An edited version of this article appeared in The Irish Times September 16th 2002
This week the Government will consider the proposals for a State Inquiry submitted by George Bermingham SC in the wake of the documentary “Suing the Pope”. Its now been 5 months since the broadcast and its 7 years since Sean Fortune was first arrested and questioned about his abuse of young boys. So what’s the point now, surely we know all there is to know about these cases? Why do we need an inquiry and why must we revisit this entire trauma yet again?
These are questions I have been asked many times over the past 5 months, ones that I expect to be asked again. It sometimes seems to me that our desperate need to get over all this and move on is perhaps the best indication of just how traumatic this whole issue has been for Irish society. How can we ever come to terms with having to question the most influential authority in our society about their part in the rape and abuse of children and at best their failure to respond appropriately to or at worst cover up and collude with such abuse? When Guardian columnist Julie Burchill describes our nation as tolerating “ almost compulsory child molestation by the national church” and when we discover our faith and morality has been shook to its core by such revelations the very least we need to do is uncover what happened and make sure we never allow it to happen again. Granted Ms Burchill makes her living by being outspoken and controversial, if its not our society who are the subject of her rather blunt and ill informed attention then it will be someone else but we have to admit we have a serious problem and one that will not simply resolve itself unless we name it and respond appropriately. If we truly wish to heal this wound then surely the first step has to be to a full, credible and public acknowledgement of exactly what happened.
This Inquiry presents us with a unique opportunity, one that we cannot afford to waste. We have spent much of the last decade reeling from stories of clerical rape and abuse, so much so that members of the clergy are now afraid to wear their clerical garb in public. Earlier this year an elderly Nun was abused and spat at in O’ Connell Street. Its seems incredible that the very institution that was at the centre of our culture and identity, the Church that determined our attitude to ourselves and how we live could be so undermined, so discredited. It has been a painful time for us all: victims of abuse, their families, members of the wider church and indeed members of the clergy and yes, even the Church hierarchy itself.
Ferns offers us the best chance to finally uncover just how these cases have been dealt with. We know a lot already about cases involving Sean Fortune, Jim Grennan and others. In Ferns we can get to the truth more easily and more fully than if we try to inquire into every diocese in the country. What is essential though is that this inquiry should not allow Bishops Herlihy and Comiskey to be the scapegoats for what happened. We know that the same failures have happened in Dioceses across Ireland, indeed across the World and we also know that The Church Hierarchy in Ireland seems to have had unique and clear knowledge about a significant number of cases in Ferns. We know that parishioners from Fethard-one-Sea wrote to successive Bishops, Cardinal Daly and even to the then Papal Nuncio who in response confirmed that the Holy See had been made aware of their concerns. Whilst the “concerns” expressed did not explicitly name sexual abuse given that the church had already received numerous complaints about Sean Fortunes abuse of young boys it seems incredible that The Vatican or The Papal Nuncio would not have been made aware of the allegations of abuse as part of any investigation into Sean Fortunes ministry. What is also becoming clearer is that there may have been complaints made during Fortunes time in Belfast which raises questions for yet another Bishop and so on it goes. As we look more closely at this and other cases in Ferns including most notably allegations made against Micheal Ledwith the then President of Maynooth College it would seem that many of Irelands most senior Catholic Clerics have serious questions to answer. It is therefore vital that the upcoming inquiry does not question only the role of the former Bishops of Ferns, it must undertake an examination in some detail of what knowledge existed within the Catholic Church hierarchy in Ireland about the activities of these alleged paedophile Priests. If it fails to do this, if this inquiry dodges its most vital and groundbreaking work then it becomes redundant before it even begins. The Inquiry must undertake a full and wider examination of what those in all agencies, both at local and national levels, who had knowledge or responsibility in these cases did or indeed failed to do.
We all know Dr’s Herlihy and Comiskey failed spectacularly in a number of cases, most notably that of Sean Fortune, but there is a wider responsibility to uncover and surely this is the fundemental point that the Catholic Church internationally and most notably the Vatican has failed to grasp: we all know now that Catholic Priests raped and sexually thousands of children, the point of further examination is to acknowledge the abuse that Church leaders all the way to Rome are responsible for: the abuse of our faith in them and the abuse of the privilege and trust that we accorded them.
We have waited a long time for this opportunity to get to the truth and this inquiry means that we might just get there. Make no mistake, this inquiry has international significance, there are few States in the world that have sought to hold the Church to account and investigate their actions. In the last seven years the eyes and ears of the world media has cast more than a cursory glance at us all in the wake of the Sean Fortune story and they will again. We can now show the world that Ireland is not the land of submissive and blind faith that it once was. We can show that those who collude and allow children to be raped and abused will have to explain their actions, be they Civil Servants, Gardai, Health Board officials or even Bishops and Catholic Church leaders. Most importantly we can offer a genuine opportunity of acknowledgement and healing to those who we have all collectively abandoned and in some cases to those who found that abandonment too much to live with. If I ever need to remember how important this inquiry is beyond my own personal case all I have to do is recall sitting with the parents of Peter Fitzpatrick who shot himself in the chest at the age of 23 having disclosed that he too had been victim to Sean Fortune prolific offending. I only have to remember how Monica and John, for the first time since Peters death, were able to voice their heartbreak and acknowledge the reason they always suspected lay behind Peters death, his own suffering at the hands of Sean Fortune and their collective abandonment to the resulting devastation by the Church that could and should have prevented it. All we can do now is offer the only healing possible, the healing that can and will come from acknowledgement and some form of genuine atonement. The kind of healing that the Church taught us all about, the kind of healing that they have so far failed to allow us.