not a member? click here to sign up
An organisation in disgrace
Following the publication of The Ferns Report, there is no longer any hiding the rampant extent of clerical sex abuse of children in Ireland. But in Pope Benedict II, the Roman Catholic Church is headed by a man who knows the detail of what went on – and yet has done nothing to redress it.
Craig Fitzsimons, 04 Nov 2005
The scale and extent of child sexual abuse detailed in the Ferns Report has far exceeded most people’s worst suspicions. It had long been accepted that there was a particularly grave problem in the Ferns diocese in this respect. However, in the Report, over a hundred victims of clerical sexual abuse have detailed how their repeated, impassioned, desperate personal complaints to, first Bishop Donal Herlihy, and later Bishop Brendan Comiskey were systematically ignored. The report has established beyond doubt that a culture existed within the diocese, over a period of up to 40 years, which either condoned the abuse or, at best, involved turning a blind eye to it.
Nonetheless, the notion that the sexual abuse of children by priests was a phenomenon largely confined to the Ferns diocese is self-evidently ridiculous. Indeed, Bishop Comiskey’s remarkable record of inaction and general ineffectualness on the issue was more than matched by the former Archbishop of Dublin (and also Cardinal), Desmond Connell, during his tenure at the ecclesiastical helm of Ireland’s biggest diocese, which lasted from 1988 to 2004, and was characterised by extreme conservatism. Connell’s conduct, and his less than pro-active approach to tackling the problem, has to be seen as particularly significant in view of his close theological and personal relationship with the new Pope, Benedict XVI.
Before his accession to the papacy, the then Cardinal Ratzinger is known to have taken a keen personal interest in the issue – and his actions were all designed to shore up the Church’s position. In May 2001, he circulated a confidential letter to every Catholic bishop worldwide, issuing an order that the Church’s investigations be carried out in secret. The letter asserted the Church’s right to conduct its inquiries behind closed doors, and to keep all relevant evidence confidential for up to 10 years after the victims reached adulthood. Ratzinger stated unequivocally that the church was entitled to claim jurisdiction in all cases where abuse “has been perpetrated by a cleric with a minor.” Lawyers acting for abuse victims claim the order was designed to prevent such allegations from becoming public knowledge or being investigated by the police.
As an overt declaration of the Church’s immunity to civil criminal law, Ratzinger’s order can only be viewed as a very clear obstruction of justice. The letter stated that the church’s jurisdiction “begins to run from the day where the minor has completed his 18th year of age, and lasts for 10 years.” The Pope-in-waiting concluded his letter with the assertion that “Cases of this kind are subject to the pontifical secret”: inevitably, breaching the ‘pontifical secret’ at any point during the 10-year timescale carries severe penalties, including the threat of excommunication.
Colm O’Gorman, whose One in Four organisation offers counselling and therapy to those who have experienced sexual abuse, professes that his reaction to Ratzinger’s accession to the papacy was one of complete dismay. “I think Benedict’s appointment was one of the most negative things that could have happened, in the context of child protection within the Church,” he says, “or for anyone wanting to see an outbreak of honesty and openness. Benedict is up to his skullcap in this whole business, and has shown very little inclination to act appropriately. His dealings in the Maciel case (see below) are at best questionable. I was thoroughly depressed at his appointment.”
In contrast to Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI’s exhaustive investigations into the the Church’s reccord of child sexual abuse have intimately familiarised him with the extent and detail of priestly rape, molestation and ritual abuse of children. Yet his only public utterance on the subject thus far has been to insist that “the media have exaggerated the extent of paedophilia within the American Church.” (He has not been slow to condemn consenting gay relationships, on the other hand, as ‘deviant and evil’). There are those who believe that Benedict’s very stance on the subject was a key factor in his surprisingly swift election by the College of Cardinals. Either way, it could yet prove to be the issue that fatally damages his Papacy. Pope Benedict already stands accused of failing to investigate a string of abuse claims against Marcial Maciel, founder of the Rome-based Legion of Christ. Nine former members, who allege that Maciel abused them, attempted to process their complaints through official Vatican channels, using intermediaries to carry a letter to Ratzinger outlining their allegations. One such intermediary, Father Alberto Athie, says that when confronted with the allegations, Ratzinger said that “Maciel had brought many benefits to the church” and that “it was a touchy problem.”
Maciel had been suspended as far back as 1956, when allegations surfaced that he had been involved in sexual activity with young boys, who were alleged to have slept in his room. During the night he would allegedly request that they masturbate him, claiming that he had been given special permission by Pope Pius XII to be masturbated by boys. According to the alleged victims, Maciel would explain that his doctor had asked him to prevent a build-up of semen in his penis. The Pius XII connection, on the face of it, sounds so bizarre as to be implasuible, but as Colm O’Gorman points out, “In the context of this organisation, nothing can be considered implausible or outlandish. We know that Pope John XXIII issued a decree, which threatened people with excommunication if they dared to speak about their experiences of sexual abuse. Everything about this is outlandish. As is the idea that the Vatican, in 1962, felt the need to send a document to every bishop in the country instructing them to stay silent on the subject – that in itself is so outlandish as to resemble a caricature of a Dan Brown novel.
“There were moves afoot to elevate Maciel to the sainthood,” O’Gorman adds. “He’s a very highly-regarded figure in the Church. He has said in the past that he expects his uncle, who was a bishop, and his mother to be canonised. The man is an extraordinary piece of work. You know, of course, that the Legion of Christ has premises near Leopardstown, and we’ve more than one case of Irish men who’ve come out of there in a very bad state.”
