October 20, 2002
Church should concentrate on clerical collar crime


By Gene Kerrigan in The Sunday Independent Online

Cuddly bishops can't be trusted to protect our kids, writes Gene Kerrigan

CARDINAL Desmond Connell has become a whipping boy. These past few days, it's become easy to kick his shins and beat him about the head and popular. Let's take it easy on the cardinal, folks. Let's keep things in perspective.

Certainly, his behaviour has been contemptible. No, I wouldn't put him in charge of pouring the milk into my coffee. And, yes, it's high time the constables from the local cop shop dropped into his Drumcondra palace and invited him down to the nick to 'help the police with their inquiries'.

Should he resign?

Frankly, folks, I don't give a damn. This has become bigger than the cardinal.

Desmond Connell was born 50 years too late. He'd have been able to handle things back in the 1950s, when a lot of his time would have been taken up holding out his hand so that politicians could kiss his ring.

Today, faced with the collapse of his Church's moral authority, Desmond Connell flounders. Is this the self-assured man who not too long ago publicly dismissed Bishop Walton Empey as being less than a 'high flyer'? Who publicly whinged about his hurt feelings because TCD failed to give him an honorary degree? Who publicly insulted the president for taking communion in a non-Catholic service? Who publicly slighted Celia Larkin because she isn't married to the Taoiseach? Who publicly questioned the quality of parental love that can be felt by couples who plan their families?
Desmond Connell has made it all too easy to dislike him. And RTE's Prime Time was damning. That his church engaged in a relentless cover-up of child abuse is beyond question.

For some of us, when Connell was caught in 1995 helping to cover up the activities of Fr Ivan Payne, that was enough. He should have been widely denounced back then, and questioned by the police. Instead, the professionalism of RTE's Joe Little was denigrated, threats of legal action were flung about. Connell was feted, promoted. And people, who are now huffing and puffing, were happy to simper and preen in his presence.

Prime Time did a fine job on Thursday. Mick Peelo and Mary Raftery added detail to cases already known and broke new ground. Connell appears to have adequately answered one question they raised about the reference given to one abuser but the programme nailed him.

Two things we should remember:

1. It would be comforting if it was just the austere, pompous, arrogant Connell who couldn't be trusted to protect kids. But Prime Time went beyond Connell, to convincingly show that some of the more cuddly bishops were implicated in the cover-ups.

2. We have long known not least because of Mary Raftery's previous efforts in this area about the widespread existence of clerical abuse, and the readiness of the Church to cover up for the abusers. And that the State has been reluctant to act.

This is not about the failings of an individual.

It's time we asked ourselves this: why is it that bishops have such power over the welfare of our children?

There is a place for bishops ministering to the spiritual needs of those who require their help in understanding their existence as mortal beings. How they ended up in control of our schools and hospitals, responsible for the protection of our children, is an accident of history.

Even as we get all huffy and puffy about Cardinal Connell, the education, the moral welfare and the protection of most of the children of this country will remain within the responsibility of these cover-up merchants. Tomorrow morning, the people who failed those kids who were raped can issue edicts that determine how our schools and hospitals are administered.

And Cardinal Connell has made no secret of their priorities. Just three weeks ago he said: "The school has always been a part of the evangelising role of the Church." The role of the Church in our schools is to promote and protect the interests of the Church. And why would that surprise us?

However, the role of all those with authority in our schools should be first and last the education and protection of our children. Full stop.

The Catholic Church felt free to protect its own interests. It believed that what was good for the Church is good for all of us, including the kids. And if that involved covering up for the child-rapists, so be it, suffer the children.

Even if the Catholic Church wasn't riddled with sex abusers, do we really want our children to remain under the authority of this crowd of inept, self-regarding people, with their weasel words about a "systems failure", about how "mistakes" were made, and how the cardinal's hands were tied by "Canon Law"?

No 'mistakes' were made. There was never a time when we didn't know that abusing children was a criminal offence. Deliberate acts of concealment were carried out. When the rapists and abusers were twigged, the Church moved them on to fresh pastures. Protecting the kids by calling the cops was not in the interests of the Church's evangelising mission.

(By the way, what is 'Canon Law'? When paramilitaries talk about their 'army' we say no, there is one army, raised under the civil power. Similarly, the law is created by the legislature and the courts, under some form of public scrutiny and accountability. When bishops talk of canon 'law' they are referring to their private rules of administration. Let's stop talking about canon 'law' as though it carries any weight in the real world.)

This time, public revulsion is such that the weasel words won't work. The hierarchy may see Connell as a necessary sacrifice. Bite the bullet, Desmond, and offer it up.

Shoving Connell out into the cold might take the pressure off the hierarchy, but it won't solve the problem of protecting the children. Terrifying as the prospect might seem, it's time for the State to confront its responsibilities.

We need a police investigation of the repeated and extensive cover-ups of criminal behaviour. We need to stop asking politely for files to be turned over. Such files are evidence required for the investigation of serious crime, and of the cover-up of crime. The cops wouldn't hesitate to search the home of a shoplifter.

And we need the civil power to start taking sole responsibility for the education and protection of our children. Taking the Catholic Church out of the equation won't, in itself, protect the kids. But, with the State taking direct responsibility, we can at least to some extent enforce some kind of accountability. Instead of having to beg bishops to please stop their priests raping our kids.

The State has shown itself to be weak-kneed when faced with the crimes of the powerful. The gutlessness with which it treats white-collar crime may be replicated in dealing with clerical collar crime. The police have held back from investigating the conduct of bankers, council officials, builders, financiers and politicians. In contemplating our current crop of politicians, the first word to spring to mind is not 'backbone'.

To expect them to tackle clerical criminality, and to also confront the role of the Catholic Church in secular matters, is asking a lot. But if they don't face that task, and if we are not prepared to back them up on this, then let's stop shedding crocodile tears for the raped children.

Let's just make a sacrifice of Cardinal Connell and pat ourselves on the back. Until the next Prime Time special.

Posted by paul at October 20, 2002 11:12 AM

re the phrase "accident of history". I would recommend a very interesting book "The Irish Education Experiment" by Donald Akenson, a Canadian academic who also wrote the definitive biography of Conor Cruise O'Brien.

Posted by: Colm Murtagh on April 11, 2003 01:45 PM
Post a comment

Email Address (OPTIONAL):



Remember info?