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Protection of Child Above Institutional Church is Right

The Irish Times - Wednesday, January 31, 1996 by KIERAN MCGRATH

THERE are many welcome elements in the Irish Catholic Bishops' report on child sex abuse. Prominent among these is the clear declaration that the primary duty of all church officials is the welfare of the child victim of clerical abuse.

In the past the church has not always been able to come to terms with this concept and has, on occasion, institution of the church, rather than the individuals adversely affected by abuse.

Another welcome development is a clear and unequivocal statement that "where it is known or suspected that a child has been, or is being, sexually abused by a priest or religious the matter should be reported to the civil authorities.

The fact that it has been necessary to spell this out to the various branches of the church is, in itself, an acknowledgment that the obligation to work with civil structures has not always been adhered to. This has been at the heart of some of the mistakes made in the past.

In the foreword to the document, Cardinal Cahal Daly, representing the Hierarchy, and Father John Byrne, of the Conference of Religious in Ireland, give a clear apology for abuse by individual clerics. What is absent, however, is an apology for the church's sins of omission perhaps on legal advice.

They are addressed, implicitly, in terms of recommendations for future practice, but there has been no acknowledgment that the proposals spring from past mistakes.

After all, since 1987 the rest of the community has been under a moral requirement to report all cases of child sexual abuse to the civil authorities. This obligation has been observed by and large in spite of the absence of an explicit legal requirement to do so. Nine years on, after a very traumatic period in church history, this is now official policy.

The proposed structure being set up under this report to deal with allegations (delegates, support persons, advisers for the alleged abusers and advisory bodies for bishops) while containing useful elements appear at first glance to be unnecessarily bureaucratic.

Child sexual abuse is a complex issue. The child protection system itself is also complicated. While obviously the church authorities need a mechanism to deal internally with abuse issues, from the point of view of the children and families whom it is meant to serve, the simpler the mechanism the better.

To add another layer of people and roles above and beyond that which is already in place should only be done if it is unavoidable.

I see some overlap, for example, in the mind of the families, between the roles of the proposed support person and that of the health board social worker.

It is unfortunate, in this regard, that a practising child protection 5 social worker was not asked to join the committee.

Many families are so angry with the church that they may want as little contact as possible with church officials. Unless it is made clear how the roles of health board social workers and ecclesiastical support persons are to be coordinated, confusion is quite possible.

It is proving difficult to coordinate the services provided by the health boards, Garda and voluntary bodies. To add another set of roles has the potential to make the picture even more complex.

Another related recommendation of the committee that could cause confusion is the suggestion that each diocese and religious congregation should develop its own set of procedures and protocols, using this new set as a guide.

This seems an unnecessarily awkward way of going about things. The guidelines issued by the Department of Health have been hugely successful. These are now affirmed by the bishops' document and there should be no need for each congregation to develop its own individual set.

One of the thorny questions not addressed by the Bishops' Advisory Committee is that of financial compensation for victims of clerical abuse. While one can argue that a set of procedural guidelines is not the place to deal with such an issue, the question of compensation will not go away.

The church's official line on this is that the giving of financial compensation is purely a matter for the individual perpetrator. However, abuse does not occur in a vacuum and, in some cases, the issue of negligence on the part of bishops or other officials must be taken into account.

In the US huge settlements have been paid to victims and their families. Indeed, it was the financial strain this put on the US church that forced it to develop a better pastoral response.

As far back as 1990, I predicted in this newspaper that exactly the same issues would arise here, and already we know that several large settlements have been made by individual abusers, in some instances with official backing from the church.

Overall, this set of guideline's constitutes a welcome step forward in dealing with clerical sexual abuse. In spite of weaknesses, they do represent a sort of child protection Rubicon from which the church can never retreat into an institutional model of dealing with this problem.