report and would make any decent thinking person’s blood boil.
In October 2002 I attended my first meeting (along with Colm O’Gorman, Marie Collins and Deirdre Fitzpatrick) at the Department of Justice Equality and Law Reform with reference to an Inquiry into how allegations against priests were handled in the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin. We met with Minister McDowell and he was very keen to set up a new form of public inquiry that would be available to investigate urgent matters of public concern as and when they arose. The Minister made it clear that this new mechanism of inquiry would be more suitable than a tribunal of inquiry.
We agreed to patiently and publicly support the Minister as he set about providing the legislative basis for this new form of inquiry. Nine months later, in July 2003, the Minister published the Commissions of Investigations Bill with a view to bringing his legislation before the Dail.
Seven months after that, in February 2004, we had another meeting with the Minister to ask where his legislation was. The Minister assured us that this legislation was a high priority for him and that he was doing everything possible to get it onto the statute books. He also promised that other preparatory work (Terms of Reference / Accommodation / Chairperson & Staff / Resources) would be attended to while legislation was going through various Dail stages in order not to cause delays when legislation passed. He told us that he saw no reason why the Commission of Inquiry into the Archdiocese of Dublin could not start its work in September or October 2004 if this legislation was passed before the summer recess.
In the following weeks Colm O'Gorman, Marie Collins and I met with Labour and Fine Gael opposition leaders and their Justice spokespersons to ensure that any concerns they had about the legislation would be raised and addressed efficiently and without undue delay. They were happy to help in this regard.
We then met with officials at the Department of Justice Equality and Law Reform in October 2004. The Commission of Investigations Act 2004 was now on the statute books, some two years after the Cardinal Secrets programme. None of the other preparatory work as promised by the Minister had been done. In fact departmental officials were just commencing this work specifically looking at possible Terms of Reference for the Inquiry.
Again in February of this year we met with the same officials. More work was being done on the Terms of Reference but there was no confirmation of a Chairperson, Accommodation or other Resources for this Inquiry. In July of this year I had a chance meeting with the Minister during which he informed me that funding for this Inquiry had been secured from the Department of Finance but changes had been made to the Terms of Reference. We met with the Minister’s officials soon after that where we expressed considerable concern at some of those changes. We also expressed our disappointment that still no progress had been made on outstanding issues.
Then within one hour of the Ferns Report being published I had a phone call from one of the Minister’s officials attempting to reassure me that work on setting up the Dublin Inquiry was progressing – except there had been no progress. I’m not that easily reassured. I delivered a letter to the Minister’s office later that evening requesting an urgent meeting in order to move the Dublin Inquiry along.
I can only hope that the part of the fallout from the Ferns Report is an evident doubling of efforts by Minister McDowell and his Departmental officials in bringing about the Dublin Inquiry. We have had 10 years of revelations within Dublin and no effective response from the state authorities. It is vitally important to establish to what extent the systems and practices which led to so many children in Ferns being sexually abused by so many priests exist elsewhere – and the next port of call is Dublin. For many people a similar Inquiry and report is the only justice they are going to get.