In 1999, Ratzinger’s secretary wrote on his behalf to Maciel’s nine alleged victims, saying that their claims had been examined, and that the Vatican now considered the matter closed. The men sent Ratzinger a further letter in 2002, which went unanswered. They are still waiting.
On one occasion, Ratzinger was quoted as saying “One can’t put on trial such a good friend of the Pope as Marcial Maciel.” On another, he was accused of slapping the wrist of a reporter who dared to question him about the allegations. While he denies that either of these events occurred, his wider actions certainly appear to be those of a man desperate to use all means necessary to ensure that such cases are never investigated by the appropriate civil authorities.
According to Archbishop Desmond Connell, Cardinal Ratzinger advised him on his handling of the Dublin crisis. Connell’s ‘handling’, such as it was, was not noted for its zeal or thoroughness, and it seems reasonable to suspect that dozens of paedophile p riests were at large in Dublin over the course of Connell’s tenure. Many have already been the subject of criminal investigations. One of the most high-profile such cases was that of the appropriately-named Father Ivan Payne, who served as parish priest in Sutton from 1982 to 1995. Anyone who knew Payne testifies that his behaviour had long been a cause for extreme concern.
Former altar-boy Gavin Nugent recalls: “Uncle Ivan was a friendly character – in retrospect, too friendly by half. They ended up having to move him to East Wall, a fairly deprived area, where he was effectively run out of the neighbourhood by a group of concerned parents. But he’d been chaplain in Sutton, where I grew up, for years previously. I suppose it would have been a pretty affluent area, and maybe the kids were a bit softer, easier targets. Even to a seven-or-eight-year-old, he was a noticeably strange character. The older you got, it became increasingly evident that he was an out-and-out freak.
“I first came into contact with him as a kid; the school I went to, Sutton Park, was secular and non-denominational, so my parents, along with others who were raising their kids as Catholics, arranged for Ivan Payne to do religious lessons at his place once a week. I was also an altar-boy in his church. It was always striking how tactile he was with the boys generally, always hugging them, patting their heads and backs, sitting them on his lap, absolutely conforming to the picture of a dirty old abbot. On trips to altar-boy quizzes, there would be up to six boys in the car. I was never personally aware of cases of abuse until it all became public, but I think kids are always aware when something’s not right. Oddly, though, I always felt he was someone you could speak to and even trust. Kids think, with justification, that adults never take you seriously, and here was an adult you could talk to.
“I always had deep-rooted problems with Catholic teaching from an early age, and I’d confide in Father Payne who was very open that way, and would encourage discussion. They’re often charming people, these guys, very adept at manipulation. I was taken in: I regarded him very much as a confidant, and I suppose a friend. I think what saved me was that because I was very much a lippy, loud-mouthed child, and not at all deferential to the Church, physically capable and never afraid to shout my head off, he would never have dared to force himself on me. But you could see the natural targets; they tend to stand out. Knowing the kind of shy, retiring types that he favoured, I can easily see how they would have beeen utterly destroyed for the rest of their lives.
“From the age of fifteen or so I completely backed away from the Catholic Church anyway, so I was no longer in contact with him, but I can’t say I was stunned when the allegations surfaced. My parents were devastated when they heard, though. I remember my mother grabbing me one day, hugging me until I thought my spine would break and saying ‘I can’t believe I put you in his way’. At the time the accusations came out, she was actually in negotiations with him to come and baptise one of the grandchildren. She flipped out; as far as she knew, she’d entrusted me to him as a top Church theologian and canon lawyer.
“They’re still nowhere near getting to the bottom of how many offences he actually committed, but it’s potentially off the Richter scale. And, as we know, most abuse victims will do anything to keep it secret, rather than being in a rush to come forward. While I never suffered at his hands, I do remember hearing about the phenomenon whereby people black out these memories, and actually wondering for a while whether anything had happened to me. I underwent twelve weeks of hypnotherapy, in order to discover whether it had or not. I got the all-clear, but I have to say it affected me very deeply. What it was like for the victims, I can only imagine.”
It said it all about the reign of Archbishop Connell that Ivan Payne was appointed to an important post in the Archbishop’s house, dealing with marriage annulments, long after the diocese was aware of the allegations against him. Not only this: the Archbishop made clearly misleading statements about the compensation paid, on Ivan Payne’s behalf, to one of his victims.
Archbishop Connell’s apparent collusion with a paedophile priest notwithstanding, Colm O’Gorman is genuinely hopeful that the current Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, is of a mind to investigate the mess without fear or favour. “Without doubt, the whole truth about the extent of the problem in Dublin is yet to emerge. I believe that it will, very shortly. I was very cynical about his appointment at the time, having been aware that he was conservative on social issues and somewhat uncompromising, and expected that very little good would come of it. But I’ve got to say, in the time that he’s been in Dublin, he has acted very decisively.
“The Child Protection Unit that he put in place in Dublin is an extraordinary service. I believe he’s paying more than lip-service to these ideas. I’ve always felt that, if you want to understand what the Church’s attitude is at any given time, you have to look at the people they appoint, and in the past they’d tended to appoint people with neither the skills nor the background to properly fulfil their roles. But they’ve now brought in independent child-protection experts, and generally appeared to behave with integrity. In view of the Church’s history, one can never allow oneself to be too optimistic, and I’ve learnt over the years to err on the side of cynicism. But the signs are positive.”
Meanwhile, Rome remains silent. Pope Benedict, where do you stand on all of this? People have a right to know...b