26 Jan 2009

State starts talks with clergy over reporting of child abuse

The Independent - Ireland
January 26, 2009

by John Cooney

Top-level talks have begun between the Government and the Catholic bishops to find a legal formula that will enable the Health Service Executive to discover the full scale of clerical child sexual abuse in the Republic.

A compromise is being worked out absolving the bishops from informing the gardai and the HSE about unsubstantiated rumours or "soft information" about suspected abuse, while providing the State with details of reported cases and the reasons for the Church's withholding of other complaints.

In exchange for greater accountability from the bishops, the Government is understood to be ready to speed up the introduction of promised legislation covering questions of confidentiality and constitutional issues that will allow full Church disclosure in future.

The Irish Independent has also learned that the question remains unresolved as to whether the State will provide financial indemnity to Church authorities if they provide information about complaints which are later legally challenged and proven to be untrue by accused priests or ex-clerics.


Government ministers remain deeply divided as to whether the State should give "a blank cheque" to the Catholic Church, guaranteeing it from possible costly defamation suits taken by wronged clergy.

Some ministers believe that this financial guarantee should not be given to the Church on principle, while others are worried about a hostile public reaction to such a move at a time when the recession has plunged the country into banking and budgetary crises along with soaring unemployment.

Many of Ireland's 26 dioceses already face either bankruptcy or are being forced to cut back on pastoral and community services on account of heavy payouts to victims of clerical abuse, and the archdiocese of Dublin is bracing itself for a huge public outcry when the Commission of Investigation publishes its report, which is imminent.

The opening of unprecedented Church-State negotiations on the handling of clerical child sex abuse follows a weekend meeting called by Children's Minister Barry Andrews with Ireland's two most senior churchmen, Cardinal Sean Brady and Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin.


At the meeting on Saturday in the Department of Health and Children, Cardinal Brady and Archbishop Martin told Mr Andrews they were committed to finding a way around previously "insurmountable" legal difficulties that had prevented all bishops in the Republic from telling the HSE if all abuse cases involving diocesan priests and members of religious orders had been reported to gardai.

The meeting took place after last Friday's crisis summit on child protection was convened in Maynooth by the Irish Episcopal Conference and the leaders of the Conference of Religious of Ireland. (CORI).

This Church-State encounter took place ahead of this Wednesday's deadline for disclosure by the bishops of the national scale of complaints and allegations against clergy, which was issued by Mr Andrews on January 7 -- the same day he ordered a State investigation into the lack of "faithful" reporting and notification by Bishop John Magee to the statutory authorities of cases in the Cloyne diocese.

Mr Andrews told the two church leaders he welcomed Friday's statement saying that the bishops would sign a written commitment to implement statutory guidelines on safeguarding children within their dioceses, and that they would try to provide all information requested by the HSE in an child protection audit form.

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