Thanks in part to RTE’s Prime Time Special ‘Cardinal Secrets’ in October 2002 and to the response of the Minister for Justice Equality and Law Reform Mr Michael McDowell TD to that programme, the Commission of Investigation into the handling of allegations of child sexual abuse by priests in Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin is almost ready to start its work. This is a very welcome, though long overdue, response to a decade of revelations of abuse by priests and cover up by the Archdiocese of Dublin.
This Commission of Inquiry has its legislative basis in the Commissions of Investigation Act, 2004 and its Terms of Reference as just published by the Government are as follows:
1. To select a representative sample of complaints or allegations of clerical child sexual abuse made to the Archdiocesan and other Church authorities and public and State authorities in the period 1 January 1975 to 1 May 2004 against clergy operating under the aegis of the Archdiocese of Dublin.
2. To examine and report on the nature of the response to those sample complaints or allegations on the part of the authorities to which those sample complaints or allegations were reported, including whether there is any evidence of attempts on the part of those authorities to obstruct, prevent or interfere with the proper investigation of such complaints.
3. In the case of complaints or allegations being examined, to examine and report also on the nature of the response to any other complaints or allegations made by the complainant, including any such complaints or allegations made before 1 January 1975.
4. To select a representative sample of cases when the Archdiocesan and other Church and public and State authorities had knowledge of or strong and clear suspicion of or reasonable concern regarding sexual abuse involving clergy operating under the aegis of the Archdiocese of Dublin.
5. To establish the response of the Archdiocesan and other Church and public and State authorities to those sample cases.
6. To establish the levels of communication that prevailed between the Archdiocesan and the other Church authorities and public and State authorities with regard to those sample complaints, allegations, knowledge, reasonable concern or strong and clear suspicion.
7. The Commission shall conclude its investigation and submit a full and final written report to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform before xxxx xxxx, setting out the facts established by it in relation to the matters referred to it for investigation under paragraphs 1 to 6 above, based on the evidence it receives. The Minister shall cause the report to be published as soon as possible after it is submitted to him, subject to the requirements of section 38 of the Commissions of Investigation Act, 2004.
These Terms of Reference are comprehensive and strong and the statutory powers of the Commissions of Investigation Act provide the Commission with all it needs to see that no one is allowed to obstruct its work in any way and anyone failing to co-operate will be guilty of a criminal offence.
The Commission will not investigate how every allegation made against every priest has been handled by either Church, public or State authorities. Paragraph 1 requires the Commission to select a representative sample of complaints or allegations of clerical child sexual abuse. Those of us - Colm O’Gorman, Marie Collins, Deirdre Fitzpatrick and myself - who have worked with Minister McDowell and his Departmental officials have been assured that anyone wishing to make an initial statement to the Commission with regard to an allegation or allegations made between 1 January 1975 to 1 May 2004 will be welcome to do so. The statements may be made in writing or through the Commission’s legal representatives. Along with these statements, the Commission will also have access to any Church, public or State authorities’ files as it requires. Having a broad initial view of all allegations brought to its attention it will then select a representative sample for further investigation.
Like the Ferns Inquiry, this Commission is not just investigating how allegations against priests were handled by the Catholic Archdiocese but by other public and State authorities too where evidence exists that such allegations were brought to their attention.
Paragraph 3 in the Terms of Reference is very important. It means that if the Commission is investigating the response to an allegation made against a priest after 1 January 1975 it should also examine the response to any other allegations made against the same priest, even if those allegations were made prior to 1 January 1975, thus allowing the Commission to be informed about any allegations and the response to them made before 1 January 1975.
The Terms of Reference fall down somewhat on Paragraph 7. It is most regrettable that Minister McDowell has insisted on putting an 18 month time frame on the Commission’s work. Firstly remember it took the Minister over 3 years to set up the Inquiry. It is true that the Commission of Investigations Act requires the Minister to set a date by which the final report must be submitted - though this is the Minister’s own legislation – but this does not prohibit the Minister from including in the Terms of Reference a commitment to extend the Commission’s time frame if the Commission determines for itself it needs more time in order to conduct a proper investigation.
It is not for the Minister or his officials to determine how long the Commission will need to do its work. I have listened to Mr McDowell and his officials tell us over the last 3 years how long it would take them to get the Commission of Investigations Bill through the Oireachtas, how long it would take them to draft Terms of Reference, how long it would take them to secure resources for this Commission from the Department of Finance, how long it would take them to find a Chairperson and other staff, how long it would take them to secure accommodation from the OPW, and on every occasion they got it wrong. If they can’t determine accurately how long it will take them to do their own jobs how well placed are they to say how long the Commission will need to do its job. They have not met any of their own time frames in setting up this Commission yet they are inappropriately confident in determining how much time is needed for the Commission to do its work. We do not know what the political landscape will look like in 18 months time and it is less than satisfactory that this Commission is not guaranteed all the time may need to do its work.
In the Terms of Reference for the Ferns Inquiry it states very clearly that in the event of the Inquiry not producing a final report within 12 months, the Inquiry will publish an interim report and indicate a date for the Inquiry’s final report. Very clearly the Inquiry was left to determine for itself how long it considered it needed to complete its work and it is a great pity that the Minister and his officials did not learn from the Ferns experience despite promising to do so all the way through.
Now we are left to ‘hope’ that the time frame does not in any way limit the effectiveness of the Inquiry and given that what we are ultimately about is enhancing standards of child protection in this country it is unfortunate that this loop hole has been left in place.